Literary Worth and Popular TasternTaking Proust to the Beachrnby Clay ReynoldsrnAs an academic trained in the study and appreciation of literature,rnI have spent the better part of my Hfe staunchly defendingrnthe ramparts of literary endeavor against the slings andrnarrows of outrageous pop-fiction lovers. I have steadily despairedrnof those who read Stephen King, Terr)’ C. Johnston,rnMary Higgins Clark, Danielle Steel, and their ilk. I said thingsrnlike, “If you want a good ghost story, go read Henry James’ ThernTurn of the Screw. Edgar Allan Poe can’t be beat for a goodrnthriller. A great Western is The Last of the Mohicans.” Then Irnwould wait until my companion was out of earshot, switch myrnradio from NPR to my favorite C&W station, drive home, drawrnthe shades, and curl up with a good Dean Koontz, Robert B.rnParker, or Elmore Leonard novel. And I would tell no onernabout it, for I was terrified that someone might learn that, in myrnheart of hearts, I preferred schlock to art. After all, as a collegernprofessor, I was supposed to be an arbiter of great literature, notrnan enthusiastic fan of the “easy read.”rnIt took me a long time to come to terms with this, to imderstandrnthat the problem lay in the elitism in which I had beenrntrained. Like most of my colleagues, I wanted to be an arbiterrnof artistic worth, but I refused to admit to reading anything thatrndid not have a canonical stamp of approval. I carried this attituderninto my choice of other entertainments as well: plays, film,rneven television programming. By doing so, I was imitating myrnacademic mentors, trying to fit my taste and sensibilities to thosernwhose opinions I respected, whose aesthetic measuring sticksrnwere hewn out of some solid scholarly notion of what is art andrnwhat is not. I wanted to be like them, and I desperately wantedrnClay Reynolds’ most recent books are Players, a novel, andrnTwenty Questions: Answers for the Inquiring Writer.rnto reach a point where I could eschew popular fichon and lookrndown on it with the same conviction that causes me to sneerrnwhenever I am confronted with the latest television sitcom.rnAfter all, I never watch commercial television. I onh tune inrnPBS. Right.rnI think, though, that I—and they—were missing the point. Ifrnwe were sincere, we were also missing a lot of good reading andrnviewing. And as a professional writer, I finally began to realizernand embrace an alternative point of view.rnYou see, it is not whether something is deemed to be literaturernthat matters; it is the value of the canon that is at stake. Butrnthat value rests in the breadth of individual erudition, not in therndepth. The reason people can read and appreciate somethingrnthat is popular, even the latest ghost-written celebrity autobiography,rnand determine its worth is because they have read widelyrnin the established literary tradition. They have experiencernwith those works that have withstood the test of time, those thatrnstill speak to us today through their wisdom, beauty, and eloquence.rnThese are the genuine standards by which anythingrnnew has to be measured. As educated readers, we have no otherrnreliable source of arbitration.rnBut it is important to realize that many popular works arernwritten by men and women who are themselves as well read asrnany stuffy academic. These writers are as sensitive to what creative-rnwriting professors call “the elements of fiction”—characterrndevelopment, solid plot line, credible dialogue, and highlyrndetailed settings—as are any of the literary giants of the canon.rnIndeed, it is in their adaptation of these admittedly amorphousrnprinciples of fiction composition that their success as writers isrnestablished and sustained. As T.S. Eliot and others have remindedrnus, all art depends on the established traditions of thern18/CHRONICLESrnrnrn