High Art, Low Art, and Murakami


I’ve taken advantage of my vacation in Davis, California to read Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, 1Q84, having previously encountered excerpts of it in The New Yorker. Given how much fun I’ve had immersing myself in Murakami’s 1160-page postmodern fantasy suspense thriller, I find myself thinking of the book in terms of a recent conversation that has arisen in the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Times about guilty reading pleasures.

The argument goes something like this: there is a great literature and there is junk, and sometimes we want to read junk. Often an analogy involving spinach and dessert gets invoked, the first being (as Arthur Krystal’s New Yorker piece puts it) good for you while the other merely tastes good. What tastes good is often plot heavy—we want surprising twists and turns—and relies on a formula that signals in advance the satisfying end that we can expect (the lovers unite, the mystery is solved, the monster is defeated). The style of guilty reading generally does not draw attention to itself—we don’t expect or even want well-crafted sentences—and we are not called upon to think outside the box. Picking up junk novels can be like buying a Big Mac: if we get anything other than what we expect, we feel a contract has been broken.

The distinctions break down, however. Krystal asks us what we are to make of a hard-boiled detective writer like Raymond Chandler, who was praised by W. H. Auden and whom we read in part because of his unexpected stylistic flourishes. (Example: “I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”)Or what are we do with Dickens, who for decades was seen as a guilty pleasure but who has now earned literary respectability?

And then there’s the quiestion of enjoyment. Gary Gutting in his New York Times piece uses an exercise analogy:

But why should we think that what is hard to read is not enjoyable?  Here there is a striking difference between the way we regard mental and physical activities.  Running marathons, climbing mountains and competing at high levels in tennis or basketball are very difficult things to do, but people get immense enjoyment from them.  Why should the intellectual work of reading The Sound and the Fury or Pale Fire be any less enjoyable?   If I take pleasure only in the “light fiction” of mysteries, thrillers or romances, I am like someone who enjoys no physical activities more challenging than walking around the block or sitting in a rocking chair.  Vigorous intellectual activity is itself a primary source of pleasure—and pleasure of greater intensity and satisfaction than that available from what is merely “easy reading.”

Murakami 1Q84 doesn’t fit neatly into either spinach or dessert, mountain climbing or lolling about on the beach. On the one hand, it has all the characteristics of a formula novel, what with its secret societies, suspenseful assassinations, and cosmic love story. The novel, for instance, begins with a miniskirted assassin in high heels climbing down an emergency interstate exit ramp in the middle of rush hour traffic. But she does so after having just appreciated a rendition of Janacek’s Sinfonietta is a strange cab, and this appearance of high culture signals later allusions to Wittgenstein, Dostoevsky, Jung, Proust, Tolstoy, Kafka, Orwell, and others. The book gets us to reflect on time, memory, reality, and fiction itself, even as we feel an urge to whip through the pages to find out what will happen.

But then, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov also combine suspenseful detective dramas with their existential meditations. Novels have been doing this for a while, and I sometimes wonder if the distinction between high and low art is a relic of the modernism of Joyce, Eliot, and those New Critics who thought that art should be a special refuge for elite sensibilities. 1Q84 doesn’t have this concern as it moves seamlessly between high culture and low, between fiction that is good for you and fiction that tastes good. We call such writing postmodern but, since fiction has been doing this for a while, maybe postmodernism just means being more blatant about the process.

In any event, I recommend IQ84.   Junk food with nutritive substance.

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  • Carl Rosin

    Junk food that is healthy for me? Hmm. Especially as someone who did an undergraduate thesis on a postmodernist, I am starting to feel hungry…. Thanks for the recommendation!

    On the serious topic of Krystal’s and Gutting’s essays, I appreciate Gutting’s final sentence: “the sign of a superior text of whatever genre is its ability to continue rewarding—with pleasure—those who work to uncover its riches.” The word riches is far better than complexity. The challenge is in discerning exactly the nature of “uncovering.” (I wish I were better able to define its parameters, and would love to hear others dig into that term.)

    Gutting’s hypothetical relativist’s statement, “Different people just like different things; we shouldn’t try to impose our views on others,” is okay until the semicolon. The first half is as relativist as I am comfortable with; in fact, I love the idea of “trying to impose our views,” because that is the nature of intellectual discourse! The subjective/taste is valid but limited as subjective/taste (“I love Crime and Punishment“), the objective/measurable is valid but limited as objective/measurable (“Crime and Punishment is complex”), but the real fun is in the normative/evaluative (“Crime and Punishment is a better work of art than The Bridges of Madison County“).

    Enjoy fighting the good fight!

  • The question of high versus low art in literature is a fascinating one, but I don’t think either the vegetable or the exercise analogies illuminates much. Just because vegetables have nutritious value doesn’t mean they aren’t delicious. We don’t have to work hard to get through a salad the way we have to tackle Proust. On the other hand, marathoners and mountain climbers are a small subgroup. If they are the example, then The Sound And The Fury really is for the special few, which is what Gutting is arguing against. Very few people find physical exertion to be fun, unless it’s connected to a game. Most of us exercise because we feel we should. If there were a pill for its benefits, we’d hang up our sneakers and sit down with a good book.

  • Robin Bates

    As a teacher, Carl, you’re absolutely right to see the relativist’s position as death. When I was fighting the culture wars with people on the right, at least we all agreed that our students’ minds needed to be stretched and that it was up to stretch them. And we were all on board with Sound and the Fury and Proust. And while we could debate about, say, Alice Walker, there was no debate about a lot of the empty calorie reading out there.

    I should mention a theorist like Adorno, who thought that pop culture rotted and mind and turned us into mindless reactionaries. (He saw much of pop culture as “opiate of the masses.”) On the other hand, I remember reading the work of a child educator (I can’t remember his name off hand) who argued that if kids read and read and read, sooner or later they’ll work their ways naturally from less to more challenging books (say, from Hunger Games to Crime and Punishment).

    You’ve reminded me of the limitations of these analogies, Elizabeth. Although if I can push the food one a little further, I was willing to eat god awful sweet things when I was a child that I can no longer stomach and I can’t think of any better way to account for my attaction to the Hardy Boys. I went through scores of sequels as though I were eating a large bag of M&Ms. But yes, reducing reading pleasures to food parallels does a gross injustice to them.

    But how about this as another argument for the exercise analogy. I have to make a commitment to pick up The Sound and the Fury (which I finally read three years ago) in a way that is not unlike telling myself to step away from my computer and go exercise. I’m glad I’m reading it when I’m in the middle of it, but it took a push. Of course, at that point the analogy really does break down.

    P.S. I know that you’re not into wine tasting but that your husband it, Elizabeth (I’m thinking of the essay on your website where you mention this) but it seems that there are certain similarities about choosing to take wine and choosing to take Proust seriously. Both require cultivating the palate (okay, only one of them literally).


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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