Q: Guess what I learned this week?
A: Harold Bloom‘s brain is full, the world is doomed, and it’s mostly J K Rowling’s fault! Or maybe just one of the three.
Here’s what I mean:
In case you can’t read the photo, it says:
Hans Christian Andersen, in aesthetic eminence, is comparable to Dickens and the later Tolstoy. In the cultural dumbing-down represented by the Harry Potter phenomenon, adults and children alike need the actual Andersen, here made brilliantly available by the Franks.
— Harold Bloom, editor of Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages
This is Bloom’s blurb for Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank’s translation of The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen (2003). It’s one of just two blurbs offered (the other is from Garrison Keillor) and it takes pride of place at the centre of the back cover.
As a blurb, it’s a failure: it’s built around vague hand-wringing and a gratuitous insult. It says almost nothing about the Franks’ work in selecting, translating and editing the fairy tales. And it certainly doesn’t move me to buy the book. Mostly, it makes me think of that Far Side cartoon from the ’80s: a student asking, “May I be excused? My brain is full.” I’m surprised that someone whose job is critical thinking could fall victim to this kind of cultural siege mentality.
I’m now going to stop talking specifically about Harold Bloom and look more generally about the anxiety that surrounds popular books. “Cultural dumbing-down” is a hoary old complaint. For as long as the concept of culture has existed, people – frequently but not always elderly – have hoisted their pants up to their armpits and griped about how the world used to be kinder, smarter, more ethical, more spiritual, and just generally better than it is now. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, hein? The problem with complaints about “cultural dumbing down”, though, is that they presuppose a few things that really don’t stand up to scrutiny:
Assumption 1. The literary canon is full and we’re operating a strict one in/one out policy from here on in. If we admit something less worthy (however we choose to define that), we’re devaluing the whole collection.
Obviously, this is impossible. Artistic production isn’t going to end in 10, 9, 8, 7… So where and when will we draw our boundaries? And what kind of art are we going to permit? The literary canon shouldn’t be a sacred temple where Great Works gather dust. And fortunately, it’s not. It’s evolving all the time. (It used to be a bunch of white men plus Virginia Woolf. And while it’s still extremely – shall we say – homogeneous, things are starting to change.) This doesn’t mean the sky is falling; it means that new kinds of readers are asking new kinds of questions.
Assumption 2. We all need (original emphasis) the same things because we all share the same values and experiences.
This is closely tied to the idea of a canon and the way a certain kind of reader presumes a certain kind of canon. In fact, my canon is going to look different from your canon, dear reader, and again, that’s just fine. What really matters is that we’re curious, critical and careful readers who notice different things and discuss them with verve and courtesy. I love the stories of H C Andersen but can well imagine a time when I might need them less than some decidedly non-canonical work.
Assumption 3. Popular art is rubbish.
People who conflate “popular” and “bad” are a forgetful bunch. Dickens was wildly popular and his fiction is built on populist themes and interests. (To give just one example, Oliver Twist belongs to the subgenre of the Newgate novel – the Victorian equivalent of true-crime.) Fantasy writing is often dismissed as sub-literary, yet Tolkien regularly discussed his works-in-progress with C S Lewis and a few other friends. If it comes to that, Hans Christian Andersen was loved and celebrated in his lifetime, both in Denmark and abroad. Popularity is not the problem here. Bad art certainly exists, but that’s a different conversation.
In conclusion, I’ll remind you of the Edinburgh Review‘s assessment of Wordsworth’s “The Excursion”, from 1814. It begins with the words, “This will never do.” Can you imagine? The condescension! The siege mentality!
Oh, my dears. That will never do.
P. S. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m reading Andersen in two different translations right now, trying to figure out which to buy for my children. The Franks’ translation is really energetic and colloquially American, while the Nunnally translation is more formal while still wonderfully vivid. I’m leaning towards the Nunnally edition because of how beautiful the language is.