On Trash Again

by Mark Wallace

In the day before yesterday’s post I spoke about the difference between trashy books and literature in terms of the Buzzfeed quiz linked: the first one likes to read but not to have read in certain social groupings; the second one likes to have read but not to read. That is not to say that I believe in an essential difference between kinds of literature. It’s simply that they operate differently as objects of discourse. The trash/ literature distinction is one that, I imagine, few academics would now subscribe to, but it was in my head recently because I had come across a particularly blunt espousal of the distinction in Eugene Eoyang’s The Promise and Premise of Creativity: Why Comparative Literature Matters (Continuum, 2012).

What is the difference between what used to be called “Pulp Fiction” and literature? I submit that “trash” – like a brief interlude – is ephemera, a passing fancy, for the moment, whereas “literature” is perdurable, a lasting memory, and forever. trash is forgettable, literature is not. For all its vagaries, its triumphs and its tragedies, trash makes you ignorant of, and blithe to, life because it offers a factitious excitement. Literature makes you attentive to, and responsive to life – even when you think life is boring. A life without literature is not to live, but to exist, “Trash” merely counterfeits experience: it affords no insight into that experience, and it provides only an alternative reality to the life that one wants to escape. But it affords the reader no understanding with which to return to “real life” and to appreciate its qualities. “Trash” differs from “literature” in that there is no point in rereading “trash”, whereas “literature” warrants more than one reading: no reader can  exhaust its implications in one sitting. Good books, like good people, are worth knowing not for just a moment, but for a lifetime. (20-21)

Eoyang is saying a few things here about the difference: literature is literature because it lasts; literature is literature because it gives insights valuable to real life; literature is literature because it can be reread. Perhaps the first and last are in fact the same point. Initially, it’s unclear if he means “lasts” in terms of “is relevant to successive generations and cultures”, but it appears that he is only talking about last in terms of  the individual reader, who returns to literature again and again, but not to trash. The test, then, is if you reread it. Simple.

Eoyang’s second point is not apparently related to the first, and it’s one he makes in several ways in the course of a few sentences: literature makes you “responsive” to life, “attentive” to life, “affords an insight” to life, gives “understanding with which to return” to life. None of these points really elucidate each other. Are they meant to be synonyms? Or are they independent of each other? All we can really know from the discussion is that literature relates to life in a way that trash does not. So if we take from yesterday’s post that Twilight is the paradigmatic trashy novels of these times, we have to wonder if that means a) it isn’t reread by its readers b) it doesn’t relate to their lives. I don’t know about a), though I’m sure there are empirical studies somewhere, but as far as b) goes, I think it’s false. As one scholar has noted, “Bella’s struggles with self-esteem and her feeling of being an outsider prototypically depict the internal conflicts of the developing adolescent.” There’s plenty more that could be said about identity, gender and so forth in Twilight. That doesn’t mean it’s a good book. Maybe it is “trash”. But trash can’t be identified by not being related to reader’s lives, by not giving them an “understanding” of life – any book that is read closely will do that, because anyone who enjoys a book will relate to it and relate it to them. That’s a given: if it’s popular, it’s because people have related to it, and related it to their lives. Bella in Twilight isn’t just a character sealed in a book out there for the readers, but one who is intimately related to. The article linked above quotes a reader: “[T]he emotions displayed ring true for all women. There is always something we feel insecure about; there are always times we feel out of place…” Without that real-life identification, the book would not have attained its popularity in the first place. That such an identification has taken place is a given when we speak of a literary product of such wide popularity. If we seek to make a value judgement on Twilight, we have to look elsewhere.