When violin superstar Joshua Bell went busking in a DC Metro station in January of 2007, only seven out of 1,079 passers-by stopped to listen. The stunt had been cooked up by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post; according to him, it was “an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?” Weingarten wanted to test the public, to see if they could identify the pearls being cast before them at some ungodly hour in a train station; to locate and identify the heroes who exhibited true A.M. discernment, and print their names in the newspaper.
There’s a sort of myth ascribing a near-magical ability to appreciate fine art to certain members of hoi polloi. It’s a divine gift, by this reckoning, a talent not for creating art, but for appreciating it instinctively, without benefit of study or experience. Julia Roberts demonstrates this quality through her character in the film Pretty Woman, for example, by weeping at the opera even though she is a hooker. This proves she is one of Nature’s aristocrats, and therefore fit for cohabitation with the fabulous smirking rich guy played by Richard Gere.
In case the reader doubts my interpretation, here’s a bit of the relevant bushwa, or “dialogue,” from the movie.
Hooker: So, you said this is in ltalian.
Rich Guy: Uh-huh.
Hooker: So how am I gonna know what they’re singin’?
Rich Guy: Oh. - You’ll know. Believe me, you’ll understand […] people’s reaction to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic. They either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.
There is something really terrible, creepy even, in the idea that a capacity for aesthetic appreciation is some kind of spiritual lottery ticket. If you either have it or you don’t, then what would be the point of studying anything? The Noble Hooker myth suggests that if you weren’t born with the gift, you might just be permanently inferior; someone who is never going to weep at the opera because it isn’t, and can never be, “part of your soul.” This idea cheapens the lifelong effort people invest in learning and understanding about fine art. Not only does it belittle their struggles; that’s not even the worst of it. The Noble Hooker myth also opens the door for the elevation of ignorance—what some prefer to call “innocence” or “simplicity”—to a desirable state. After all, you can be—should be, almost—utterly ignorant, and still cry at the opera.
The political implications of this fairytale are not negligible. The heroes of the Great Unread, such as Sarah Palin, are in-your-face “regular people” who undergird their authority with Noble-Hookerish claims. They claim to have “common sense,” which is presented as superior to anything an academic, intellectual or professional might gain as the result of a lifetime of study because it’s instinctive and “God-given.” So, what elevates the likes of Sarah Palin above any other “regular” person? By which I mean, why Palin rather than any other “guy next door,” if what we’re after is “regular” and not “excellent”? Why, it’s because she’s one of God’s elect; she’s been touched by an angel or some blasted thing. She don’t need to name no newspaper, she’s drawn the winning numbers on the lottery in the sky.
So anyway, back to Gene Weingarten of the Post, who, having apparently bought right into the Noble Hooker thing, wanted to find out how many of Nature’s aristocrats might be wandering around down there in the subway. (Not many, it turned out!)
Interestingly, Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania failed to see the matter quite Weingarten’s way. Guyer, “one of America’s most prominent Kantian scholars,” pointed out to Weingarten that Kant specifically stated that the conditions for aesthetic appreciation have to be optimal. Consequently, you really can’t accuse people who are tearing to work during rush hour of being “unsophisticated boobs” if they fail to appreciate the fact that Joshua Bell is playing the “Chaconne” from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor a few yards away.
“Optimal,” Guyer said, “doesn’t mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don’t fit right.”
So, if Kant had been at the Metro watching Joshua Bell play to a thousand unimpressed passersby?
“He would have inferred about them,” Guyer said, “absolutely nothing.”
If taste is private, not public, and its operations active, not passive, maybe you won’t be in a state to approach fine art when you are racing through the train station. Your antennae might need to be trained to stay up—say, through study, passion, a long and patient application of attentiveness and care.
In 2002, Jonathan Franzen wrote an article for The New Yorker, “Mr Difficult: William Gaddis and the problem of hard-to-read books.” It begins with a veiled reference to the 2001 dust-up between himself and Oprah Winfrey, in the aftermath of which he’d received a letter from one Mrs. M___ of Maryland, who asked him, “Who is it that you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read.” Mrs. M___ included a list of “thirty fancy words and phrases” from The Corrections (including “diurnality” and “antipodes”) in support of her contention and concluded that Franzen’s audience must be “[t]he elite of New York, the elite who are beautiful, thin, anorexic, neurotic, sophisticated, don’t smoke, have abortions tri-yearly, are antiseptic, live in lofts or penthouses, this superior species of humanity who read Harper’s and The New Yorker.”
Mrs. M___’s bizarre characterization, which Franzen called a “caricature,” and which I call a half-baked, invidious load of bollocks, appears to have driven him to write this essay. Exhibiting a restraint of which I find myself incapable, he stayed right off the grotesque idea that anybody who could choose to do otherwise would have three abortions every year (or one every third year, or on any kind of schedule whatsoever.) Instead, Franzen presented a dichotomy of his own making, using his parents to symbolize what he called the Status and Contract models of literature.
Franzen’s father, “who admired scholars for their intellect and large vocabularies” was a Status guy, he says. According to the Status way of thinking, literature should be difficult and challenging. The artist should never compromise his vision, and the harder it is to understand him, the more rewarding the experience will be. If a reader wants to complain about how hard Gaddis or Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace is to read, the Status response would be, “If you can’t hack it, then to hell with you.”
Franzen’s mom, “a lifelong anti-elitist who used to get good rhetorical mileage out of the mythical ‘average person’” represented the Contract way of thinking: “Every writer is first a member of a community of readers, and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust … The discourse here is one of pleasure and connection.” Franzen went on to say that at heart, he himself is an adherent of the Contract school.
These are useful and correct distinctions, but incomplete. The problem with the Contract vs. Status argument is kind of an Overton Window one, to borrow a concept from political theory. The Overton Window represents a range of acceptable ideas in politics; the window (and the corresponding perception of that window’s “center”) can be shifted by introducing more radical ideas at the fringes. For example, if you define the far right by Ann Coulter’s position, then Bill O’Reilly begins to sound relatively sane. In the present instance, the center has been shifted by the absence of a full spectrum. In fact, one of the poles is missing entirely, and as a result the window is totally lopsided.
What we really have is Status, where the author considers himself king of the transaction and doesn’t give a damn about the reader, at one end; in the true center, we have Contract, where there is mutual respect and comity. The missing pole, which we might call Philistine or Yahoo, would be the one where the reader considers himself king, and feels insulted if the author won’t come over and fix her refrigerator. Mrs. M___ of Maryland is a patent Yahoo, but Franzen didn’t like to say so. He felt like it was partly his own fault that she didn’t get The Corrections, and he tried to take the blame (which is why I find his error kind of endearing.)
Franzen says he felt “paralyzed” when he read Mrs. M___’s letter. On the one hand, he was mad at her, but on the other, he was “stricken” to learn that Mrs. M___ “felt excluded by my language.”
Clearly, it is Mrs. M___’s fault, and no one else’s, that she felt excluded by Jonathan Franzen’s language, which is nothing more or less than the rich, precise, very slightly scholarly written English most of us are taught to read in school. I should like for Jonathan Franzen to understand that there were thousands upon thousands of readers, maybe even millions, who felt included by his language. “Intellectuals” or “educated people” (these uncomfortable terms with which nobody can identify!) are often embarrassed by any attention drawn to their formal, “educated” speech, manners or habits, because it’s like saying, “I’m better than you” when we know we’re not. But there is nothing to apologize for. On the contrary. That we can share a love of “elitist” “literary” or “difficult” fiction is something to be celebrated, even, because it is very hard for human beings to reach one another; you pretty much have to work at it, and if you work at it a lot—reader or writer—it’s because you care about achieving something. The very human, beautifully told story of The Corrections reached an enormous number of people who took the trouble to try to understand it. People who read and love Thomas Hardy and George Eliot and Dostoevsky, in between abortions! They should be able to go ahead and love those things, and not feel one bit guilty or embarrassed about, or paralyzed by, Mrs. M___’s reverse snobbery.
This is not to say that I condone the Status point of view. No way. I, too, am an adherent of Contract through and through. I object every bit as much to mean, arrogant intellectuals as I do to Mrs. M___, and in exactly the same way. They are identical, really. I don’t need to mock the pointy-heads here, though; they already come in for a lot of that, and not just from Mrs. M___. The Status guys and the Yahoos are equal, mirror-image traitors to Western Civ., who do equally deserve to be at least mocked, if they cannot be pilloried, for the egotists they are. If I am mocking the Yahoos just now, it is because Jonathan Franzen totally failed to do so in 2002. I don’t want to mock them for their ignorance so much as for their egotism and plain meanness.
It’s not just that the author must sustain the reader’s trust; the reader must sustain the author’s trust, too. There is a mutual obligation in this bond that is sacred if we want to keep our literature alive, and we mustn’t grant the snobs or the reverse-snobs the right to shape the game in any way at all. It would be much better to try to encourage everyone to be willing, to come together in the Contract view.
Let’s look at it this way. The author is at point A and the reader at point B. The author has a message to convey to the reader, but will the reader get it? That depends on whether or not they can meet somewhere on that ineffable line between them, despite, say, a distance of centuries, or differences in gender, ethnicity, politics, humor or the lack of it, and so on. Everything depends on the willingness of the two parties to come together. If he cares about reaching the reader, the author will try to make himself as intelligible as he can; he will try to make his work entertaining and interesting, and to free his message of the impediments of prejudice and closed-mindedness, etc. If the reader cares about understanding the author, he will take pains to learn whatever he needs to know.
In fact, there are a lot of authors out there who are basically barrelling at the reader with all their might. They can’t wait to tell you everything they have got to say!! This book has been written in such a manner as to strike the reader right between the eyes, and with the force of a cannonball! (I wouldn’t quite put Jonathan Franzen in this class, but I would say that he lopes toward the reader intently, in his own dorky and purposeful way.)
Maybe the author really is a neuraesthenic, effete snob, waiting coyly for the reader to climb the ivory tower and prove himself worthy. The author might go so far as to grease the tower just to be on the safe side, by requiring the reader to learn Aramaic, or endure some bizarrely elliptical reasoning, irritatingly unorthodox punctuation, etc.
Sometimes the reader, too, deliberately makes himself unavailable. He insists that the author express himself strictly in words of one syllable. This dolt doesn’t want to be hearing any high-falutin’ words or even high-school French, let alone Aramaic. Fine. But there is nothing to congratulate such a person about. He’s not keeping up his end of the transaction.
The reader, too, owes the author something. Is he contemptuous of the author, that pretentious hack (who has nonetheless taken the horrific trouble of writing and publishing a book for the reader’s enjoyment)? Is he just enduring a few pages of this book the better to tear the author down in tomorrow’s blog post? Does he want to understand what the author is actually on about, even a little bit? And is he at least reasonably prepared, and reasonably willing?
If a novel is “difficult,” if it requires familiarity with other books, with history, philosophy and so on, each reader must do a cost–benefit analysis for himself alone. It takes a long time to learn how to read halfway carefully; it’s this long, long apprenticeship. The first time I had a crack at Crime and Punishment I was about thirteen, and it might as well have been written in hieroglyphics for all the sense it made to me. I was just playing at reading it, really, but so what? You have to start somewhere, and the effort was amply repaid in later years.
Franzen wrote, “To an adherent of Contract, the Status crowd looks like an arrogant connoisseurial elite. To a true believer in Status, on the other hand, Contract is a recipe for pandering, aesthetic compromise, and a babel of competing literary subcommunities. With certain novels, of course, the distinction doesn’t matter so much. Pride and Prejudice, The House of Mirth: you call them art, I call them entertainment, we both turn the pages. But the two models diverge tellingly when readers find a book difficult.”
Just because we don’t get an author and/or don’t want to learn how to reach him, that doesn’t mean he’s not trying, and it does not mean that his work is worthless. It only means that we do not get it. Someone else may. We may complain, and bitterly too, about not getting it ourselves; after that it’s for us to wish the author and his readers well, and move on.
So I disagree with Franzen about that part. It’s not at all about “art” vs. “entertainment.” It’s about the fact that it’s worth studying and working to become an informed, Contract reader, instead of a Status or a Yahoo one. It’s worth studying the discipline we love, whatever that may be, right down to its finest fiber, so that when the work is made we have the very best chance of understanding it. When the call comes, we have got a shot at hearing it.
John Picarello was one of the commuters who was stopped by a reporter from the Post and asked for his phone number after having heard Joshua Bell, that day in the train station.
When he was called later in the day, like everyone else, he was first asked if anything unusual had happened to him on his trip into work. Of the more than 40 people contacted, Picarello was the only one who immediately mentioned the violinist.
“There was a musician playing at the top of the escalator at L’Enfant Plaza.”
Haven’t you seen musicians there before?
“Not like this one.”
What do you mean?
“This was a superb violinist. I’ve never heard anyone of that caliber. He was technically proficient, with very good phrasing. He had a good fiddle, too, with a big, lush sound. I walked a distance away, to hear him. I didn’t want to be intrusive on his space.”
“Really. It was that kind of experience. It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day.”
Picarello knows classical music. He is a fan of Joshua Bell but didn’t recognize him; he hadn’t seen a recent photo, and besides, for most of the time Picarello was pretty far away. But he knew this was not a run-of-the-mill guy out there, performing. On the video, you can see Picarello look around him now and then, almost bewildered.
“Yeah, other people just were not getting it. It just wasn’t registering. That was baffling to me.”
In this way, the Contract reader, the informed reader, often can’t even begin to understand why everyone wouldn’t love the thing he loves so much himself. John Picarello just happened to be not only constituted, but also trained in such a way that the message reached him loud and clear. Why couldn’t everyone else hear it? Well, here is why.
When Picarello was growing up in New York, he studied violin seriously, intending to be a concert musician. But he gave it up at 18, when he decided he’d never be good enough to make it pay. Life does that to you sometimes. Sometimes, you have to do the prudent thing. So he went into another line of work. He’s a supervisor at the U.S. Postal Service. Doesn’t play the violin much, anymore.
When he left, Picarello says, “I humbly threw in $5.” It was humble: You can actually see that on the video. Picarello walks up, barely looking at Bell, and tosses in the money. Then, as if embarrassed, he quickly walks away from the man he once wanted to be.
Does he have regrets about how things worked out?
The postal supervisor considers this.
“No. If you love something but choose not to do it professionally, it’s not a waste. Because, you know, you still have it. You have it forever.”