What Is a Literary Culture?
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: I asked Marion
Boyars [Vol. 1, No. 3]
this question: What is a literary culture? Do we have one?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Very good question.
MICHAEL BESSIE: I dont think
there is anything in our society that can be addressed in so general a fashion. For
example, I dont think we have a literary society: I think its a mosaic,
and is constantly shifting, like a kaleidoscope. I think we have literary cultures.
I think as in all culture, literary culture essentially consists in high and
pop, by not being all that clear and distinct.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Is
pop different, do you think, than what popular used to be?
MICHAEL BESSIE: In a sense.
Pop is short for popular -- it implies a lot of people. It also
from a highbrow point of view implies cultural inferiority, or artistic or esthetic
CORNELIA BESSIE: There are these
weird phenomena, however. This is not answering your question, but its an
interesting insight: When [Bernard] Pivots book program [Apostrophe] became
so popular in France, the concierges were watching Apostrophe.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Prime time, Friday
CORNELIA BESSIE: In other words,
there was a culture that could go from the concierge to the most high-brow author. I
mention this because it is an unrepeatable phenomenon. We cant even, in this
country, have a television books program that people are really aware of.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Theres
Brian Lamb, on CNN, with Booknotes.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Which is on at a
time when no one watches [Saturday and Sunday nights], and in
a place with fewer viewers. Pivot was on prime time, and everyone watched. It was what was
discussed the next morning with the taxi driver and with the colleagues in the
MICHAEL BESSIE: And it was a program
that did not condescend.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Absolutely not.
Thus, its a cultural phenomenon. Its an aside to your question, its not
an answer to your question. The fact is that we have no equivalent, and that theres
no equivalent anywhere else in Europe -- he is, he was a phenomenon --
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Melvyn Bragg [of London Weekend Television, seen in the US on the Bravo channel]
is in no way in comparison?
MICHAEL BESSIE: No, he isnt
CORNELIA BESSIE: Hes not bad;
and he gets good people. Its interesting, you know, that we do have a national
public television, and that there is no equivalent to these programs.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Not since [Robert]
Cromie stopped doing his book program out of Chicago. For years, he did a book program on
radio and television, and it was quite popular. He was good at it, but never got the mass
CORNELIA BESSIE: Which Pivot did.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Do they have a
mass culture in France?
CORNELIA BESSIE: Oh, sure. Every
country publishes its trash and gobbles it up, like we gobble up junk food.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: On the way here,
I was listening to a public radio program called The American Musical Theater.
What was being played was a concert version, done in England, of Cole Porters Nymph
Errant. It was quite charming. What occurred to me was that Cole Porter and the
American musical theater, which we cant talk about anymore except in retrospect, I
think, were a variety of what properly was called American popular culture. And I
think that is what I mean when I suggest there is a distinction between popular culture,
framing it in time, and pop culture, that is, our media-oriented culture.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Exactly. Porgy
and Bess is not junk!
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Alternatively,
jazz is deeply popular, in every sense; but its not pop. And Ellington is arguably
one of the two or three great American composers of the century.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Jazz cannot be
classified either as highbrow or lowbrow culture.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: No. But it is
CORNELIA BESSIE: Yes, right. And it
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Is there any
equivalent, or analog, in the world of books?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Yes: mysteries.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Thats
MICHAEL BESSIE: But thats not
the only one.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Is Simenon
popular culture to you?
MICHAEL BESSIE: Why did we make the
decision, at Harpers, way back when Joan Kahn built the mystery department, to call
them neither mysteries nor detective stories but suspense
novels? -- starting in the latter part of World War II, and,
largely, with English authors. For example, I dont read mystery stories, I never
have, but Im an absolute devoté of mystery stories on television. Show me a Poirot,
and Im there.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: On public
television, you mean--
MICHAEL BESSIE: Well, yes.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: --or, now, A&E.
CORNELIA BESSIE: There are those
things that cross boundaries -- THE ENGLISH PATIENT, for instance.
Or M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote about food, but really about life.
MICHAEL BESSIE: The lines are wavy,
just as they are in high culture.
CORNELIA BESSIE: At this point, in
America, elite is a dirty word. But, when you talk about a literary culture,
youre talking about an elite, always. And thats very hard to do in America.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Nonetheless,
although we dont like to talk about class, we operate on the basis of class -- even,
I would say, often when we believe were talking about race.
MICHAEL BESSIE: Very much. Also, as
Peter Finlay Dunne once said: Its no disgrace to be poor in America, but it
might as well be.