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 don’t think there is anything in our society that can be addressed in so general a fashion. For example, I don’t think we have a literary society: I think it’s 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 inferiority.

CORNELIA BESSIE: There are these weird phenomena, however. This is not answering your question, but it’s an interesting insight: When [Bernard] Pivot’s book program [Apostrophe] became so popular in France, the concierges were watching Apostrophe.

MICHAEL BESSIE: Prime time, Friday night.

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 can’t even, in this country, have a television books program that people are really aware of.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: There’s 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 office.

MICHAEL BESSIE: And it was a program that did not condescend.

CORNELIA BESSIE: Absolutely not. Thus, it’s a cultural phenomenon. It’s an aside to your question, it’s not an answer to your question. The fact is that we have no equivalent, and that there’s 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 isn’t bad.

CORNELIA BESSIE: He’s not bad; and he gets good people. It’s 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 audience.

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 Porter’s Nymph Errant. It was quite charming. What occurred to me was that Cole Porter and the American musical theater, which we can’t 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 it’s 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 deeply popular.

CORNELIA BESSIE: Yes, right. And it crosses borders.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Is there any equivalent, or analog, in the world of books?

MICHAEL BESSIE: Yes: mysteries.


MICHAEL BESSIE: But that’s not the only one.

CORNELIA BESSIE: Is Simenon “popular culture” to you?

MICHAEL BESSIE: Why did we make the decision, at Harper’s, 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 don’t read mystery stories, I never have, but I’m an absolute devoté of mystery stories on television. Show me a Poirot, and I’m there.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: On public television, you mean--



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, you’re talking about an elite, always. And that’s very hard to do in America.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Nonetheless, although we don’t like to talk about class, we operate on the basis of class -- even, I would say, often when we believe we’re talking about race.

MICHAEL BESSIE: Very much. Also, as Peter Finlay Dunne once said: “It’s no disgrace to be poor in America, but it might as well be.”


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