I understand where James W. Hall is coming from, I really do. (Well, perhaps I don't quite understand his sketch of the novel's literary history, which erases all of the nineteenth-century debates about the genre's aesthetics, form, and intellectual significance.) I've taught classes on ghost stories and detective fiction; I'm currently teaching a course on eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Gothic (schlock factor: through the roof!); and on this very blog, I have been known to post about Victorian novels of, shall we say, less than sterling quality. I'm even on record as thinking that Stephen King is one of the novelists whose works will stand the test of time--in fact, he'll probably go over more successfully in the 22nd century (presuming the world hasn't come to an apocalyptic halt by then) than many current critical darlings. Heck, I'm suspicious of people who ostentatiously advertise that their cultural diets are entirely free of anything "popular," on the grounds that good taste means finding the good wherever it is. So why did Hall's post on the dangers of "literary snobbery" rub me ever so slightly the wrong way? (And not just because, as Steve Donoghue suggests, Hall must surely be aware that he's indulging in a false dichotomy of pleasures.)
Perhaps it was because Hall casts his brief for pop fiction in terms of a conversion narrative. He begins as everyone's caricature of a conservative high-culture aesthete: "I was so dedicated to spreading the gospel of high road literary values that, on a whim, in 1984 I designed a course featuring the most popular American bestsellers of all time, with the sole intention of showing their inferiority to the literary canon. A semester of snark is what I had in mind." (I know we're supposed to be appalled by the obnoxiousness of this endeavor, but I was equally appalled by just how vapid such a course would be. Why on earth would anyone bother? There's a difference between acknowledging that something is not good--Eliza Parsons' Castle of Wolfenbach, very not good!--and arguing that it should not be studied.) Such thinking is part and parcel of the "doctrine"; there was, apparently, an aesthetic church hierarchy somewhere. But having encountered the alternative scriptures of pop fiction, with "their sweeping panoramas, their density of factual information, their emotional intensity and raw power," Hall became a devotee of the church catholic (small c) of such novels, and now "feel[s] like I’ve reconnected with the larger culture and renourished my soul in the process." Reading pop fiction reunites the once-alienated self (a worshipper at the shrine of the difficult) with the very ecumenical church of mass-market consumers, as the soul "feeds" on the universal truths available from, oh, Gone with the Wind. Apparently, when en route to such salvation, wide is the gate, and easy is the way, which leadeth unto life, and many there be that find it.