Last month marks the passing of Literary Critic Harold Bloom, dead at 89, gone from the fray on Monday, October 14, 2019.
A long-time nemesis of our genre, Bloom was best known for his caustic, vicious attacks on Stephen King, for whom he had no affection or Critical respect. Unfortunately, this had the opposite effect Bloom probably wished to impart to the pop-saturated American public – to educate us that there are certain accepted criteria involved in the making of and recognition of what we understand to be “Literature.” Instead, he got our hackles up and our mob-mentality fully activated… we made an art of despising him. He energized our base because he encapsulated everything we hated and thought we knew about the Literary Critic and the constant dangling of unattainable Literary acclaim out of reach of any genre writer where academia was concerned.
We convinced ourselves that it was the Harold Blooms of the world who kept us down and insulted us.
But we didn’t really know Harold Bloom, and we have in our own knee-jerk reactions underestimated the important, side-glancing impact he had on our genre.
Most of us had no idea that Harold Bloom was a rebel in his own time for attempting to bring an understanding of Literary Criticism to the American public, often criticized and ostracized himself by the Literary Critical Establishment for even attempting to speak to the common reader. Most of us still have no idea how much he made us think about Horror, about genre and speculative fiction, about what Literature is or should be…Yet Bloom fought the Literary Establishment to bring an understanding of Criticism to the masses.
Surprising, isn’t it? Harold Bloom… the people’s Critic….
When Our Worst Critics Make Us Better
With so many unpleasant exchanges that come to mind, we in the Horror genre are not wont to think of the merits of a Critic like Harold Bloom. Yet it is precisely because of his disgust at the decline of great Literature being taught in schools and written in our garrets that he was the way he was. And if we take apart and try to understand his angst, what we find is a man who simply loved the Classics so much, that he wanted us to join in the appreciation if he had to beat it into us. Horror was one of his sticks. And while it is easy to surrender to tit-for-tat verbal insults, the most important thing Harold Bloom did for the Horror genre was to get us thinking about the Horror genre…
Because of Harold Bloom , we were united; we were analytical in our own way, looking at his critical comments and looking at the Horror he despised and trying to see why he might be right OR wrong… In other words, we had discussions – offered up in un-academic arguments, perhaps – but discussions. Essays, Critically-worthy essays and polemics were born, and writers and readers questioned just a little bit what they were reading and writing and how or why it might be equal or inferior. We were forced to become experts on our own writers and genre writing in order to defend the lot.
Because of Harold Bloom, we needed to understand Literature so we could argue Horror’s merits…
Yet we just could not abide the man. He was so…Critical….
We thought it was because he not only represented the Literary Critical Establishment, but because he so sounded like the caricature we had of it in our heads – the one that brutalized our best writers like Poe and Lovecraft – authors that are now (partly thanks to our own reaction to the Criticisms of Critics like Harold Bloom) considered canon material by New Critics…
This has so much to do with the stagnation of the field of Literary Criticism that happened during the Publishing Boom. Harold Bloom was a child and student of The Old School… the one abandoned by readers and many students in the 1970’s for being so out-of-touch and elitist.
Harold Bloom was born on July 11, 1930, in the East Bronx, into an Orthodox Jewish household. He was the youngest of five children of William and Paula (Lev) Bloom, struggling immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father was a garment worker…. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/books/harold-bloom-dead.html
What should we expect from a man born so far back from where we are now? Harold Bloom was not a loveable curmudgeon. For those of us in the Horror genre, he represented everything that is wrong about academia and Literary Criticism. He was rude, abrasive, and said things he obviously and passionately meant without a word of explanation that was not laced with academic snobbery.
The fact is Harold Bloom surprised most of us…especially perhaps those who he loved to criticize most – the genre-lovers, the genre writers, the de facto enemies of Real Literature… We were so often the targets of his angst, his unabated fury with what he perceived to be an American willingness to abdicate the whole of Literature for the cheap, dazzling trinkets of pop culture.
In an New York Times article on his death, writer Dinitia Smith says:
“Professor Bloom was frequently called the most notorious literary critic in America. From a vaunted perch at Yale, he flew in the face of almost every trend in the literary criticism of his day. Chiefly he argued for the literary superiority of the Western giants like Shakespeare, Chaucer and Kafka — all of them white and male, his own critics pointed out — over writers favored by what he called “the School of Resentment,” by which he meant multiculturalists, feminists, Marxists, neoconservatives and others whom he saw as betraying literature’s essential purpose.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/books/harold-bloom-dead.html
Harold Bloom (like most of his fellow Critics) made himself very difficult to like. It didn’t help that he so constantly went after our most prominent and beloved writer, Stephen King. However the closer we look, the more we see he was a product of his times and his profession. And perhaps because times were indeed changing rapidly during his lifetime, including how we viewed “other” peoples and ways of thinking, the rise of Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and Gay Rights, perhaps that is why there seemed such a generation gap of sorts between modern writers, their fans, and Literary Critics in general. They just seemed so out-of-step with the rest of us…
Yet sometimes it is that very conflict that becomes a catalyst for good changes. It is just not always easy getting there.
Lost in our own emotional blizzard of reactions to what Literary Critics said about our genre and our writers, what we never understood about those like Harold Bloom was that their fury was based in a much bigger frustration – both at the failure of academia to impart the “right kind” of education and our failure to “get” what seemed so blatantly obvious to himself and others of his field. And in truth, it was their presentation – their attitude – that made it easy to not really care.
This is the danger of ignorance: not understanding the criticism of a thing, and so attacking the messenger… And where Harold Bloom and Horror were concerned, the battle became both animated and amplified by ignorance on both sides.
Yes, both sides.
Critics have long assumed that full-of-themselves writers fancy their own work to be Literature because it sold well, someone said it was “good,” or because they themselves are convinced of it. In reality, most of us know what we write because we CHOOSE to write it…We simply disagree that genre writing has no value, place, or purpose in a Literate society.
Genre fans, on the other hand, have long assumed that Critics were a bunch of stuck-up, arrogant old white men who were Critics because they couldn’t write themselves, and who “made up” criteria for defining Literature (a theory that gained popularity because Critics refused to “explain” anything of their Craft) really disagreeing with our nonacademic measure of Literature because the secret truth is they actually have strict criteria designed to tame personal opinion. And it is apparently a secret.
All of our passions collided when publishing boomed and littered the literary landscape with all manner of writing starting in the late 1800’s and imploding in the 1990s. That’s about a hundred years of pulp and periodicals, paperbacks and bestseller lists. With abundant talk shows on radio and television, multiple newspapers in every city, and Hollywood trolling for new film material, the “modern era” was the first time the reading public had forums to read, watch and participate in where what we read became a topic of discussion. It was natural for us to ask the question what exactly IS Literature and who and how is that title decided upon?
When Nobody answered and the questions were met with highbrow eye-rolling and insults, when even teachers didn’t seem up to the task of explaining, the transformation of fandom into hordes of angry anti-Critics was a natural one.
On one side we had writers with bestselling works that “everyone” adored and their authors who secretly or publicly pondered why they were not considered Literature, and fans who tried to sort out the same question. On the other side we had a very old establishment of Literary Critics never before truly questioned about the process (even though many a Critic’s artistic vision and qualifications were routinely questioned by the same writers and fans). These Critics were used to operating in private ivory towers of academic setting, living in Shakespearean bubbles where all was Literarily right with the world, and where anything less than the Classics were vapid written renderings of cave paintings.
Bloom was no exception: “Armed with a photographic memory, Professor Bloom could recite acres of poetry by heart — by his account, the whole of Shakespeare, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” all of William Blake, the Hebraic Bible and Edmund Spenser’s monumental “The Fairie Queen.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/books/harold-bloom-dead.html
To understand Harold Bloom, we have to understand that he (like authors he might Criticize) is himself a victim and product of his own times… He was a white male whose life’s work was studying what other white males declared Literary perfection…coincidentally, also largely written by still other white males. As we see today, there is a tendency by certain-aged people to cling to what they consider to be the “perfection of the past” when comparing it to contemporary times. With Critics, their angst is acutely measured by their obsession with Classic Literature—something (to our shame and detriment) fewer and fewer of us actually study, let alone read anymore. This has led to our communication gap and a generation gap with Critics. And Critics like Bloom were witnessing what to their way of thinking was and is an alarming change in our Literary capacity:
“Professor Bloom was ultimately both optimistic, in a narrow sense, and pessimistic, in a much broader one, about the durability of great literature. The books he loved would no doubt always find readers, he wrote, though their numbers might dwindle. But his great concern was that the books would no longer be taught, and thus become irrelevant.
“What are now called ‘Departments of English’ will be renamed departments of ‘Cultural Studies,’” he wrote in “The Western Canon,” “where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/books/harold-bloom-dead.html
It seems his fears are far too quickly becoming realized, what with the preferential treatment being given to Science, Math, Engineering and Technology at the literal expense of the Arts today. The Critics, it seems, were right to worry.
Yet not only did we really seem to be losing interest in reading Classic Literature, old Literary Critics had a new mantra…To Literary Critics of the past decades, we were largely no longer producing Literature. So what of the bestseller phenomenon? Could it be that any of those titles were in fact Literature too?
Critics like Bloom absolutely bristled.
But this was because that by merely asking we were exhibiting the very ignorance (read: miseducation or lacking education in this specific area) that appalled Literary Critics like himself. The interesting fact is that Bloom set out to do something about it – writing an enormous catalog of books explaining Literary Critical thinking (even though he still talked well above many of our heads, and even though he does this by ramming the same “perfect” works again and again down our ignorant throats)…
The problem is the same vocabulary – whether whispered, shouted, or sang to us – is the same vocabulary. If academic Literary Critics refuse to show us Literary Critical Theory and how writing is expected to seat in the frame of it, we cannot understand the Critic’s argument: it just sounds like an arrogant opinion. It remains pointless to know that Shakespeare is Literature if we do not understand why. And if we do not understand why, we do not understand how, and we do not understand how to do more of it.
Bloom therefore, for all his good intentions, remained entrapped by his own engrained arrogances – ones his profession groomed in its practitioners. He could not abide the concept that we could even ask if Stephen King was or was ever Literature. The slight of the question seemed always to be met with an automatic default setting like those of most Critics: Shakespeare.
“Shakespeare is God,” he once said…Shakespeare is the perfection against which all others are measured. Bloom was a passionate defender of Classic Literature – it was genius in his mind, one of the highest achievements of humanity. How could so many of us simply not understand it? How could we confuse Literature with bestsellers? And how could we not adore the Classic writers as he did?
This has been the fatal flaw of Literary Critics for as long as there have been Literary Critics… The idea that genius is just something that should be understood when it is seen and that it is exclusive and that the realization is sufficient knowledge for “the rest of us” has made so many of us feel stupid and belittled that we have come to the conclusion that we don’t want to understand it.
Yet we still keep picking at the scab. We not only suspect there is a process: we are sure of it. And we are sure that someone has decided it should be a SECRET process…
When the field of Literary Criticism decided to make itself elitist and to feign insult when questioned, it signed its own death warrant. It didn’t matter that it was a victim of its own time, that professional academics in every field saw themselves as superior to the average person for many a century – largely because the rest of us were illiterate or less literate and tended to labor in manual trades… Literary Criticism – for all its alleged observational powers – failed to notice that times were changing. And in their exclusivity, they seemed to have forbidden teachers and professors from teaching any aspect of Literary Criticism – as though we might try to illegitimately do it without academic permission or authority…
They didn’t seem to be aware of the public’s hunger for reading, or our curiosity about Literature – but instead took our devouring of popular fiction as a sign and as proof that we were indeed ignorant, and hopelessly so. When the concept of the “Bestseller” burst forth, the Literary Critic bristled at questions the American public asked about why a popular work was not Literature when our educational system taught that the very definition of Classic Literature was framed in its endless and timeless popularity.
Ironically, Harold Bloom was one Critic who seemed to intuit that our ignorance was somehow attached to never being taught how to understand Literature. He spent his career laboring to educate us, to define Literature… becoming a champion of the Western Canon…enduring condemnation and criticism for attempting to decode the secrets of Literature. So why don’t we feel grateful?
I think it has to do with the fact that Literary Critics have always come across as aloof and elitist for most of us, let alone for those whose reading or writing passion is genre fiction. Speculative fiction has long been crowned the murderer of modern Literature, the spoiler, the probable reason Literature was seen as simply not-being written today. And writers like Stephen King have been the fly in the ointment: what did this mean that so many adore the man’s writing? How could something have such longevity with no merit?
It was clear this question was going to have to be answered, and that the answer could not be simply that we are all absolute Cretans (with apologies to Crete for the Literary insult). New Critics were starting to emerge who had grown up if not with King, then with other disdained writers like him, and they also wanted answers.
At the very moment Literary Criticism fell out of public favor, those New Critics started asking a very relevant question: was it possible that it wasn’t that we are not writing Literature today, but that the approved and established Theories were inadequate to the task of evaluating writing that had changed with the times? Was it possible that when working with living language that how we write and interpret our world might also be a living, evolutionary process?
It was a really good question.
The original Literary Critical Theories were designed for the purpose of studying Literature that was already to some degree or another Classic.
Those theories left no room to interpret modern problems and the way modern writers look at them. This was why (New Critics argued) it appeared that no Literature was being written – modern works did not neatly fit into those theories. So they began to come up with new ones.
And worse, Critics had begun to figure out that the modern world was delivering new complications to the field of Literary Criticism – like actually being a Literary Critic alive at the same time as the writer and their work, being privy to details Critics did not have with Classic authors, being able to encounter those authors in their own lifetimes, to have their fans cross swords in passionate disagreement. Like the boom in print publishing that unleashed all manner of writing to flood the coffers of Literary Criticism with new candidates – even bad ones – all clamoring for Literary attention and acclaim – using the Literary Critic for promotional blurbs instead of discussion and argument… All of a sudden the whole process seemed cheapened, adulterated…
The Literary Critic did not react well to the commercialization of fiction. It defied all things natural to the Critic’s sensibilities – offending him or her because until that time, Literature was more like fine wine… nurtured by the passage of time, sustained by the adoration and knowledge of experts. The publishing boom was anarchy. And then it was heresy.
Literary Critics like Harold Bloom looked more and more like dinosaurs to the rest of us, because the field of Literary Criticism saw itself as above explaining itself to mere commoners, and because the rest of us had no understanding of what Literary Critics actually do.
And even though in his own way and radically so to his own time Bloom was attempting to educate us on the matter, he still failed somewhat because he remained encased in that veneer of elitist Literary Critical superiority that had been carefully nurtured by the field for a good century.
People just don’t react well when talked down to. So even as he made converts among students who took his classes and those who braved reading his many written works on the matter of Criticism, he still managed to alienate the average American reader – the very audience he needed so desperately to reach and to educate.
Yet even in his provocative commentary, he managed to shake more of us out of complacency. We wanted to understand Literature and Literary Criticism – not to DO it…but to understand what makes a work Literature…
This is how you get Literary writers: you educate them early about Literature – what it is, why it is, how to read it, how it is written…
What we learned from Harold Bloom is that unless and until we all speak the same language, we are just yelling epithets at each other.
We can do better. We can be better. And what we need to take away from the long and storied career of Mr. Bloom is that we all have a lot of discussing to do.
The Stephen King Debacle
Look, if we take away the poisonous words, we actually have important information that spills from the altercations with Bloom about Stephen King.
King is an anathema to most Critics. The American public absolutely cannot get enough of him. But what I find interesting is that today’s Critics cannot see why he is an anathema…
THIS is why:
Literary Critics do not belong in the same universe and time as the writer’s works they are criticizing. They just don’t. Just like time travelling versions of the same person, Critics and the authors they Criticize should never, ever meet. Bad things happen.
And neither do writers have a right to know they are writing Literature during their lifetimes. (Sure, it is nice to know one is thought of in that way, but we have no right to know we are “guaranteed” a place in the canon or immortality.)
Consider that the best Literary Criticism – and so much of it still ongoing – is about Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare. There is a reason for that and the whole Death of the Author argument is likely why – nobody is left to talk about Shakespeare and his private life and choices. It is all theory now. Pure theory. And the Critical work is phenomenal because most of what is left is just the work. The reason is the intellectual distance…
Work Critical Theory on Stephen King and you have a lot of mess, a lot of personal get-in-the-way-of-objectivity stuff that does not belong in Criticism. We should not know why King writes what he writes, where he gets his ideas, whether he is too commercialized. Nor should we know about the Critic and his or her personal likes or dislikes. We need to see King in a vacuum, far away from the 1970s and 1980s in particular. We need to see King in the context of other writers and writing styles of his time. And we can’t do that fairly when we are from the same time… Only distance will tell us if King writes Literature or ever writes Literature. Until then, all we have are inklings.
Until we get some object distance, we can only suspect things about a work. We can only reveal our own preferences, likes and dislikes.
When Bloom went after King, what we were witnessing was this personal preference stuff, all mixed in with what Bloom understood from his love of Classic Literature (like Shakespeare) and that which he believes actually is Literature. And I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be compared to Shakespeare. Or Poe, for that matter…
Do I think we are better off without Bloom’s criticism of King? No. There are probably some perks to having Old School meet New Writer. But we need to keep things in perspective.
King is no Shakespeare. Nor are most of us. So we should take Bloom’s angst for what it was – the despairing of a Critic for… more Shakespeare.
King is King. But what the rest of us need to take away from the whole debacle is that there are and should be differences of opinion and discussion about what makes a work Literature. And that we can and should be a peripheral part of that discussion. We need to ask Critics and get answers as to when and why a work might be considered Literary potential. How else can we appreciate the point of Literary Criticism? How else can we hope to write new Literature?
We need to know it is okay that we have questions.
Just like we need to know that it is more than okay to aspire to write Literature…
That it is okay to muck it up.
And while Critics may love to rag on Stephen King for not being (in their modern opinions) Literary…
What King has been responsible for is the fueling of curiosity of why Critics think he is not writing Literature… What Bloom has been responsible for is making us get off the fence and demand explanation.
When a Critic like Bloom attacks, if we can shake loose from the immediate gut-response to punch back, what we get is more curiosity about Literature.
Wasn’t that the point? What newer generations (including my own older generation) need, is Literary Critics willing to talk TO US, not DOWN TO US.
That was Bloom’s fatal flaw… and it brought out the worst in all of us in the genre.
Yet…Literary Criticism is changing. Isn’t it ironic that it is doing so because of the one man so many of us loved to hate – Harold Bloom?
Harold Bloom is the last well-known Critic of a much older way of thinking and doing Literary Criticism… With his passing, we are seeing a closing of the book on the worst part of this legacy – that old attitude of elitism. I think he tried to some degree to rise above that, but couldn’t really help himself, so lost in his passion as he was.
But I also think we owe him a huge debt. He has left behind a large body of work on the field of Literary Criticism, much of it designed for the layman. He has contributed to massive changes in the academic approach of Literary Critics. He has fired up a lot of Horror fans to defend our genre and to demand answers about Literature – to even go into the field of Literary Criticism as Horror fans (some even raised on reading King). He has got us thinking and talking, if not arguing…and in some cases becoming Literary Critics.
And that is a good thing. No matter how you might feel about his disdain for our genre, you have to admit he pushed us from our complacency, caused us to demand Literary Criticism – fairly assessed – be done upon our genre works. The result is not only New Literary Criticism, but actual Critics like S.T. Joshi and China Mieville rising from the battlefield… Horror is on its way to joining the Literary Canon… and not without some irony, we have Harold Bloom to thank.
So from our beleaguered, defensive and proud genre, thank you, Mr. Bloom. You have proven Shakespeare right:
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.” William Shakespeare (As You Like it)