Recently I’ve caught a number of critics wondering aloud why John Steinbeck’s books continue to be so popular with the general reading public. He hardly deserves it, they say. Surely his cachet with the hoi polloi only confirms the prevailing philistinism of taste?
Jonathan Yardley thinks maybe we’re too hard on Steinbeck. But Yardley isn’t easy on him either. In the May 8 installment of his Second Reading series, Yardley writes that reading Steinbeck’s prose is “like scraping one’s fingers on a blackboard,” his stories are chock full of “sentimentalism…if not outright tripe,” and his 1962 Nobel Prize is little more than a “reminder that literary distinction matters less to the Swedish Academy than political orthodoxy.”
Rather than his prose, it’s Steinbeck’s frank portraits of farm and blue-collar workers and his blend of classic American values with liberal social conscience that earn him an enduring place on high school required-reading lists. Steinbeck’s essential appeal lies in his moral authenticity, his “transparent sincerity,” as Yardley puts it. And perhaps he’s right.
But then he goes on to float a curious hypothesis:
It has long been my pet theory that in the popular marketplace, readers instinctively distinguish between writers whose work draws on genuine feeling and those who rely on art or artifice, and that they reward the former while repudiating the latter.
After reading that paragraph a couple times it begins to sound patronizing. You gotta hand it to those “popular marketplace” readers. Up with aesthetic democracy! -But what happens when apparent sincerity is revealed as artifice? Oprah’s disciples have some painful memories on that count. And how does Yardley’s theory stand up in other categories like the fine arts (Thomas Kinkade, anyone?), or movies (Titanic?), or even in politics? Where does “genuine feeling” end and pandering begin?
This is where Yardley’s pet theory bites him in the heel. Like plenty of us, Yardley grew out of Steinbeck somewhere around age twenty. But these days Yardley apparently prefers authors motivated by something other than genuine feeling who hobble around on crutches of art and artifice.