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Cross the Border -- Close the Gap (1969) - Leslie Fiedler

Parents: high culture vs low culture
genre fiction vs literary fiction
critical acclaim vs mass popularity

Related: 1969 - 1972 - Leslie Fiedler - postmodern literature - literary theory - nobrow

In the late 1960s and early 1970s "critics such as Leslie Fiedler and Susan Sontag gave up the orientation by the high, elitist standards of modern literature in order to describe particularly the combination of elite and mass culture as the specific qualities of the new literature by authors such as John Barth, Leonard Cohen, and Norman Mailer. A milestone in this development was Fiedler's essay in 1969, "Cross the Border, Close the Gap", which, significantly, did not appear in a literary magazine, but in Playboy." --http://www.fask.uni-mainz.de/inst/iaa/anglophonie/second/postcol.htm [Jul 2006]

Cross the Border-Close the Gap (1972) - Leslie Aron Fiedler [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]


Cross the border, close the gap! is the title of Leslie A. Fiedler's famous "manifesto" of postmodern literature, that appeared in Playboy Dec. 1969 [Aug 2006]

The Case of Crime fiction: "High art" versus "popular art"

The discrepancy between popularity and critical acclaim

Up to the 1960s or so, reading the paperback edition of a crime novel was usually considered a cheap thrill -- with the word "cheap" used in both meanings: "inexpensive" and "of minor quality". The educated and civilized world was often interested or at least pretend to be the "high art" categorised by classical music, paintings by renowned artists, in famous classical plays and novels like those of William Shakespeare. The term "popular art" referred to folk music, jazz, or rock 'n' roll, photography, the design of everyday objects, comics, science fiction, detective stories or erotic fiction (the latter circulating in private prints only to beat the censor) to quote a few examples. The idea of a "main stream" of literary output suggested that any book deviating, in either content or form or both, from the established norm of "high art" was "cheap", and anyone interested in that kind of stuff weird and/or uneducated. The universities and the other institutions of higher learning also looked down on artists producing "popular art" and categorically refused to critically assess it.

This often did not correlate with the immense popularity of popular art on both sides of the Atlantic, sometimes due to sensationalism. For example, the British had been fascinated by Edgar Wallace's (1875 - 1932) crime novels ever since the author set up a competition offering a reward to any reader who could figure out and describe just how the murder in his first book, The Four Just Men (1906), was committed.

A re-assessment of critical ideals

In the long run, the vast output of popular fiction could not be ignored any longer, and literary critics -- gradually, carefully and tentatively -- started questioning the whole idea of a gap between "high art" (or "serious literature") on the one hand and "popular art" (in America often referred to as "pulp fiction", often verging on "smut and filth") on the other. One of the first scholars to do so was American critic Leslie Fiedler. In his book Cross the Border -- Close the Gap (1972), he advocates a thorough reassessment of science fiction, the western, pornographic literature and all the other subgenres that so far had not been considered as "high art", and their inclusion in the literary canon:

The notion of one art for the 'cultural,' i.e., the favored few in any given society and of another subart for the 'uncultered,' i.e., an excluded majority as deficient in Gutenberg skills as they are untutored in 'taste,' in fact represents the last survival in mass industrial societies (capitalist, socialist, communist - it makes no difference in this regard) of an invidious distinction proper only to a class-structured community. Precisely because it carries on, as it has carried on ever since the middle of the eighteenth century, a war against that anachronistic survival, Pop Art is, whatever its overt politics, subversive: a threat to all hierarchies insofar as it is hostile to order and ordering in its own realm. What the final intrusion of Pop into the citadels of High Art provides, therefore, for the critic is the exhilarating new possibility of making judgments about the 'goodness' and 'badness' of art quite separated from distinctions between 'high' and 'low' with their concealed class bias.

In other words, it was now up to the literary critics to devise criteria with which they would then be able to assess any new literature along the lines of "good or "bad" rather than "high" versus "low".


But, according to Fiedler, it was also up to the critics to reassess already existing literature. In the case of U.S. crime fiction, writers that so far had been regarded as the authors of nothing but "pulp fiction" -- Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and others -- were gradually seen in a new light. Today, Chandler's creation, private eye Philip Marlowe -- who appears, for example, in his novels The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940) -- has achieved cult status and has also been made the topic of literary seminars at universities round the world, whereas on first publication Chandler's novels were seen as little more than cheap entertainment for the uneducated masses.

Pseudonymous authors
As far as the history of crime fiction is concerned, it is an astonishing fact that many authors have been reluctant to this very day to publish their crime novels under their real names as if they were ashamed of doing something "improper". In the late 1930s and 40s, British County Court judge Arthur Alexander Gordon Clark (19001958) published a number of detective novels under the nom de plume Cyril Hare in which he made use of his profound knowledge of the English legal system, for instance in Tragedy at Law (1942). When he was still young and unknown, award-winning British novelist Julian Barnes (born 1946) published some crime novels under the assumed name of Dan Kavanagh. Other authors take delight in cherishing their alter egos: Ruth Rendell (born 1930) writes one sort of crime novels as Ruth Rendell and another type as Barbara Vine; John Dickson Carr also used the pseudonym Carter Dickson.

Contemporary critical views
At the beginning of the new millennium the output of crime novels in both the United Kingdom and the United States is enormous. As far as many authors writing today are concerned, crime fiction is still seen as a distinct literary subgenre, but it is no longer regarded as automatically inferior to "mainstream" fiction. However, there is a certain amount of overlap. Many novels cannot be accurately categorized, a fact which is gradually being recognized. For example, Patrick Redmond's (born 1966) first novel The Wishing Game (1999) certainly deals with both capital and petty crime, and has been advertised as "a powerful psychological thriller of haunting suspense", but it could just as well be subsumed under mainstream literature. Similarly, Helen Zahavi's novel Dirty Weekend (1991) about a frustrated woman on a three-day killing spree can either be seen as a fresh voice in radical feminism or as a thriller, or as both.--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_fiction#.22High_art.22_versus_.22popular_art.22 [Apr 2005]

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