Tip of the Quill: A Journal
On the Love and Hate of Harold Bloom (Revised)

(Note: since publishing the original version of this essay, I received two extremely nasty, insulting comments from people I don’t know. Rather than publish the comments – because the vitriol in them is not something I care to have cluttering up my blog – I’m revisiting the essay to attempt to clarify my original point, conceding that the imagery I chose to use in the original post was too easy for critics to lambast instead of considering the real point of the piece. What follows is a revised version of the essay; the original has been taken down.)

When I was younger, I reacted passionately and negatively against what I perceived to be Harold Bloom’s staggering heights of pretension and arrogance, setting himself up as the canon-keeper, looking down his nose and sniffing disdainfully at all those things I loved that wouldn’t even begin to measure up to his impossibly elitist ideals. He was the ├╝ber-snob, the Platonic ideal of everything that I hated in the worst of my undergraduate professors, the mascot of the asinine out-of-touch Old Guard that represented everything I despised in traditional English Literature. I was a lousy teenager when it came to rebellion, a miserable failure as a punk of any sort – I wasn’t terribly interested in the Ramones, the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols, I was more interested in Counting Crows, U2 or R.E.M. – but when it came to literature, by God was I pissed off by these stony-faced buffoons. Reigning atop this bilious pile of condescension and loathing was, of course, Harold Bloom.

Now, I see videos like this one, and… Well. It’s hard to keep a hardened heart against someone who so eloquently communicates his love for language and poetry, for the art of text. There’s something sweet in his smile here, in the way his hands tremble when reciting verses. Thirtysomething me watches Bloom and wonder if in fact I was wrong, if I somehow missed the point.

Then again… I just did a quick search, and discovered that I’m not alone in my disgust for Bloom’s narrow-mindedness. Neil Gaiman considers Bloom a twerp for his take on audiobooks, as well as Bloom’s condescension towards Stephen King. That latter link contains a perfect example of Bloom’s pretentiousness:

The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution” to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he is is an immensely inadequate writer, on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.

The publishing industry has stooped terribly low to bestow on King a lifetime award that has previously gone to the novelists Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and to playwright Arthur Miller. By awarding it to King, they recognize nothing but the commercial value of his books, which sell in the millions but do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat. If this is going to be the criterion in the future, then perhaps next year the committee should give its award for distinguished contribution to Danielle Steel, and surely the Nobel Prize for literature should go to J.K. Rowling.

What’s happening is part of a phenomenon I wrote about a couple of years ago when I was asked to comment on Rowling. I went to the Yale bookstore and bought and read a copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” I suffered a great deal in the process. The writing was dreadful; the book was terrible. As I read, I noticed that every time a character went for a walk, the author wrote instead that the character “stretched his legs.” I began marking on the back of an envelope every time that phrase was repeated. I stopped only after I had marked the envelope several dozen times. I was incredulous. Rowling’s mind is so governed by cliches and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing.

But when I wrote that in a newspaper, I was denounced. I was told that children would now only read J.K. Rowling, and I was asked whether that wasn’t, after all, better than reading nothing at all? If Rowling was what it took to make them pick up a book, wasn’t that a good thing?

It is not. “Harry Potter” will not lead our children on to Kipling’s “Just So Stories” or his “Jungle Book.” It will not lead them to Thurber’s “Thirteen Clocks” or Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows” or Lewis Carroll’s “Alice.”

Later I read a lavish, loving review of Harry Potter by the same Stephen King. He wrote something to the effect of, “If these kids are reading Harry Potter at 11 or 12, then when they get older they will go on to read Stephen King.” And he was quite right. He was not being ironic. When you read “Harry Potter” you are, in fact, trained to read Stephen King.

Our society and our literature and our culture are being dumbed down, and the causes are very complex. I’m 73 years old. In a lifetime of teaching English, I’ve seen the study of literature debased. There’s very little authentic study of the humanities remaining.

Bloom wrote this essay, “For the World of Letters, It’s a Horror”, for the Los Angeles Times in 2003. Back then, I was furious when I read it, and denounced Bloom as an elitist asshole that had somehow mistakenly been given the keys to determining “what’s worth reading”. Now, with more years of distance between me and being a student, the experience of having attended multiple academic conferences on comics and video games and film and other popular media, having been a grad student at MIT looking at the evolution of media and storytelling and having given quite a few academic lectures myself… Now I see Bloom as something else, as the defender of a particular religion that may require defending or else it will simply disappear. I see him as loving that which he is defending, but that which he is defending is not a thriving, living thing but something to be studied and analyzed and understood – then replaced in the museum where it is stored, safely away from the day-to-day vibrancy of the contemporary arts scene. I suppose writing this will come back and bite me in the ass someday when I wish to teach at a more traditional institution, but there is so much vibrancy, so much life to be found in the areas Bloom wouldn’t dare to explore, much less enjoy, that I can’t quite bring myself to care any more.

Bloom has plenty to say, but all of it should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s like listening to a doddering great-grandparent telling stories from their cracked old chair, reeking of pipe smoke and linament and decay. The stories can be excellent, providing a window into a bygone era – but they can also be touched with the racism and sexism that ran rampant back in their youth. These stories can still provide insight, as long as one can separate the wheat of the insight from the chaff of the resentment at being left behind.

Further, what strikes me as particularly onerous about Bloom’s condescension now (with these few extra years’ worth of perspective) is how dull it is. The field of writing has always been bifurcated into high and low art, and just like every other art form, low art exponentially outsells high art, and the high artists bemoan the unfairness of it all. I’d argue there is more reading being done now than in decades, what with the advent of the Internet and the explosion of content through websites, e-books, and so on. It’s true that America is suffering from a toxic, potentially fatal overdose of anti-intellectualism, but it’s also true that characters like Bloom have only their own snobbishness to blame. When intellectuals place themselves so gleefully and disdainfully out of touch with what gives the majority of the people joy, they set themselves up for a fall. That’s one of the reasons I long to teach, and when I teach whenever I can – to get students to not abandon that which they love (which is what the worst of my own English Literature professors did to me) but to love it more thoughtfully, to embrace a kind of playful thinking that will turn them not into ossified, out-of-touch intellectuals, but vibrant, full-of-life intellectuals that will continue to shape the future and foster further joy as long as they live. For even art evolves, as it must if it is to stay alive and relevant, and there are degrees of art, all (well, most) of which can and should be celebrated.

Perhaps this is why it’s hard to rectify the joyful, literature-loving Bloom in the video up top with the condescending, scornful Bloom in the pull quote. If Bloom had spent his life fostering love for literature instead of spewing such pretentious bile, he would have had a much broader impact and have done much, much more good in the world. This, I believe, is why I adore Umberto Eco so much – he captures so much love and joy and playfulness in his essays, especially compared to Bloom. When I am an old man, I hope to be the joyful old soul that shows kids what happiness there is to be found in imagination, innovation and art, not the hateful, cantankerous monster shaking his cane at progress. To be an Eco, not a Bloom. Or, at the very least, to be the Bloom expounding his loves, not the Bloom decrying the loves of others.