Just recently, I came across the following Q & A, which, whether you agree with it or not — and her name, I know, is either toxic or life-affirming (I’m not an objectivist, for the record, but I liked The Fountainhead) — you will almost certainly find as provocative and thought-provoking as I did.
It’s an off-the-cuff answer which the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand gave at a live lecture, circa 1975, in response to an audience member’s question. Incidentally, it’s not easy answering questions like this off-the-cuff, and I admire the deftness:
How do you distinguish between literature and popular writing?
Ayn Rand: Today, whether what you write is literature is determined by membership in the right literary clique, and by being so inarticulate that each person can read what he wants into your book. But let’s omit the nonsense, and speak of serious literary distinctions.
The difference between literature and popular writing is the seriousness of the writing approach. Literature has a serious, interesting theme, taking up philosophical, ethical, political, and psychological issues. Literature says something of a serious nature about human life. That’s the best definition.
Popular literature is more superficial: no serious ideas or themes; at best, good plots. Plots are an important element of literature, but often even the plots in popular literature are not too original. Popular literature can offer you light entertainment without touching on serious themes. Today, however, popular literature is much better than “serious literature,” from every aspect I just mentioned. Popular literature, specifically detective stories [i.e. pulp (editor’s note)] are much more serious and better written than what passes for serious literature. When I say “today’s popular literature,” however, I mean Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers — writers from the period between the two world wars. They made a high art out of popular literature. Incidentally, the detective story obviously needs the conviction of a rational universe, because it assumes that the detective must solve the case, and that justice will triumph. You couldn’t ask for a better or more serious base; and no serious writers today — present company excepted — hold these ideas.
Anent the same subject, fellow emigre writer Vladimir Nabokov — whose sister Elena, incidentally, was Ayn Rand’s childhood friend (Ayn Rand’s real name was Alissa Rosenbaum) — said:
“A good book shouldn’t make you think. It should make you shiver.”
And Herman Melville:
“To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.”