Why is literature not necessarily elitist? At the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in New York, we recently had a debate about whether we might become an elitist literary organization if we removed certain programs that were not directly literary. At the root of our debate were assumptions about what is 'literature.'
I wondered why someone would even equate or relate the 'literary' with 'elitism,' unless they had a strange view of what literature is, or should be. For example, I write about la gente decente from El Paso --janitors, maids, farmworkers-- in part because I grew up poor, and I feel I understand this community. So I found it strange that people would say 'literature' is necessarily 'elitist.'
I think you can write good stories, excellent in every literary sense, that are also about social change, difficult questions of class, the morality and minds of the poor, which too often are overlooked in stereotypes of the disenfranchised. I certainly don't write 'elitist literature' in any sense. I always assumed writing was, indeed, outreach to the poor, to those voices I grew up with who were not heard. I definitely never felt guilty about my writing.
So I think someone who thinks that writers and their 'literature' are 'elitist' must have a certain view of 'good literature' or literature with a capital L that must be challenged. Literature is not just about pretty images or beautiful words. It is not an activity that is somehow divorced from raw moral conflicts or the life of the poor or life-and-death questions, which we all face. When you divorce writing from these concerns, then, of course, 'literature' becomes a meaningless, self-referential Art that is elitist. But that is a peculiar view of literature, which I would not call 'Literature.' James Joyce, for example, is famous for writing about a day in the life of the Irish poor, in Ulysses. Faulkner wrote about the moral conflicts between blacks and whites in the South. Dagoberto Gilb writes about working-class Chicanos without a shred of sentimentality.
So I found it very natural to think that our outreach at the Writers' Center should be accomplished through writing, with our readings series, classes and workshops, and publications, and not outreach as something separate from the main activities of writing itself. Only if you see 'literature' as divorced from the common man, and his concerns, will you become worried that a focus on writing itself will become 'elitist.' I would argue that you have a peculiar definition of literature if you think that way.
A corollary of this peculiar view of literature, as an ornament, and not a social force in itself, is that you will assume that the poor will not be able to produce, or even appreciate, proper 'Literature.' If Literature is only about the proper use of English, its prettiness, unique and astonishing sentence constructions, then someone writing about, say, characters from Ysleta or Spanish Harlem is not writing Literature at all. Let's just call it (patronizingly) Ethnic Literature (which separates it from 'real Literature'). This peculiar, ornamental view of Literature will assume the disenfranchised are not interested in 'real Literature' or 'excellent writing.' Again, these assumptions should be challenged.
Poor people discuss ideas. Poor people read. Poor people want to learn. They want to write well and have their voices heard. Everybody enjoys good writing. We also need to get rid of the stereotypes that la gente decente do not think and do not debate moral issues. They do. The problem is that too often they are ignored or thought of as unimportant. Sometimes Chicanos themselves think this way about their community. It is difficult enough when the rich suburbs of New York City have a stereotypical image of who you are, which you need to change. But let's not do it to ourselves, too. I hope these philosophical musings inspire a good debate. There is no guilt in the heart when you know what you do is true.
This newspaper article appeared in the Sunday Books section of the El Paso Times on December 22, 2002.