When taking stock of our culture, television is a good place to look for a picture of our tastes and proclivities. We live in a world where so-called 'reality shows' on television are widespread and widely watched. Where the low-brow, crass and misogynistic Two and a Half Men is one of the most popular situation comedies on television, while smarter comedies like 30 Rock or Community are critically acclaimed but watched by far fewer people. Where AMC's Mad Men, a smart, thematic, challenging drama, is lauded but under-watched while the formulaic, procedural CSI is the most-watched television program in the world.
But perhaps television is, after all, a vast wasteland and we had better look elsewhere for substantial media. To the written word, then! But sadly, we see that celebrity gossip and fashion magazines sell volumes, best-selling novels are (with only occasional happy exceptions) routinely of the Dan Brown-variety and people seem more drawn to superficial entertainment rather than challenging, deep, reflective cultural material.
I am attacking too easy a target, one might think. Certainly it is insane to expect all people to be Kafka-reading, philosophy-spouting intellectuals. Indeed, it would probably be a bad thing if all people were. And there is nothing wrong with entertainment. But where is the balance? We don't want a society of superficial couch potatoes anymore than we want one composed entirely of professors of comparative literature. I fear our culture lies decidedly in the shallow end.
Because of this, those who write material which is challenging are mostly read by an audience of like-minded individuals -- the intelligentsia, if you like. But if the point of such writing is to open up new possibilities, expand our horizons, create something new, make new arguments, what good will be done if this writing is not appreciated by a wider audience? If one's writing has no effect outside one's own circle, we seem to defeat our own purposes.
Is this the fault of the writers? Not generally. Usually what is being written is not too difficult to understand. Rather, people at large just do not care. Some people may not be drawn to such topics, it is true, but even given differences in taste one can't help but think that more people should care.
I think this feeling is an echo of something more fundamental: that there is a difference between having specific tastes and preferring to be consistently pacified. Perhaps one might not want to read Kafka or Hemingway, Alain de Botton or Christopher Hitchens, but why turn from these authors to superficiality? There is so much quality literature written, both fiction and non-fiction, that there is surely something to appeal to every taste. Most people read for entertainment alone, but reading can be edifying, too. We would do well as a culture to have the best of both.
The fact is, when you appeal to the best in people, they will respond. Equally so, if you appeal to the lowest in them, what follows is a race to the bottom of the barrel. It does not have to be this way -- at least, not as much as it currently is. If those inclined to read and write substanstial material more than superficial entertainment keep talking only within their own circle, it will become a circle which does not grow and is in danger of becoming hermetic. But we should not be disdainful of the people who consume low-brow material, rather of the material that is aimed so low.
All we can do is challenge people and hope they will respond. What matters is education -- if more people left high school and university with a desire to read passionately, think seriously about the things that matter to them and extend their horizons, articles like this would not need to be written.
There will always be people with a wide variety of tastes. Not everyone will be interested in this article or certain domains of the arts and letters. And there will likely always be those who would rather be passively entertained rather than challenged and stimulated to thought and feeling. Despite this, we have to believe that we can grow the circle of those who care. Otherwise we abandon the principles that led us to write in the first place.