Cross the Border — Close the Gap  

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Leslie Fiedler's essay "Cross the Border — Close the Gap" was first given in 1968 at the University of Freiburg and published first in the German weekly Christ und Welt.


"The revival of pornography is best understood in this context, also; for it, like the Western and science fiction, is a form of pop art. Since Victorian times, it has been the essential form of pop art--the most unredeemable of all kinds of subliterature, understood as a sort of entertainment closer to vice than to art. Many notable recent works of the genre have tended to conceal this fact, often because the authors themselves have not understood what they were after and have tried to disguise their work as earnest morality (Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn) or as parody (Terry Southern's Candy). But whatever the author's intent, all those writers who have helped move porn from the underground to the foreground have, in fact, been working toward the liquidation of the very conception of pornography, since the end of art on one side means the end of porn on the other. And that end is now in sight, in films, pop songs and poetry, but especially in the novel, which seemed initially more congenial than later pop-art forms to the sort of private masturbatory reverie that is essential to pornography."

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"Cross the Border — Close the Gap" (1968) is an essay by American literary critic Leslie Fiedler. The text was first delivered in June 1968 as "The Case for Post Modernism", a speech to the University of Freiburg at a symposium on contemporary literature. The text was subsequently translated and published in two parts as "Das Zeitalter der neuen Literatur" in the periodical Christ und Welt on 13 and 20 September 1968 with the respective subtitles "Die Wiedergeburt der Kritik" and "Indianer, Science Fiction und Pornographie: die Zukunft des Romans hat schon begonnen".

It was then tellingly published in English in Playboy magazine (12) in December 1969[1] (rather than in a literary magazine), with an illustration by Karl Wirsum. The essay was republished as a separate volume in 1972. The essay coincided with a trend in which literary critics such as Leslie Fiedler and Susan Sontag started questioning and assessing the notion of the perceived gap between "high art" (or "serious literature") and "popular art" (in America often referred to as "pulp fiction"), in order to describe the new literature by authors such as John Barth, Leonard Cohen , and Norman Mailer; and at the same time re-assess maligned genres such as science fiction, the western, erotic literature and all the other subgenres that previously 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 'uncultured,' 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 "popular".

Accordingly,

  • A conventionally written and dull novel about, say, a "fallen woman" could be ranked lower than a terrifying vision of the future full of action and suspense.
  • A story about industrial relations in the United Kingdom in the early 20th century — a novel about shocking working conditions, trade unionists, strikers and scabs — need not be more acceptable subject-matter per se than a well-crafted and fast-paced thriller about modern life.

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.

Nonetheless, "murder stories" such as Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment or Shakespeare's Macbeth are not dependent on their honorary membership in this genre for their acclaim.

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