In this interview, William Gaddis scholar Steven Moore says of populist attacks on experimental writers that
Of course you don't have to like Joyce (or Pynchon or Gaddis), they’re certainly not for everyone, but to dismiss them as pretentious frauds and to glorify simpler, more traditional fiction struck me as an example of the growing anti-intellectualism in our country, right in step with schools mandating that evolution was just a “theory” and that creationism should be taught alongside it in science classes.
I couldn't help but detect some laziness as well; some people don't want to “work” at reading a novel (or listening to a complex opera, or watching a film with subtitles, etc). I said earlier I liked a challenge; many people obviously don’t, or not when it comes to novels. I got the sense from these critics that they feel the novel is a democratic, middle-class genre that anyone should be able to enjoy, and that these experimentalists were betraying the novel (and their readers) by trying to turn it into something (high art) it was never intended to be. . . .
I don't think I'd call the American impatience with aesthetically complex fiction "anti-intellectualism." Plenty of intellectuals themselves express the same disdain for writers like Pynchon and Gaddis, whose work can't be reduced to sociological observation or political agitation. It's more a resentment of complex art, a disinclination to give such art the sustained attention it requires. It's less "laziness" than it is a fundamental suspicion of anything that isn't useful in a readily apparent way. Critics want novels to be useful as tools of cultural analysis, while ordinary readers want novels to be entertaining, an escape from their own everyday reality.
Nor do I think that this impatience is necessarily "in step" with right-wing cultural values. The radical left can be just as impatient with art that isn't useful to their political battles as the radical right. In fact, the political left is probably more hostile to the "merely aesthetic," which is taken to be an expression of bad faith when it isn't being deconstructed and shown to be ideologically complicit with the political right. It isn't necessary to associate resistance to challenging art with politically conservative attitudes in order to account for its existence.
What may account for it, however, is precisely the assumption Moore detects in many readers and critics that "the novel is a democratic, middle-class genre that anyone should be able to enjoy, and that these experimentalists were betraying the novel." This is an assumption held not just by critics and readers, but by some writers as well, writers who shape their work so that "anyone should be able to enjoy" it, who count themselves failures if their work doesn't reach the broadest audience possible, who are willing to take on themselves the roles of marketer and publicist in order to accomplish this task. It is an assumption that counts novels as just another transitory amusement in competition for the entertainment dollar.
In his book The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt convincingly establishes that the rise of the novel and the rise of the middle class were parallel developments and that this correlation was not just incidental. Novels did pose an opportunity for this now literate social class to exercise its newly-acquired skill. But to insist that novels should (or could, considering the other entertainment options now available) continue to perform this same function 200 years later, after Flaubert, after Henry James, and after all the other writers in their wake who saw that the novel could indeed be "high art," can only be an effort to put the genie back in the bottle. To this extent, the distinction between "popular fiction" and "literary fiction" is quite sensible. Let those who prefer a "democratic" form of mass entertainment stay with the kind of books that dominate the best seller lists. Let those who prefer "challenging" fiction with claims to high art stay with the comparatively few such works that manage to get published. The two groups don't have to intermingle at all.
I don't really mind being identified with the "elitist" group. Nor do I mind that the larger group wants fiction without artistic pretensions. I only mind when writers or readers want it both ways, when they want their books to be "good reads" but also want them to be taken seriously as works of literary art. This usually involves dismissing "high art" standards as "narrow" and elevating popular standards to a place higher than high art. Ulysses, The Recognitions, and Gravity's Rainbow don't "betray" the novel. They confirm its possibilities. To deny that the novel has such possibilities is the real betrayal.