This post was written by one-time contributor RK
As a reader of literature increases their sophistication they risk ruining certain enjoyments and Steinbeck is one of those writers easily exposed by the attentive reader. To the ideally naive eye a story like Of Mice and Men is a heartbreaking story of two men and their tragic friendship, the camraderie of working men, and the seductive charms of a particular woman-- rich dialogue and some humor. Adapted for the screen, it is the richness of the story and the warmth of the friendship that is emphasized. What is left off or forgotten is what the sophisticated reader immediately recognizes in Steinbeck's texts-- flat allegorical characters, heavy handed metaphors, socialist propoganda. Even the more intricate metaphors are handled so obviously (the old dog put down and all the dialogue about that is later reflected in Lenny's death) that they fairly jump off the page, the writer's puppet strings clearly visible. This would be fine were this post-modernism where observing the writer's strings are point of the enjoyment. But it isn't post-modernism. It isn't even Joyce where the ideas in the text are part of the hunt. This isn't literature written to provoke social change. It is propoganda.
In Saul Bellow, the author's guiding intelligence and essay-like search for truth of existence is essential to the experience. The difference between Bellow's essay-novels and Steinbeck's propoganda-novels is that Bellow's novels are controlled by the guiding intelligence, but the characters and events remain alive and real and uncorrupted (perhaps Bellow achieved this by basing his characters heavily on real persons) by the ideas being worked out around them while in Steinbeck the characters are the embodiment of certain ideas and types. Once these ideas and types are recognized Steinbeck's stories are no longer an engrossing and emotional read of two men and their struggle for a place in a cold world, but become two WORKING MEN beat down by the elite. They become part of a cast of society's outcast-- the old worker, the Negro, the Female. The story becomes a lecture. A needed lecture, perhaps, but still a lecture on social equality. Bellow lectures, too, but through a superior organization and analysis of real characters and real events. The same as Tolstoy and Flaubert and other immortals.
The only way to read Steinbeck for emotional impact is with ignorance. This is not my prescription for just Steinbeck and it is not my disgust simply with propoganda-literature, but with all literature where characters are the embodiments of ideas-- political or social or philosophical.