Wednesday, November 7, 2007

I like the Far Side better, too (with an Update)

Noah Berlatsky says the kind of thing I might say:

I think, for me, some of the problems [with the high art vs. low art distinction that] they're talking about can be resolved by thinking of high-art as simply a different kind of genre — that is, Joyce isn't necessarily any more individual or writerly than Stan Lee; he's just writing in a different tradition with different genre conventions and for a different (smaller) audience. The Lee/Joyce division is actually an interesting one, because both were very original, and so could be said to have been creating a new audience, stitched together from portions of older traditions. And my appreciation for both is probably about the same; I admire and enjoy many things about their writing, but neither are really my favorites, for reasons which have a lot to do with their investment in the tiresome tropes of male self-pity.

Well, okay - I'd never say the bit about male self-pity, but otherwise I find the idea of "high art" or "lit-fic" or "gallery art" as distinct genres in their own right to be pretty useful. My problem with a lot of, say, "lit-fic" fans is that they sometimes commit a synecdoche and treat "lit-fic" as if it were "the only real literature" or "the only literature that matters". (In the comic book world, super hero fans have been - historically - guilty of the same offense).

Update: The conversation in the comments section to Noah's post is interesting to me because the back-and-forth he has with Eric mirrors the arguments Michael Blowhard seems to have whenever he writes about "lit-fic" as "just another bozo on the genre bus". (Okay, so Michael Blowhard never actually uses that phrase, but I like it.)

I might be completely mistaken (and feel free to correct me if you think I am), but I don't think this kind of thing happens as much with film buffs. You tend not to see film buffs wading into a conversation with the assumption that of course Jean Renoir is more worthy/interesting/full-of-ideas/etc. than John Ford. You're more likely to come across guys like Michael Sicinski, who engages enthusiastically and insightfully with both art cinema and popular cinema (check out his top ten lists: look at 1980's, where Airplane tops the list but Hollis Frampton is close behind).

My guess is that lit-fic fans sense that the genre is somewhat endangered (or, at the least, that it 's prominence is on the wane), so that they're more likely to attack arguments like Noah's or Michael B.'s.


James said...

I have a lot to say about this, but I'm not sure how to express it concisely.

Worth comparing the brainy vs. popular forms in each of these art forms:

* Movies: arthouse vs. blockbuster
* Music: modern classical vs. pop
* Writing: literary vs. genre
* Poetry: poems vs. not-reading-poems

Writing is unique among these, in that the brainier form, whatever its market share, essentially dominates the canon.

One hundred years from now, I imagine a "Survey of 20th Century American literature" course at a college -- I doubt very strongly that it's going to have, say, Steven King on its syllabus. Whereas a survey of 20th Century film will probably include "The Shining" (or similarly well-done pop movie).

In music, non-pop forms seem almost entirely vestigial, though I confess that's because I'm not in the market for it. Whereas in poetry, the pop side of poetry has died away completely (morphing into the singer/songwriter or rapper), and the brainy side of poetry is close to death.

I never quite understood how this happened. With music, poetry, and writing, I get the impression that this big divide happened sometime in the early 20th Century. But I'm very curious about what social and market forces drove it in that direction.

Jon Hastings said...

James - I think it's just as possible that, um, "creative writing" will end up making an about face and following the trend of movies/music/etc.: embracing both the pop and art stuff wholeheartedly. Already it seems that lit-fic is a lot less important to the "brainy" people of our generation than Harry Potter or The Sopranos or Memento (and similar movies).

Some of this is already happening: you can find "serious", "respectable" literature classes with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler on the syllabus. (At my college, which was pretty conservative canon-wise, all English majors were required to take a class that had James Cameron's Aliens on the syllabus).

But, moving outside of academia: 100 years from now, will people be more likely to be reading The Shining or Blood Meridian? I mean, I don't know, but it seems to me that all of these answers are reasonable:

(a) Blood Meridian is forgotten. The Shining lives on like Bram Stoker's Dracula.
(b) The Shining is forgotten like, oh, any given bestseller from the beginning of the 20th Century. Blood Meridian is considered an important classic and a staple of college lit classes, it's era's As I Lay Dying.
(c) Both books are forgotten: the "most important" novel of this era is something that's completely off our radar now.
(d) Both books are read and kept alive by their respective genre aficionados, but basically unknown outside of these circles.
(e) The whole concept of "literature" is blown wide open. The idea that people ever separated books, movies, TV shows, is considered kind of quaint. No one differentiates at all between stuff like The Sopranos and Blood Meridian and The Shining.

And I could go on...

As for why the split happened in the early 20thC: I think it has to do with anxiety over mass culture, but that's kind of a glib answer.

James said...

Jon, you're right that the canon is a little bit looser than it was. But I view this more cynically. The more graduate students a program produces, the more topics they will have to find for original research.

The relative scarcity of literary fiction, the Baby Boom's effect on college enrollment, and the "scandalous" effect of building a rep on a preposterous premise-- by, say, deconstructing Transformers toy catalogs as a putatively normative treasure trove ala the recitations of material wealth in Beowulf and The Odyssey--might be responsible for the widening of the canon.

The philosophical justification ("You old coot, what is 'literature,' anyway?!") may very well come later, as a way of justifying the economic reality of academia.