Cultural Criticism in the age of Haters gonna Hate (Update!!)

Related Post Roulette

192 Responses

  1. Saul DeGraw says:

    There is another argument that can be made about how the Internet leads to a homogenized culture:

    • (Disclaimer: I didn’t read the link)

      I think whether the internet leads to homogenization is a “in what ways and to what extent” kind of question and I think there are countervailing currents, too. As @leeesq points out below, the internet also provides fora for non-standard cultural groups, such as Tintin lovers.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        I read the link and while I wasn’t crazy about its argument specifically, I think the idea that the internet (or, more broadly, connectedness, of which internet is culturally king facilitator) leads to homogenization is pretty likely.

        Islands that are physically remote produce unusual and unique flora and fauna. See the Galapagos, or Australia.

        There are no *culturally* remote islands, anymore.

        While this is good in many respects, I would expect to see a cultural homogenization as inevitable, along with the cultural blending. A cultural melting pot. The resulting blend will be different than its components, and arguably better/stronger/more adaptable anywhere; but it will also be pretty evenly distributed everywhere, and I can certainly see this contributing to a cultural malaise, due to the perception of this.

        We’ll weep when we see the breadth of our (internet) domain, for there will be no more (cultural) worlds to conquer (or discover).

        Or something.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Culturally-remote isolands generally wind up full of racist sexist homophobia, unchallenged privilege, and marginalized minority viewpoints, so it’s probably entirely for the best that they get wiped out. After all, you don’t have a right to be pointlessly unique, not so?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        I admit that I was hoping that cultural homogeneity would result in other people changing rather than in expectations that I would change.Report

      • dhex in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        that essay makes more sense if you ignore that he’s writing about his own brooklyn, as it were. there’s a lot, lot, lot more to music than just the guitarist massif, and a lot more than just brooklyn/brooklyn.Report

  2. LeeEsq says:

    I think this trend started long before the Internet. in Kubrick’s film version of Lolita, there is a seen where Lolita’s mother is trying to impress Humbert Humber with her literary and cultural knowledge while Humbert Humbert is obviously viewing her as the middle-class provincial that she is. For a great part of the late-19th to mid-20th century, there was a sort of middle brow, aspirational culture where the idea was that you needed to keep up with the latest literary reads even if you didn’t really understand it. This culture started to disappear in the 1960s as part of a relentless attack on middle brow culture by intellectuals. This entire dynamic is played out in the early scenes of Lolita. Eventually, the masses just gave up an literary, aspirational culture and read and watched what they wanted to.

    The real reason why literary works are struggling now has nothing to do with the Internet or globalization or corporations. It has a lot to do with the attack on the middle-brow. Middle-brow, aspirational culture provided a bridge between pop culture and high culture for people that thought it was important to know something about high culture even if they could not comprehend it fully.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to LeeEsq says:

      So blame Dwight Macdonald and other intellectuals for this state of affairs?

      There might be something to that. Susan Sontag wrote this about having tea with Thomas Mann when she was a 14 year old High School student in Hollywood:

      “Our studies? That was a further embarrassment. I was sure he hadn’t the faintest idea what a high school in Southern California was like. Did he know about Drivers’ Education (compulsary?) Typing courses? Wouldn’t he be surprised by the wrinkled condoms you spotted as you were darting across the lawn for first period….And by the ‘tea’ being sold by a pair of pachukes…stationed along the left wall of the assembly building every morning recess? Could he imagine George, who, some of us knew, had a gun and got money from gas-station attendants? Ella and Nella, the dwarf sistersm who led the Bible Club boycott that resulted in the withdrawal of our biology textbook? Did he know Latin was gone, and Shakespeare, too, and that for months of tenth-grade English the visibly befuddled teacher handed out copies of the Reader’s Digest at the beginning of each period–we were to select one article and write a summary of it–then sat out the hour in silence at her desk, nodding and knitting? Could he imagine what a world away from the Gymnasium in his native Lubeck, wjere fourteen-year old Tonio Kroger wooed Hans Hansen by trying to get him to read Schiller’s Don Carlos, was North Hollywood High School, alma mater of Farley Granger and Alan Ladd?”

      Source: The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s by Kevin Starr, p.381-382.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to LeeEsq says:

      What is interesting of course is that Farley Granger was most famous for his roles in two Hitchcock movies, Rope and Strangers on a Train. Rope was a bomb at the time of release and now is respected for taking place in real time and being filmed using 10 long shots which were later edited to make look continuous. Strangers on a Train is a classic.

      Hitchcock was considered a middlebrow director by Americans but the Europeans especially the French New Wavers and auterists thought he was one of the best filmmakers to live.Report

      • zic in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        I think this hits the problem of all pop culture/high culture. Pop culture is, by definition, what’s popular at any given time. Once, Shakespeare was pop culture; the audience was mostly the every-man citizens of or visiting London, not just courtiers. When Jane Austen wrote her novels, novels were low-brow, there was great concern about their impact on people. Many works, considered vulgar by the class of people who, at the time, got to define what high art is, are now considered high art.

        So mostly what you’re describing is the process that begins that elevation of some works over time. And the only place where there’s really not a body of criticism and scholarly analysis of the value of creative works as works of fine/high art that I’m aware of is romance novels; you know, those books written for women.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        He was no Jerry Lewis.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


        Gabriel Conroy gets my argument the best which is slightly to very much marred by my essay and/or by my reputation and that it is important for people (myself included) to step out of cultural comfort zones.

        I see a lot of bragging about physical fitness and pushing the limits of that stuff on facebook among friends and friends of friends. Lots of talk about 5Ks, Half-Marathons, Marathons, starting the day with a 15 mile jog and then doing weights after work, tough mudders, etc. These posts get lots of likes.

        I think it would be rather awesome to see people make social media posts about wrestling with difficult art and the intellectual accomplishment of thinking about Joyce, Proust, Judy Chicago performance art, Chantal Ackerman films, Meredith Monk, John Adams, Shostakovich, Charles Mingus, Joseph Cornell, etc. Art that is the equivalent of Jacob wrestling with the Angel.

        I don’t completely agree with Graham even if I am a bit more on her side. Bertlasky has his points that are compelling but he also reacts too much into insulting literary fiction for the sake of insulting literary fiction. I attended a lecture about why teens are attracted to dystopian literature and it rung true.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy gets my argument the best

        Well, even a stopped clock….. 🙂Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:


      Middle-brow, aspirational culture provided a bridge between pop culture and high culture for people that thought it was important to know something about high culture even if they could not comprehend it fully.

      Was that a good thing? I ask because you don’t tip your hand and I don’t want to make assumptions.

      But I believe that middle-brow culture–to the extent it really was aspirational toward high culture and not its own thing–was not good. It represented a set of cultural expectations that looked down on anything that didn’t meet a narrow range of standards and it encouraged people to affect a certain knowledge they didn’t have without realizing that they’d be happier just enjoying what they enjoy. I suppose that such pressures are always with us and in that sense middle-brow culture was an example of a larger phenomenon.

      Again, though, maybe middle-brow culture was its own thing, with its own aesthetic preferences, and therefore it might not have been purely aspirational. In which case, maybe it wasn’t so bad, even if not my thing.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Middle brow seems to be in the eye of the beholder and as far as I can tell is often used as an attack because it is a safeway into high-brow culture. The Three Tenors are considered middlebrow because they were a safe stepping stone into Opera. Shakespeare in the Park is considered a middlebrow way into theatre especially when they do more controversial and modern plays like Mother Courage and Her Children by Brecht.

        Manhattan Theatre Club is middle brow. New York Theatre Workshop and The Public Theatre are usually high brow.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Middle brow culture had its faults but it did provide a gateway to high culture. Without middle brow and it’s aspirations, fewer people are going to take the plunge into high culture. They will stay in the safe shallow end of what they like.Report

      • They will stay in the safe shallow end of what they like.

        Maybe. But they can also get stuck in the notion that the shallow end is truly shallow and ipso facto lacks merit because it’s named “shallow.”Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        @gabriel-conroy, I guess my swimming pool analogy failed. I’m roughly seeing culture as a swimming pool with low brow as the shallow end and high brow as the deep end. When most people start learning how to swim, they start at the shallow end because its generally safer and they slowly go towards the deep end. Very few take the plunge immediately. Middle brow culture was the area in the pool between the shallow part and the deep part. Without an in-between, few people are going to dive into high-brow culture.Report

      • @leeesq

        I probably should have read your analogy more charitably than I did, although if we switched the terms, putting highbrow art at the shallow end and lowbrow art at the deep end, you might get why I reacted the way I did.

        But to the purpose of what you were actually trying to say. Is it a good thing for people to “progress” to highbrow, e.g., via a more accessible middlebrow? Maybe, and especially if they are thereby introduced to something they enjoy or get a lot of inspiration (or whatever) from and that they wouldn’t have encountered without that bridge. It can–and maybe should–work the other way, too. Maybe a highbrow might, through engaging middlebrow culture, become acquainted with and enjoy lowbrow culture. As has been pointed out elsewhere here, some of what counts as “classical” or “highbrow” culture is drawn on lower class or subaltern norms or forms of entertainment.

        I also think it’s possible that middlebrow culture really is its own thing, too. I don’t know if that believe on my part has any relevance to the specific argument you’re making, however.Report

  3. Burt Likko says:

    Ironically, some of what is today considered high culture was once middlebrow (The Magic Flute and Threepenny Opera come readily to mind). Shakespeare wrote plenty of lowbrow humor: dick jokes and sex jokes and just plain farting. Some things that were once elite entertainments have been made proletarian, like American football.

    I guess the point is, yeah, consume the art you like. You may be ahead of your time.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Brecht is always a special case. The 1950s American production was heavily sanitized from the original German production. The original Weimer production was a very bohemian and scandalous work of art. The Tango Ballad’s German title is more appropriately called the Pimp’s Ballad. I am rather certain that the Communist agi-prop in Threepenny was sanitized from the 1950 off-Broadway production. Here is a rendering of the Ballad of Mack the Knife that is more in spirit with the original than the Bobby Darin version:

      • Burt Likko in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        Well that is certainly a lot darker in lyrical content than the pop culture version!

        But I think it’s ok to enjoy the Bobby Darin version, too, just as it’s ok to enjoy the Doors’ cover of Alabama Song.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        As I said, the 1950s off-broadway production of Threepenny (with Lotte Lenya reprising her role from the original!) was highly censored. The best way to think of Brecht was that he was the Weimar equivalent of a downtown avant-garde guy.

        Kudos to you though, most people don’t realize that Alabama Song was written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.Report

    • Nob Akimoto in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I think the thing that made me smack my forehead a couple times was when classical music critics got snobbish and criticized the Three Tenors for popularizing opera. The whole thing about saying unironically that…. “Opera isn’t for the masses” when they were bringing up Opera Buffe scores as examples of high art was just cringe worthy.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        This is the going after the middle-brow that Lee mentioned above and critics shooting themselves in the foot for not remembering or knowing that Opera Buffa was for the commoners while opera seria was for the royalty and nobility.

        Though that distinction was long gone by the time the Three Tenors recorded. The idea of NYC Opera being “The People’s Opera” was probably long gone by the time the Three Tenors were recording. Though the NYC Library was saved under the old rallying cry that the main branch is “The People’s University.”

        Though I can be snobby too sometimes. I love theatre. I dislike most musicals especially the poppy ones of today because they largely sound the same to me and everything seems rather Disneyfied. There are great musicals but Rocky the Musical is not the way to get people to the theatre (thought it was allegedly a hit in Germany.)Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        Like Classic Broadway was all that lyrically dense and artistically significant? No No Nanette was never supposed to be on par with Götterdämmerung. (Sorry if the Wagner reference offends; I didn’t want to go back to the Mozart well with Don Juan is all. And even a lot of Rossini is fluff, a step down from the high-falutin’ world of demigods and kings in favor of stories about real folk set to some memorable tunes.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Nob Akimoto says:


        I like Wagner and did not mean to imply that there is something wrong with liking pop culture. The Bobby Darin version of Mack the Knife is catchy.Report

  4. greginak says:

    Alaskans eat lots of ice cream in the winter you hater.

    I think the big difference now is there are a million options for culture. 80 years ago, there were books mostly. Movies were mostly low brow. There was theater and opera and classical music but they weren’t that easy to afford for most. Many people weren’t super literate to read the books that were there but at least there were libraries. There, simply, was only a handful of kinds of higher culture. There was plenty of local culture like various kinds of folk/country/bluegrass/jazz music, some of which would now be considered high culture. Today there is a sub culture for every one and mass marketing is much more prevalent.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to greginak says:

      Jazz is a good example of the cultural mobility of art too — who listens to it now but college graduates, high-contribution NPR subscribers, and other jazz musicians? But it used to be super-proletarian and white folk who liked it were “slumming it.”Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Jazz is complicated because it was the dominant form of popular music from the 1920s until the Rock n’Roll era (and possibly until the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.)

        There was always “sweet music” that was a jazz made acceptable for a broad (and largely white audience). Benny Goodman bombed when he started trying to introduce swing to a wider audience until he found kids that dug his beat. Swing was the alternative rock of its day. There were some bandleaders like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey who were able to bridge the gaps between sweet music and swing.

        Bebop, Monk, Mingus, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane etc were mainly in the high brow school sub-culture school of jazz. Miles Davis bridged the high brow and popular worlds. So did Dave Brubeck. The Boomers largely rejected jazz until they got older.Report

      • greginak in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Bop was devil music and scary as heck to most white folks. It took until the 60’s for it to start to cross over to high culture. Bop was the music of Beatniks who were dirty smelly hippies before hippies and hipsters started to hip.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


        I consider beatniks and other assorted Bohemian groups to be part of high-culture. I consider avant-garde and downtown stuff to be the rebellious teenager of high culture but still firmly in the high culture family.

        The Beatniks would have been just as dismissive of the mass of popular culture of the late 1940s and early 50s as any other intellectual even if they were drawn to a very different form of culture.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to greginak says:

      From what I’ve read, intellectuals in the 1920s would sneer against all film except Chaplin. Chaplin was a true artist. German Expressionism and Soviet Montage is probably the first recognized art cinema.

      The more media thing is true but almost every town had a movie theatre by the 1930s and most households had radio. Mass culture has been around for almost a century now. There were also the pulps and only a few pulp authors were elevated to a more respected status like Damon Runyan, Dashiell Hammet, H.G. Lovecraft, and Raymond Chandler.

      Maybe I just have read Aristotle’s Poetics enough to feel that spectacle is the least important part of the drama but there is something still sighing to me about how badass/kickass seem to be the best compliments that are given to a mass culture movie or TV show these days. I probably dislike those words a bit more than is merited.Report

      • greginak in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        It takes time for any art form to mature enough to know what is good and what isn’t. Chaplin is great but it took decades to see where film went and what could be done with to discover what had staying power.

        I’m thinking of the flick Fitzcaraldo, not just the two lunatics that made it, but the power high art for regular people. High art wasn’t just aspirational decades ago. Middle and lower class types really seemed to love it.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to greginak says:

      Before the movies came along, most towns and cities had at least one theatre. Many had more than one. Tickets varied in expense and there were class clashes in the audience and riots over actors and plays.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to greginak says:

      More importantly than there being a lot more options for culture, there are fewer filters for talking or writing about the culture you like. Before the Internet, critics had a great deal of power because they were the ones with the media access to make their opinions known. Not everybody could review movies, books, plays, and music for media publications. This was especially true for the major, national publications like the New York Times or Rolling Stone. The Internet gives voice to many people so if you want to form a community of Tintin fans and discuss Tintin than you can. If you were restricted to the old media than you would need to find some sort of real life club or fanzine in order to discuss Tintin.

      The Internet dilutes the cultural power of critics to determine what is and what is not important by democratizing broadcast rights. More accurately, its showing that the critics never had much power to begin with or at least not as much they like. One only needs to look at the average line up on TCM to understand that there was plenty of trashy or sentimentally mawkish movies in the past that were plenty popular.Report

  5. Michael M. says:

    One of the many challenging aspects of this topic is that it is really hard to draw direct parallels across art forms, and I think that’s at least partly (if not wholly) because of the variations in the marketplaces that have developed to support them. For all the media conglomerate corporate mergers of the 1980s-2000s that were supposed to exploit “synergies” between film, TV and books, those businesses have enough unique properties that trying to identify where things fall on the spectrum between high and low brow is difficult. That, in turn, makes it difficult really to define high brow, middle brow and low brow culture. I would contend that there really aren’t any high brow TV series — the economic realities of the medium simply can’t support sustained high brow product. That’s not to say there isn’t great TV, but I don’t see how Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or Game of Thrones can be high brow in the sense than Don Delillo or Peter Greenaway can be. (I am a big fan of GoT and haven’t watched the others. GoT is immensely entertaining and provocative, can and does tackle big themes and ideas, and doesn’t seem the least bit high brow to me.) I think that’s been true at least since the influence of Masterpiece Theatre, especially in its Upstairs, Downstairs era, dwindled. Even though it is very successful and well made, I think most people consider Downton Abbey solidly middle brow.

    With film, there is a distinction between high brow and prestige. The American film industry long ago developed a two-tier system that came to be referred to as A-movies and B-movies. A-movies were and still are the bigger-budget films backed by major studio distributors and name producers like the Weinsteins, Coppolas, Spielbergs and Lucases. These are often either prestige Oscar-bait or spectacles and franchises, occasionally both. But they aren’t particularly high brow. The latter is almost the exclusive province of art house cinema, even as art houses have dwindled. In the American film landscape, France Ha and Fruitvale Station are high brow; 12 Years a Slave and Gravity are prestigious middle brow films. There might be the occasional prestige film that is so well done it crosses over into high brow (both Godfather films for example), but these are rare.

    As discussed in some of the comments above, literary critics shot themselves in their feet by deriding middle brow culture. Janice Radway wrote about the development of the middle brow in A Feeling for Books: The Book-Of-The-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. When it launched in 1929, BOMC was as revolutionary in bookselling as was much later. They had a panel of judges that would hand-pick the best of breed for the discerning readers who wanted to improve themselves and expand their horizons. The judges excelled at picking the prestige bestsellers; they did not excel at picking the most important high brow books being published. In 1953, Ernest Gann’s The High and the Mighty was a BOMC selection and one of the bestselling books of the year; James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son was neither. This dynamic was fairly common throughout BOMC’s 2-3 decade heyday.

    Meanwhile, the finer independent book stores — the so-called carriage trade — refused to sell paperbacks into the early 1970s, viewing the format as decidedly low brow even though Penguin had been publishing classics in paperback since the 1940s. As a result, the growing market segment of mass-market bestsellers by-passed the bigger independent stores, and helped get the chains like B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble off the ground. This high-and-mighty snobbery eventually bit independent bookstores in the ass, long after they had accepted paperbacks into their shops.

    So I think the weird and idiosyncratic financing and distribution systems of each of these mediums plays a role in what gets assigned as high, middle and low brow. Very often work is calculated to be one and sometimes gets elevated or demoted not just on merit and critical assessment or reassessment, but also because of shifts in the nature of the market place. Sundance changed the film industry; Valley of the Dolls changed the publishing industry. I don’t think high, middle and low brow distinctions are particularly clear-cut or long-lasting, they are the product of their time. The work of art itself, if it lasts, may stay where it was initially placed, as something like Gone With the Wind has, or may rise or fall.

    These kinds of discussions always make me think of James Thurber’s wonderful very short story, The Macbeth Murder Mystery, which should be read by all. It is deliciously middle brow.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Michael M. says:

      This is a really provocative comment.

      I don’t disagree that sometimes I can shoot myself in the foot and there are times I react against popular culture out of something very knee-jerk and innate.

      I am not much of a nostalgist but my formative artistic experiences come more from my teens and twenties years. These include seeing Pist Christ when I was 12, Hal Hartley’s Amatuer at 14 (at a summer camp program!), Reading Angels in America at 16, Narcissus and Goldmund at 17, and then seeing Jules and Jim, The Conformist, and the great 20th century cinema in college, and then in grad school seeing great theatre by groups like the Propeller, Cheek by Jowl, Theatre de Complicite, etc.

      The Princess Bride? I’ve seen it. I remember seeing it in elementary school or some very close age to elementary school. I saw it again in college. I find the movie cute enough but it does not fill me with warm fuzzies like it does with so many people in my generation. William Goldman has more interesting works like the Marathon Man, the Season, All The President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Yet my lukewarm feelings on the Princess Bride fill people with shock. I am told to watch it again and again and again until I like it. No one seems to fathom that someone can find the Princess Bridge to be merely okay.

      Yet if I suggest someone watch Rhapsody in August, The Last Metro, Masculine Feminine, Ikiru, Still Walking, Smiles on a Summer Night, The Coformist, or the Garden of the Finzi-Continis, it seems perfectly acceptable to avoid those films because of a lack of interest.Report

      • @saul-degraw

        I gotta disagree with you on the Princess Bride….it’s much worse than you say it is.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        You are both dead to me.

        And Saul. the book is even better — full of postmodern jokes, too.Report

      • @mike-schilling

        I think we’ve had this discussion before, and I still have yet to read the book. I think to be honest it is an okay movie, and I’m reacting mostly to what I perceive to be the “cult of the Princess Bride” where I gotta like it because, hey, it’s so cool/subversive/funny.

        That’s kind of how I feel about Adlai Stevenson, too. I mean, teaching the “Cat Bill” in a literature class so see if any of the students can mention the magic word “satire”? Give me a break! He wasn’t the second coming of all that is good. He was just a slightly more liberal version of Eisenhower and beholden to his Chicago mayor patron. Nothing necessarily wrong with that. Just not that unusual.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        @gabriel-conroy, I don’t get why liberals of the 1950s gushed over Adlai Stevenson other than the fact that was the first open egg-head to run for office since Wilson. I can understand why William Jennings Bryan was a big in the late 19th and early 20th century. Adlai Stevenson not so much.

        I like the Princess Bride, the book and the movie, much better than Saul does but its cultic status can be a bit overwhelming like the cultic status of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As far as I can tell, both films appeal to people that felt somewhat isolated from mainstream high school culture because they were a bit quirky and theatrical and use the films as a sort of solace. Basically both serve as cinematic comfort food.Report

      • El Muneco in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        I’m with Mike here – from what I can glean of your tastes, you definitely want the book and not the movie.
        The movie is perfect, but it is exactly what it says on the tin. The book reaches for a little more. Not just in terms of the meta-narrative, which hardly exists in the movie. But also in the crafting of individual scenes.
        Both the book and movie are creations of a brilliant writer, brilliant not least because he made two different pieces, each tuned to its medium, out of the same source material.Report

      • @el-muneco @ et al.:

        Well, I guess I really should read the book, then.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        It is by far Goldman’s best book. The odd thing is that he knows it, when authors generally have odd ideas in that area. Mark Twain thought his best book was Personal Recollection of Joan of Arc. He even published it anonymously, so people would see it as a serious work of art rather than humor. Faulkner thought his best was A Fable. In his later years, Groucho completely disavowed the three classic Marx Brothers films (Monkey Business, Horsfeathers, and Duck Soup) In favor of the mixed bags of A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, though that was largely because of his great regard for their producer, the late Irving Thalberg.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        I recently saw the film of The Princess Bride and was not impressed. The book is much, much better.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        The thing about “The Princess Bride” is that people usually see it when they’re young, generally before they’re fourteen, and both the story and the storytelling are wild and new and exciting. If you’ve already got a healthy sense of irony and intellect, then it won’t have anything new to show you, and you won’t appreciate it like a kid would.Report

  6. Alan Scott says:

    The Academy Award picks plenty of Box Office successes but they tend to be more like Titanic and less like X-Men and the Lord of the Rings and Hunger Games. The problem with the fannish argument is that they want to be covered by the prestigious press but I always get the impression that the coverage most always be of high praise. Critics that dare suggest a fan favorite is not very good are quickly lambasted for not getting it and using the wrong criteria for judgment.

    Except, of course, that The Return of the King and Titanic each one eleven awards, nine of which were common to both films. Which makes your above post a telling example.

    Because while I’m sure plenty of fans decry critics for plenty of dumb reasons, the real ire is reserved for situations like the one you’ve created right here. Where critic, whose job is to pay attention to culture, has obviously failed to do so in really obvious ways.Report

    • James K in reply to Alan Scott says:

      Still he’s right that movies like Titanic get more Oscar love than movies like LotR, even if it’s not true for those two movies specifically.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to James K says:

        But I’m not exactly seeing a huge demand for, say, a best picture win for Avengers.

        To the extent that people are criticizing the academy awards, it’s usually for a) failing to give due to comedic roles, even though such roles require as much skill as dramatic roles, or b) the tendency for genre films to lose to dramas in the technical categories. Consider, for example, how weird it is that a in the 67 year history of the costume award, Star Wars is the only sci-fi movie to ever win, and one of four ever nominated.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Alan Scott says:


      I should have clarified that I meant for the big awards like Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Picture.

      It seems like every year, I read an article blasting the Academy’s bias against comedy and/or their bias against movies like Lord of the Rings with an added wish that Box Office gross was the sole consideration for nomination or at least a factor.Report

      • Well, Return of the King won best picture.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        Again, though, RotK comes out tied, or even ahead, on that metric. Neither film got any actor wins, but RotK won for screenplay and Titanic didn’t. The two awards that Titanic won that RotK didn’t were for cinematography (which Fellowship won in 2001) and sound editing (which Two Towers won in 2002).

        But more importantly, it’s really fishing nuts that Andy Serkis didn’t get a supporting actor nomination in 2002. I mean, look at the people actually on that list: I’ve seen Catch Me if you Can, Chicago, and Road to Perdition, and the only performance that comes close to Serkis as Gollum is John C Reilly’s.

        But the Academy collectively decided “It doesn’t count if we don’t see your face”Report

  7. James K says:

    Ultimately, you have a right to consume whatever media you enjoy Saul but what makes me think of you as snobbish is the fairly lazy way you categorise the media you don’t consume, something I see all too often with literary types.

    You start off talking about adults consuming Young Adult works, but then start talking about Mad Men and Game of Thrones. I don’t watch Mad Men, but Game of Thrones (nor the books it is adapted from) is not Young Adult – and I can’t help but feel that you tend to associate it with children’s entertainment because you consider anything outside the literary genre as being “for kids”; a symptom of the Genre Ghetto, works containing certain setting elements automatically classify the work as being not serious.

    Sir Terry Pratchett is a satirist of considerable subtlety and skill, his Discworld novels discuss psychology, political philosophy and metaphysics. But they have wizards and dragons in them, so they can’t be serious literature. Game of Thrones has a plot years in the making, requiring the viewer to maintain a knowledge of dozens of characters and the relationship between them. The books go into even more detail, adding richness while requiring even more from the reader. But that’s not unusual for large fantasy works – they often expect that kind of attention from their readers.

    I agree that fantasy and sci-fi place less emphasis on the skill of turning a phrase, but their are other skills a writer can have – one that’s unique to genre work is worldbuilding – the ability to create complex yet organic self-consistent settings is a highly valued skill in fantasy and sci-fi and explaining these settings to the reader organically without dropping pages of exposition on them is the sign of a master.

    I think it’s important for you to understand the diversity of the media you don’t consume, even if you choose to continue to not consume it. This isn’t simply a dichotomy between Twilight and Gravity’s Rainbow.Report

  8. James Hanley says:

    You know, Saul, you frequently complain about people hating on what you like, what we might call their reverse snobbery. But you pretty obviously look down on the idea of liking other things instead, things you obviously consider “lesser.” It’s merely “ok” to like a pop song, but it’s not something to be admired, not like you listening to Mozart. My take is that you seem to be engaging in a class/culture pissing match, expressing your resentment toward those who sneer at you for your high-falutin’ cultural interests by sneering right back. You’re punching down, though.

    Take Game of Thrones, I finally started reading it this year I hated Martin’s wtiting right from the start, and could hardly make it through the first couple of chapters. But I slowly became absorbed in the story. It’s the swords and sworcery part that’s great–I almost chucked it again when Qnranelf ungpurq gur qentbaf (spoiler alert)–it’s the complexity of the story, the massive scale, and the great and important dynamic of a political society fragmenting just as it’s facing an immense external threat. Martin’s also brave enough to kill his heroes, being more unflinching about the realities of life and conflict than any number of high brow authors. And for my money, the dwarf Tyrion is among the most complex and interesting characters I’ve ever come across in fiction.

    I like a lot of high brow work, but a lot of it is also very precious. I don’t think high-brow artists have any more insight into human nature than low or middle brow ones necessarily do. Tolstoy is full of crap and his lengthy expositions on the nature of history are the high brow companion to Rand’s lengthy expositions on objectivism. Science Fiction is actually all about the human condition in a changing world, and good world building in fantasy lit requires a deeper and broader understanding if humanity than does French existentialist navel-gazing. And westerns are, as a group, all about state of nature theory (The Searchers and True Grit are good literature, and Eastwood’s man with no name movies say a lot about humanity).

    So like what you like, and ignore the haters. But stop punching down, and back off the assumptions about things you don’t really know about. And keep in mind, Sturgeon’s law is universal–it applies to high brow art as well.Report

    • Road Scholar in reply to James Hanley says:

      Thanks for saying what I’ve been thinking. (And better than I would have.)Report

    • Don Zeko in reply to James Hanley says:

      Agreed. There seems to be a strain of disdain towards genre fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, among people that primarily consume or discuss literary fiction and other more traditionally respected types of culture. And while the stereotypes against these genres do have some basis, they can lead critics to dismiss works like Game of Thrones in ways that betray far more about the critic’s biases than they do about the work being discussed. This is why the NYT gave us the frankly embarrassing reviews that they have. My worry is that I’m reading Saul do that here.Report

    • @james-hanley

      I pretty much agree with you, although I interpreted Saul’s OP to me more about the need for people like him to engage other formats. That might have been a misreading on my part.

      But you did explain what has bothered me about a lot of these “I’m high brow and proud of not being low brow” posts. I do realize, however, that I tend to do the reverse, and I perhaps too quickly dismiss certain genres for being inherently snobbish because of the types of people who stereotypically enjoy them. (Opera, I’m looking at you!)Report

    • Glyph in reply to James Hanley says:

      I watched GoT before reading, and TBH I was disappointed at Martin’s prose quality when I read the books. I had frankly expected it to be better, based on what I’d seen in the show (it’s not awful in the books, just more wooden and serviceable than I’d expected), since in the show I think the dialogue is often quite lyrical while still conveying a lot of information, and the dialogue is often taken from the books quite closely.

      For whatever reason, it just really works well in a visual medium. Maybe because Martin’s created such an immersive world and the showrunners have done top-notch work in every aspect (adapting, casting, costuming, effects, budgeting, music, all of it).Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Glyph says:

        Largely because the things that are Martin’s weaknesses are the things that TV is in a best position to deal with. Dialog is re-written and roles are well-acted.

        Compare to “literary genre” work, where the prose and dialog are well written but the plot is typically weak. Plot is a lot harder to infuse into an existing work.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Glyph says:

        True, but as I said the show dialogue is often word-for-word from the book or pretty close to it, and I was impressed enough by the show’s dialogue to think the book’s (non-dialogue) prose would be as good; whereas Martin’s “description” parts are merely serviceable (as compared to the dialogue, which does have some force).

        That said, I am still reading the books and enjoying them. I am just doing it after each season, to avoid spoiling (both the actual plot points, and also in that general sense you often get when you read a book before a movie of “the book was better, dammit!”. I just enjoy the show too much to minimize its pleasures.)Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Glyph says:

        You know nothing.

        Which I found less annoying than it might have been, because Jon really was ignorant about the wildlings. I don’t think he was clever enough to feign ignorance to draw her out. And he was way too much of a Stark to sleep with her as a tactic for gaining an informant.Report

    • veronica dire in reply to James Hanley says:

      @james-hanley — +1

      I would quibble about the “punching down” phrase, since I feel not at all beneath him. But, yeah, your point is on target.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

      You should gives Lois Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan books a try. Miles is similar to Tyrion: a very small, somewhat deformed [1] man, the son of a very powerful family, born into a society that considers physical abnormality both disgusting and evil.

      They were among the most popular SF books of the 90s, and I think Tyrion is in some ways a response to Miles. (When I suggested the comparison to GRRM at a book signing, he didn’t seem surprised or disagree.) The difference is that Miles was raised by two parents who loved him, so he uses his talents of cunning and manipulation for good. Mostly.

      If anyone’s interested, I’d suggest starting with the (out of print) collection Borders of Infinity. It’s three novellas connected by a thin (really, unnecessary) framing story, and starts to show the range of what Bujold can do with the character. (One of the later novels, A Civil Campaign, is dedicated to Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Georgette Heyer, and Dorothy Sayers, and is kind of an SF Regency romance novel.)

      1. In the books, Tyrion is hideous, even before uvf abfr trgf phg bss. He’s not a short but good-looking man like Peter Dinklage.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Well, I have no choice but to link to this masterpiece of re-editing again.


      • zic in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        @mike-schilling I just got a copy of Falling Free based on your recommendation. I’m currently reading a philosophy book, my first ever, if you don’t count naturalist like John Muir or Wendell Berry. I might need a break from it soon; so that’s what will fill the gap.

        (Gotta say, Epicurus baffles me; like Buddhism. Attractive in the abstract, but get close to the details and I find myself repelled. Reminds me of something else.)Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        I’ll have to put those on my list. I’m not a big sci fan, though–it tends to be pretty hit or miss with me, and and I haven’t quite put my finger on why.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        @zic Falling Free isn’t one I especially enjoy, even if it did win Bujold her first Nebula. I’ll be interested to hear what you think,

        @james-hanley Me too, these days. I don’t read much of it except to keep up with my favorite authors, one of whom is Bujold.Report

  9. Before I read the comments, I’ll say two specific points of disagreement and a more general point of agreement.

    First point of disagreement: I think you’re onto something suggesting that “nostalgia culture” can be related to insecurity, but I wouldn’t say it’s wholly so, and I don’t think the insecurity need be economic. I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with liking a song, for example, because it reminds one of a good (or bad) point in one’s life. That’s a hyper-personal standard for art and therefore not generalizable and therefore a poor aesthetic theory. But that’s why I like a lot of what I do like (especially music), and as long as I don’t try to impose that standard on others or denigrate them for not liking the same music, then I see nothing wrong with my doing so.

    Second, to this:

    I still am more on Ruth Graham’s side of things more than the side of Bertlasky and Rosenberg. There is something to be said about wrestling with a difficult work of art or showing the concentration to be able to sit through a forty minute Mozart symphony instead of a four minute pop song.

    I don’t know about Rosenberg, but Berlatsky’s argument seems to be that some young adult works really are something to be wrestles with, and not simple brain candy. Maybe he’s wrong, but simply saying, “I disagree with him because it can be a good thing to wrestle with difficult work, too,” begs the question (in the sense of assuming what is to be argued).

    The general thing of agreement: I agree with what I take to be the thesis of this essay. We should all go out of our comfort zones, or be open to doing so at least sometimes. (By the way, I’ve wrestled with Joyce….and lost pretty much every round, except the first (i.e., Dubliners).)

    And despite my very persistent nagging of your comments, we probably share many of the same prejudices when it comes to literature. I never have and probably never will read Pynchon, but I might read Proust, and like you, I have a lot of things I’d rather do than read Game of Thrones, even if it would turn out that I’d like it. As for Mozart symphonies versus pop music, I think there’s room for both, and although I prefer pop music, I like Mozart. (However, I had thought most of his symphonies lasted more on the order of 20 minutes than 45, but I just know a few of them.)

    One of the reasons I do not go to symphonies (or concerts) is the price. It’s more money than I want to spend. Another reason is values. I prefer, for example, to go out to eat over going to a symphony. Another reason is noise tolerance. I don’t know about symphonies, but concerts (i.e., rock concerts) tend to be way too loud for my tolerance and I get overwhelmed and claustrophobic.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


      My point was not that Mozart or Wagner or Shostakovich is better than pop, jazz, classic rock, indie rock, etc.

      The point was that there is something to be said about developing the cultural muscle that allows for sitting and enjoying a piece of music that is 40-60 minutes long. Classical symphonies are largely not doing well and one criticism I hear is that the format is unacceptable to anyone who grew up attending rock/pop music concerts because you are expected to show up by a certain time and stay in your seat until intermission. The argument goes that classical music performances should switch to something more like a pop music concert where you can get up as you please. Drink during the performance, etc.

      This argument does not work for me.Report

      • I imagine that a rock concert (or pop concert) also requires endurance and patience. I’m the type of guy who, if I’m lucky, knows only 1 or 2 songs of any group in any of the (very few) pop concerts I’ve been to in my lifetime. It’s not the same as wrestling with the theme and counter-themes one finds in so-called “classical” music (and again, my understanding of Mozart is that his symphonies were shorter than his successors’, perhaps reflecting a adherence to simplicity that gets lost in the hubub-drim! of Beethoven and the later romantic composers). But it’s an effort in its own right, and one I find I cannot do.

        It seems that pop music concerts–again using broad brushstrokes about something I know only very little–relies to a large extent on call-and-response techniques that the “classical” symphonies do not usually do.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


        I am just talking about sitting and seeing if one enjoys a symphony or not. Perhaps at home first before heading to a concert.

        From what I’ve heard, video game music nights do very well. The trick is getting people to come back when it is not video game or movie music night.

        Perhaps I am too quick to dismiss Game of Thrones and the Hunger Games but I think people are too quick to dismiss that they might like Mozart or Ravel or Hayden.Report

      • there is something to be said about developing the cultural muscle that allows for sitting and enjoying a piece of music that is 40-60 minutes long.

        Maybe, but that raises, or at least implies, another question: should one develop the “cultural muscle” just so something can be said about one’s doing it? Or because one enjoys it? Or because it’s a better art form?

        I suppose most genres (for lack of a better word) require their own cultural muscle, some more developed than others. When I was in high school, “Terence this is stupid stuff” was hard for me to understand. Now I can read a comparable poem and better understand and more quickly because I read things like “Terence this is stupid stuff.” So my ability to enjoy poetry and other forms of literature is enhanced because I’ve had the chance to develop my skills (such as they are) that way. But am I to be commended for it?

        My answer is no. And it’s “no,” in part because I get the benefit and I’m not particularly helping anybody by what I’m doing in that case. It’s also in part because there’s a certain amount or kind of “cultural muscle” I do not have and would be hard for me to acquire. I don’t read graphic novels, for example, and if I’d tried, I imagine it would take a while to be able to do read one as it should be read. I don’t think I deserve to be blamed for declining to do that, but I also recognize that it’s an art form I’m unfamiliar with and lack the skills to enjoy. I think similar things could be said for more poppy instances of culture (and I find graphic novels to be more high brow….perhaps because I lack the skills to enjoy them).

        tl;dr: Some works, of course, are easier to engage and experience than others. But that doesn’t mean the more difficult is the more worthy by virtue of being difficult.Report

      • zic in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        The point was that there is something to be said about developing the cultural muscle that allows for sitting and enjoying a piece of music that is 40-60 minutes long.

        Have you ever been to a jam-band concert?

        I think classical music has lost audience because of the high cost of attending, the high cost of recordings, and the pretension. I have huge issues with classical music, particularly when it comes to training for young musicians. They are pretty much kept to a limited genre (numbers of kids who’ve come to my sweetie to learn how to play jazz, and they always seem to see it as a subversive thing). Jobs do not abound, and those that do exist, eat up an enormous amount of resources that could support less formal musical experiences.

        So I think the experience of Classical music in general both limits audience limits artists; and I say that as someone who will sit for 40 min. absolutely enthralled and grateful for the opportunity to hear most classical concerts.

        The formats of symphony and opera were designed to keep the riffraff out; and to some great degree, they’ve succeeded in that effort.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


        “The point was that there is something to be said about developing the cultural muscle that allows for sitting and enjoying a piece of music that is 40-60 minutes long.”

        Is there also something to be said about developing the cultural muscle (whatever that is) that allows for sitting and enjoying an NFL game that lasts 180-200 minutes? How about a Kid Rock album that lasts 45-60 minutes? Or an episode of reality TV that lasts 60 minutes?

        What, specifically, about symphony orchestral music requires “cultural muscle” that all those other things lack? It can’t simply be the length of the songs.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        “Perhaps I am too quick to dismiss Game of Thrones and the Hunger Games but I think people are too quick to dismiss that they might like Mozart or Ravel or Hayden.”

        I bet those people have heard more Mozart than you’ve watched/read GoT.

        This is land that folks like you often stake out: “Try it. Experience it the way I experience it. Of course you’ll like it then.” It is an inherently egocentric position. The insistence that I don’t like something you like simply because I haven’t tried it. Or haven’t tried it the right way. Guess what? I’ve tried listening to classical music. Some stuff resonates with me but on the whole I’m just not into it. Is that okay? Am I allowed to have listened to it and not liked it? Or does that mean I necessarily listened to it wrong? Why do you assume I haven’t listened to it?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


        Have you ever wrestled with heavy metal? I still clearly remember the evening nearly 30 years ago when a friend sat me down and made me listen to “that noise.” It too several hours, but then it clicked, and I finally heard the music.

        Have you, would you, wrestle with heavy metal, or would you just say, “it’s ok to like a heavy metal song, but…”Report

      • Is there also something to be said about developing the cultural muscle (whatever that is) that allows for sitting and enjoying an NFL game that lasts 180-200 minutes?

        And there’s a difference between seeing the game live in the stadium and on TV somewhere. The last time I was at a live NFL game, what struck me was how much truly dead time there is. On TV, the director and the color announcer(s) are constantly filling time with replays or close-ups of someone dressed strangely or six commercials while an injured player is tended to. At the stadium, that’s all just dead time.

        That said, there’s also the plus of sharing an experience with 70,000 other people. For example, it’s one thing for the announcers to say that it’s so loud the QB can’t be heard; it’s another entirely to be sitting in the crowd with that kind of noise going on.

        Two quite different experiences, and different “muscles” needed.Report

      • I think classical music has lost audience because of the high cost of attending, the high cost of recordings, and the pretension.

        As a stand-alone art form, perhaps. OTOH, people who watch movies are regularly exposed to a huge amount of original orchestral music in a supporting role. John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters, Superman, ET, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and on and on) is the Mozart of our day.Report

      • Classical symphonies are largely not doing well and one criticism I hear is that the format is unacceptable to anyone who grew up attending rock/pop music concerts because you are expected to show up by a certain time and stay in your seat until intermission. The argument goes that classical music performances should switch to something more like a pop music concert where you can get up as you please. Drink during the performance, etc.

        Not to pile on a bit, but you do know that that’s how classical music was enjoyed in its heyday, right? Hell, half the time people went to the opera or symphony merely to be seen.

        One of the biggest problems with listening to classical or baroque music (nevermind the pretentious Romantic crap) is that it’s been so ossified into a particular format that its own composers never really meant it to be in.

        Haydn himself would probably have gotten kicked out of a modern concert because he wasn’t sufficiently well dressed and would get up to gossip with his neighbor.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        “Have you ever been to a jam-band concert? ”

        I was gonna say, I’d think that the prog-rock crowd would take offense to someone saying their music lacked complexity or depth.Report

      • dhex in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        would you then go so far as to say that the greatest value would be in digesting the harshest, most difficult material?

        if 40 minutes of opera is good for you, what about 60 minutes of merzbow? or swans? the reformed swans is both highbrow and lowbrow; difficult, unusual, and very much a non-spectacle spectacle. it is about absorption and endurance.

        let’s be serious here; the cultural elite don’t want their faces melted off. i know that and you know that and my yet to be produced “pig destroyer at the kennedy center” two hour special on pbs knows it too.

        anyway, stop being “i don’t even own a tv” guy and people will (eventually) stop treating you as such. also learn to develop a slightly thicker skin. love what you love, even if it’s a live laugh love tattoo, and stop being such a baby about someone saying “non” or whatever french is for “i don’t care that you don’t even own a tv”.Report

  10. Don Zeko says:

    I’m stuck in moderation.Report

  11. Kolohe says:

    It was a remarkable coincidence to be reading this post while watching one of the Billy Joel Russia (Soviet Union) concerts on PBS – several layers and meta-layers of nostalgia and brow-ness in that.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Kolohe says:

      As a Long Islander, I have a soft spot for Billy Joel even if I wish Lou Reed was held in higher esteem as a native son.

      But yeah there are lots of arguments about where Billy Joel fits in the musical spectrum. People tend to love him or hate him.Report

  12. Jaybird says:

    When I worked in the restaurant, we had a three-chocolate layer cake. Dark chocolate at the bottom, milk chocolate in the middle, white chocolate at the top, frosted with dark chocolate frosting, three kinds of chocolate shavings as a decoration on top. Served with a caramel drizzle.

    After a dinner party, I heard the head of the table explain to his comrades that children couldn’t appreciate that cake. They’d enjoy a Snickers or Milky Way as much and not appreciate the nuances that existed between the different layers of chocolate cake.

    All that to say, my blog comment about people feeling superior to other people over how they enjoy luxuries on a deeper level than less sophisticated people is better than your blog comment about people feeling superior to other people over how they enjoy luxuries and I get a great deal of pleasure from that.

    Even if I was the hired help that night.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

      There’s a scene in Brideshead Revisited where the narrator takes immense pride in how a man who’s much more successful than he is doesn’t like the right kind of brandy. I honestly can’t tell if Waugh wants us to sympathize with him or think he’s a snobbish jerk.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        There’s a song called “Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend’s Too Stupid to Know About” that has the narrator reveling in listing his obscure indie pop knowledge, that said new boyfriend does not have.

        But of course the joke’s on the narrator. It’s implied right there in the title, what said boyfriend DOES have.Report

      • aaron david in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        @mike-schilling With Waugh, its a bit of both. In other words, Waugh knows we are all jerks, and wants us to remember it before we judge.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        If humans had better senses of smell, there would be discussions of how so-and-so is a great guy, but he like Yankee Candle’s products. We all know that (let me google) people of refinement prefer Diptyque.

        Not only that, he bought the pumpkin pie candle! And we’d laugh and sigh.

        Now, I *DO* think that the aesthetics of art is, kinda, measurable… but it’s more after the fact measurable. Does it inspire people to be better? Be kinder? Be more generous with their time or money? Does it inspire art in its own right? Does it help someone who is thinking about giving up to steel herself and make her say “Not Today!” and get through another day?

        Then It Is Good Art.

        Does it inspire depression, complacency, nihilism, and so on?

        Then It Is Bad Art.

        I don’t know how else to measure art that does neither except to say that “there are worse ways to spend one’s time than masturbation… but it’s not a great way to make new friends.”

        Here’s Pavarotti and the Spice Girls:


    • James Hanley in reply to Jaybird says:

      Dark chocolate at the bottom, milk chocolate in the middle, white chocolate at the top

      Damned if that cake isn’t a hell of a social metaphor.Report

  13. LWA says:

    This post just brings up the topic of whether there exists an objective quality in art.
    Actually, I am bringing it up but go with me here.

    What we are seeing in modernity is the loss of a shared cultural space.

    When a Roman emperor or Medici prince commissioned a sculpture, the aristocrat, artist, and peasant passing by on the street all existed in a shared cultural space- they all shared a sense of what constituted reality, social and moral norms, and while the artist might have been trafficking in more esoteric ideas (about perspective space, for example) the work of art was still comprehensible to anyone. It both reinforced and established boundaries of what was considered revealed truth.

    It is this shared cultural universe that the early Moderns upended. Even before Nude Decending, the Impressionists challenged the notion of the picture frame as a portal to a realistic depiction of space- their paintings showed the hand of the artist in the visible brushstrokes, in mixing colors directly on the canvas, and literally making the painting construct itself before your eyes.

    One of the hallmarks of the avante garde is a critical stance of the larger culture, and of challenging authority of sole revealed truth.

    Yet it hasn’t replaced it with anything- as in the thread on religion, if there is no sole legitimate authority to refer to, are all forms of art equally valid? Or if there is a set of works which claim legitimate privileged status as “high” art, how is that legitimacy established? How do we know that Picasso is “high” art, while Kinkaide is “low” art?

    There does exist a shared cultural space within the art community that sets boundaries and rules and establishes an order- that’s how certain artists get published, displayed, awarded and promoted. But the cultural space of the art community is different than the larger community and they really don’t speak to each other in a language that can be understood.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to LWA says:

      Thats the crucial issue for me. I have no problem with people like what they like. If they want to watch the Smurfs, read Harlequin romances, or listen to Top 40 pop thats fine with me. At the same time, I’m not quite willing to accept the proposition that there is no such thing as an objective quality in art and that Top 40 pop song has just as much artistic merit as any symphony to its fans. The idea that there can be no objective qualities in art and entertainment strikes me as dubious because its encourages people to go for the low-hanging fruit that pleases them rather than what challenges them. It seem like a very philistine way of looking at the world.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to LeeEsq says:

        What’s weird isn’t the idea that objective quality exists within art.

        What’s weird is the idea that the objective qualities that do exist within art are a matter of genre. Mozart beats Pharell because Mozart is the most famous musician of his century, and Pharell is just some guy who created a popular song. Otoh, when you compare the Beatles to Pachelbel, it’s the beatles that deserve to win.

        The quality of music cannot be measured by the number of violins required to play it, which is what Saul seems to be arguing for.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I think both views–that there’s no “objectively good” art and that there is indeed an “objectively good” art–can feed into philistinism. Think of the wags who claim that “such and such isn’t art…’s blasphemy!”–they’re implicitly claiming an “objective” standard to what counts as “good” art.

        I personally don’t like discussions about whether there is an objective standard to art and how we can assess it in part because those discussions just don’t seem to do much for me, because they usually don’t take us very far, and because each of the several camps that emerge flirts with straw man and other extremist arguments.

        For example, take your statement here:

        I’m not quite willing to accept the proposition that there is no such thing as an objective quality in art and that Top 40 pop song has just as much artistic merit as any symphony to its fans

        I know a few people who do say that such pop music does indeed have “just as much artistic merit as” any other type of music. But I, for one, don’t go that far. I believe that in the pop music genre, occasionally one could find very high quality productions, either measured against some “objective” standard or against some “society’s tastes evolve” standard or against some entirely subjective, personal standard. And I’m no expert in art music, but some symphonies I would probably find very poor quality.

        Then we get locked into arguments about genres. Is symphonic “art music” aka “classical music” better than “pop music”? Maybe. I guess. Depending on the standard. But I think a better question is “in what ways is ‘art music’ good” and “in what ways is ‘pop music’ good”?

        tl;dr: I question whether we should compare the relative worth of any piece of art or kind of art. We should instead ask what we can take away from it and avoid the pissing matches.Report

      • LWA in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Bernard Maybeck, the eclectic Bay Area architect once wrote that beauty is something we can intuit, but just barely see, and scarcely grasp, that it exists just outside our ability to hold it.

        That seems about right to me- an objective reality may very well exist, but we lack the ability to really understand it. So there is always this elusive quality to things, where our intuition senses what we can’t explain.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @alan-scott, there are some good arguments that some genres of art might be objectively better than others if you define technical skill as a part of why something is objectively superior to another thing. If you believe that how a writer uses language is more important than plot, world-building or theme in defining what is good literature than you are probably more likely to lean towards literary fiction rather than genre fiction as objectively better.

        @gabriel-conroy, your right about that. The problem with saying that there is such a thing as objectively superior art is that determining the values used to judge art are a minefield because different individuals and cultures value different things. At the same time, the idea that T.E. Lawrence and Edgar Rice Boroughs were equally good authors because both have fans seems wrong. T.E. Lawrence should be considered the better writer not only because of what he wrote about but because his mastery of the English language should clearly be better to everybody. Yet there are plenty of people that love the works of Boroughs but can’t stand Lawrence at all.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:


        I do think if one is to get in the comparison game at all, one should adopt a metric, or metrics, such as you do, with, say, “mastery of the English language” as one metric and, perhaps, importance of subject matter as another. But then, the comparison is not “objective” in the way that many people seem to think of when they say “objective.” Instead, it’s “objective” insofar as it relates to something else the value of which is contingent or dependent on what others assign it. And then what metric we’re using–and not the question of whether we ought to use a metric at all, or whether some meta-metric of “goodness” exists and is knowable–is the point of dispute.Report

  14. Kazzy says:

    You don’t think people get mocked for liking “Doug” or “Salute Your Shorts”? They do.

    And I would argue the extent to which there is a difference between how consumers of different media get responded, it is rooted in the way in which those consumers carry themselves with regards to their chosen media.

    Tell me you like Russian existential lit? Cool. I got no problem with you.
    Tell me you like “Doug”? Cool. I got no problem with you.

    Tell me you like Russian existential lit and act like you are better than me because of that fact? I’ll probably mock you.
    Tell me you like “Doug” and act like you are better than me because of that fact? I’ll probable mock you.

    I’d argue that the frequency of mocking is pretty proportional the the asshole quotient of the people in question. Also, you’re probably extrapolating anecdotes to broader trends that don’t exist. Most people don’t give a rat’s ass about what other people watch/read/listen to/etc.

    Lastly, lots of those people touting “Doug” and “Salute Your Shorts” are doing so in pursuit of some hipster-style irony. And nothing is mocked more nowadays than hipsterdom.Report

  15. James Hanley says:

    You know, the very nature of high brow is that fewer people are going to like it than like pop stuff. So, complaining that more people aren’t watching/reading high brow (while simultaneously boasting about it being harder (and you are, even if only implicitly)), seems to rather miss the point.Report

  16. LeeEsq says:

    When I was in my teens and twenties, I loved science fiction, fantasy, comics, manga, and anime. I consumed all of these things with a passion. At the same time thanks to my parents and good if annoying English teacher in high school, I also loved fine art and literary novels so I also read literary novels. As I grew older, I found that my tastes in reading changed more towards the literary. The mastery of language and characterization were more important than convincing world-building and exciting plots and adventures. Literary novels just seemed much better crafted.

    What I think my brother is saying is that too many people stick to what they like and are comfortable with rather than try something new and adventurous. They keep reading the same comics or genre novels rather than something more literary or daring. What he might be encouraging is for people to get out of their shells and see if they like art music in addition to top 40 or James Joyce as well as Robert Heinlein. He is arguing against the sub-culturalization of tastes.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Even as you phrase it here, it’s elitist snobbery. Look at the “who” and the “what they should be trying” of your comment.Report

    • Zac in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Wait…Lee and Saul are brothers? How did I never pick up on that before now?Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Zac says:

        Does it make more sense if you know that Saul is the former New Dealer?Report

      • Zac in reply to Zac says:

        I did know that. What’s weird to me is that I didn’t pick up on them being brothers despite reading most posts and comments on this site on a near-daily basis for years now (I still remember the halcyon days when Freddie deBoer and Barrett Brown were regulars here). Maybe it’s the fact that I’m usually a lurker rather than actively commenting here. Most of you guys are much, much smarter than I am so I usually don’t feel like I have anything worthwhile to add to the conversations around here, although I do find the discussions here to be marvelously entertaining and thought-provoking. Honestly, I think the only thing that’s got me posting so much (for me) today and yesterday is that I’m whacked out of my skull on Percocet while I wait for an abdominal infection to subside to I can have some surgery early next week.Report

      • Zac in reply to Zac says:

        The above rambling post brought to you by this week’s sponsor, Oxycodone.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Zac says:

        Most of you guys are much, much smarter than I am

        Don’t believe the hype!

        And good luck with the surgery; hope all goes well.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Zac says:

        @zac Dude, ouch!!!! Good luck with the surgery.

        If I might make a request, please let us know afterwards how it went. You don’t comment enough (for me anyway; I like your comments lot), and if you don’t let us know I will actually worry.Report

      • Zac in reply to Zac says:

        Ramblin’ Comment Part II (Electric Boogaloo?):

        Thanks for the well-wishing (is that how you say that? It doesn’t look right). I have a g-tube scar from infancy due to being born 8 weeks premature (and many of my organs not working as a result), and apparently developed a fistula in my stomach directly behind the scar recently; it started causing me insane pain on Monday afternoon. I went into the hospital where after 10 hours of tests and waiting (mostly waiting) they discharged me with a Vicodin scrip and scheduled a surgical consult for a week out. On Friday I was taking a dump and all of a sudden blood and pus and gastric juices started pouring out of the scar; now I’m on Augmentin and Percocet until the inflammation goes down (in the meantime I’m having to drain out more blood and pus). If all goes according to plan, they’ll slice out the infected bit and fix me up early next week.

        As for the lack of comments; the irony is that if we were talking in person, I might be able to engage at some of you guys’ level, but for some reason when I try to translate that into a written comment, I get all worked up and make some asinine remark I later regret. Much of the time, I read a post, start putting a comment together in my head, and then read someone else’s comment and think “Shit, that’s the more articulate version of what I was going to say.” But I would like to participate around here a little more, because this is one of my favorite sites and lurking just isn’t as satisfying as fully participating in a community.Report

      • Zac in reply to Zac says:

        @james-hanley : You say don’t believe the hype, but c’mon…you guys are all professionals (professors, lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc.) with actual certificates on your walls and whatnot. I’m just some 27-year-old punk with a high school education (although I am back in school now about to finish up a pharm tech certification, but that’s not quite the same thing, IMO). The idea that I’m on you guys’ level, at least to me, is a little laughable. I mean, I’m a decently smart guy, but I’m no professor, dude.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Zac says:

        @zac , check it out, dude. I drive a truck for a living. I’m sitting in a truck stop at this very moment. Not only do I comment frequently (whether I have any idea what I’m talking about or not), but I’ve had two guest posts published plus a comment rescue (not that I’m keeping track or anything…).

        Granted, I have a college degree, but still it’s not as if I’m exactly a subject matter expert on much of anything. And my musings have generally been received quite respectfully. Seriously, jump in, the water’s fine!Report

      • Zac in reply to Zac says:

        @road-scholar Honestly, I think my main problem is that when I’m speaking with others in person, I can be almost irritatingly calm, but when I write a comment about some issue I feel strongly about, I get all worked up about it so by the end of the comment I’ve gone straight to Crazyville. Forex, if it’s a post about the financial crisis, I’ll start off thinking “I should say something about how it would be better if we took X action or implemented Y regulations”, but by the time I’m done writing the post, it’s saying things like “We ought to take Lloyd Blankfein, Dick Fuld, and the rest of those motherfishers who shot our economy in the face, and nationally broadcast their mass crucifixion on the National Mall, as a warning to future generations.” Then I re-read the comment and think to myself that if somebody else posted this, I’d think ‘God, what an asshole’ even as I find myself still agreeing with it. So I delete it without posting, because I feel like comments of that nature are exactly the opposite of the point of this place.

        That being said, I will try harder to get a handle on my inner raging asshole and try to post more productive things, because one of the things on my bucket list is to one day either make a well-received guest post here or participate in one of those League video chat thingamajigs.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Zac says:


        While you have to be intelligent about something to be a college prof, there are any number of people out there who have as much native intelligence as the average Ph.D. but followed a different route in life. And anyone who’s put a lot of time into learning anything I haven’t studied surely has something to teach me.

        But if you dislike what you end up writing, that’s understandable. Believe it or not, it’s not uncommon for me to write out a lengthy comment, edit it, then just delete it instead of posting. And then there are the many times I wish I had. 😉Report

      • Zac in reply to Zac says:

        Well, I do appreciate the encouragement, really I do. I tried my hand at a non-spleen-venting comment at the (current) bottom of the comments; hopefully that will spur at least a little conversation, if only because I’d find it odd if I’m the only one who enjoys things “across the spectrum” of culture, as it were.Report

      • Zac in reply to Zac says:

        I think part of my apprehension as well is that I’m not as good of a writer as most of you, even if maybe I’m not any dumber (or at least it feels that way to me).

        Sorry, I don’t know how this sub-thread turned into some kind of weird therapy session for me. I blame the Oxycodone.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Zac says:

        . I blame the Oxycodone.

        You and Rush Limbaugh. 😉Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Zac says:


        I think part of my apprehension as well is that I’m not as good of a writer as most of you,

        I think most people are both better and worse writers than they think they are. Also, practice makes one better, so you might as well, if that interests you. Also, do you have your own blog? Having mine has helped me improve my writing and my confidence online.Report

  17. Saul DeGraw says:


    Re: Heavy Metal.

    One of the first CDs I bought was Metallica’s Ride the Lightening. I was also big into Ozzy in 8th grade but moved to alternative/punk rock pretty quickly. I did not get into Swedish or Norwegian Black Metal. I still like Zeppelin but a lot of heavy metal and a lot of punk rock is generally too loud for me. I don’t like going to Zeitgeist in SF (my guess is that this place was around when you were in SF) because the music is blasted way too loudly and I can’t hear anyone talk.Report

    • As I’ve said above, it’s the loudness of music–any music–that keeps me away from venues where it’s played loud. I actually like what little heavy metal I’ve encountered. (I tend to know only the “popular” metal that gets filtered down to my oldies radio station…..I’m sure there’s other stuff that connoisseurs know.)Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

      Good. And do you scold people who only listen to classical, telling them they should struggle through Master of Puppets?

      Look, I’m not arguing against high-brow works as well, although by no means are all of them actually worthwhile. But despite your update here, you’ve hit this theme before, and each time you come across as a pretentious coastal sneering at the rubes wandering around in cultural flyover country.

      Maybe try telling us why you like something without pushing down something else to lift up your stuff?Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to James Hanley says:

        Okay. I was being snobby I admit it and this was wrong.

        Point taken.

        Sorry. When I am upset or depressed about other things, I tend to let my inner-snob run free. Perhaps I know it will cause a lash out and then I can just focus on that instead of what is depressing me (which is usually a long term project).Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to James Hanley says:

        @saul-degraw If it makes you feel any better, I’m about to put up a post that is 10 times as snobby and, I’m pretty sure, will piss off everyone at OT whose name is not “Tod Kelly.”Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        I’m fairly sure most of the people Saul is arguing against or whose tastes or openness to new things he’s critiquing are themselves coastals. He’s responding to cultural critics who get published nationally – usually coastal – and presumably any number of people he encounters in everyday life: given Saul’s life, very likely to be coastals. I think this comment likely reflects a pre-exiting axe, not to say hangup, that @james-hanley has to grind more than it reflects things actually in @saul-degraw ‘s writing.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to James Hanley says:


        So you are finally going to publish that l’etat c’est moi essay? 🙂Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Perhaps @michael-drew is speculating baselessly. Perhaps he drank the wrong flavor of coffee this morning. Perhaps he is grouchy because he hasn’t had a bowel movement in days. Perhaps he intends to hunt me down and beat me with a copy of gravity’s rainbow. Perhaps we ought not make perhapses for which we have nothing resembling evidence.Report

      • veronica dire in reply to James Hanley says:

        @michael-drew — Well, @james-hanley said “cultural flyover country,” which I took more as a metaphor and less as a literal bit of geography.

        And @saul-degraw , look, you cannot say “I don’t mean to be snobby…” and then go on to say some snobby thing. It does not work, for it is a transparent rhetorical trick that folks have long grown used to, and the snobbery that follows is plain to see.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        It’s just not remotely the case that we shouldn’t offer perhapses. Thinking involves conjecture. And I believe i do have fairly sound basis for the speculation I do here, even though it is,by all means, speculation. I don’t make any claims about the quality of evidence there is to believe it, but I think there is ample contextual reason to speculate as I did there. I could be wrong! (Perhaps “I’m pretty sure” was stronger than I ought to have gone, but… whatever. It’s a fair expression of my assessment of the relevant likelihoods here.)

        What I don’t believe there is (though others can of course differ) is evidence or contextual reason to infer geographic animus in Saul’s motivations in critiquing the attitudes he critiques here. So we are both offering perhaps that we think are right, but that are just speculation. And that’s 100% okay.

        @veronica-dire Based on demonstrated past regional animosity related to literal geographic regions, ad well as concern with same in others, my operating conclusion in that james is concerned with Saul’s attitudes about people in literal flyover country at least in addition to if not exclusive of a figurative understanding of that term. James frequently expressed open disdain for the South and for the East himself.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Veronica read me correctly.

        Another swing and a miss, Michael.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        Well, I don’t know what cultural flyover country is if it’s not pretty much flyover country, even after being told it’s not in fact flyover country. So I’m not going to worry too much about having thought that cultural flyover country is the cultural preferences of people in flyover country, especially given the user’s established preoccupation with geographic regional identifications, attitudes and animosities. That’s on the speaker.Report

      • Well, I don’t know what cultural flyover country is if it’s not pretty much flyover country, even after being told it’s not in fact flyover country.

        Take a map, block off the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). The rest of it is “cultural flyover” country. Yeah, lots of it is within 100 miles of the areas you’ve marked off, but it’s on the other side of the urban/rural divide. Much of California’s Central Valley; outstate NY; Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Not just the traditional geographical flyover areas.

        This is another example of the urban/rural divide that I harp on regularly.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        I think that also pretty much describes regular old flyover country. The whole concept is, after all, essentially cultural.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Drew, your attempts to divine my motivations are always laughably inept, but they also have something of a creepy stalker vibe.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        You are always mistaken in identifying my attempts to understand your meanings as attempts to divine your motivations. I don’t care why you say what you say or think what you think, but I do care about what thoughts are behind what you say. None of us expresses ourselves exactly, it’s impossible. We all necessarily do this to each other when we try to communicate.

        And, yes, I have begun to keep track of some of your tendencies, the way you have long done to many of us.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        That, but I’d also argue that cultural flyover country exists within those metropolises, as well. The masses of people in New York, Boston, L.A., San Francisco, as well as in Chicago, St. Louis and Denver, are more likely to read Clancy than Pynchon. That’s what I was, perhaps not successfully, trying to hint at. Veronica got the metaphor, but I don’t know if anyone else did.

        What I find ironic in Saul’s essay is that he’s a liberal who regularly expresses concern–the sincerity of which I do not question–about the working classes, but those same people mostly live in this metaphorical cultural flyover country.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Be my guest, but given how poorly you read my comments, I’m not optimistic about your prospects for publishing your findings.Report

      • @james-hanley
        That’s a valid point, although (to use where I live as an example) those people in Denver and its suburbs are still paying the dedicated sales tax to support the art museum, the ballet, the symphony, live stage productions of all sorts, etc. A sales tax approved by a majority of voters in each of the counties where it’s levied. I admit that I’m like most of the people and don’t go to the art museum or a live performance very often, but it’s available if they want it. Most kids will get exposed to some of it at least once by school field trips. I’ve never heard a parent complain, “Why are they wasting money taking my kid to the art museum?” My daughter will never be a classical music fan per se, but the field trip to Boettcher Hall and the introduction to the orchestra that it provided made her aware that that whole world exists, as well as still noticing the role of orchestral music as support in so many movies ten years later.

        Once you get outside the 100-mile radius, even the opportunity largely disappears.Report

  18. Zac says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I kinda feel like the whole divide between high, low and middle culture is largely academic. I like Game of Thrones (the show, not the tedious-ass books) but I’m also reading (and loving) Gravity’s Rainbow. I like Chopin but I also like Madvillain. I think it’s entirely possible to have tastes across the “spectrum”, so to speak, and I do wonder if Saul’s experience with this has more to do with where he lives and with whom he associates.

    That being said, I do think Saul’s point is strongest when he says that few people seem to have the discipline to sit through things like a 40-60 minute orchestral piece, and I too am saddened by folks who seemingly refuse to break themselves out of their genre ghettos. I partially attribute this to a kind of “learned ADD” caused by most people shifting to reading much more short-form than long-form writing with the rise of popular blogs like the Dish, although I don’t know if there’s actually anything to that or if it’s just my perception. The rise of “tl;dr” and Twitter, in my darker moments, makes me think that most long-form writing is not long for this world, and will soon seem as archaic as hand-written letters. By the same token, I suspect the same thing happened with music; tons of kids these days listen to single tracks they’ve downloaded but don’t listen to albums end to end (which in turn has given rise to most albums being incoherent and a little slapdash; I’m reminded of a 10-years-on retrospective on Pitchfork about Kid A, where the author said something to the effect of “When we first heard Kid A, we thought we were hearing the future, but I realize now that we were hearing the past, the dying gasp of the album as an art form”). Give that most of them can’t make it through a 40-60 minute album comprised of music they ostensibly *do* like, I have my doubts that you could get most of them to sit still long enough to listen to classical concert of the same or greater length.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Zac says:

      Uh, yeah, that’s as good a comment as any others on this page.

      I’ve been wondering about the distinction between high brow and low (or at least middle) brow, too. I compared Tom Clancy and Thomas Pynchon above. I don’t think there’s much doubt about that distinction. But what about Cormac McCarthy? He’s not, I don’t think, fully appreciated as a high brow writer by the literati because of his subject matter ( although some fully appreciate him), and the only person I’ve ever had a good conversation with about him is a Marine Leiutenant. But his Border Trilogy, and Blood Meridian, require effort to work through.

      What about Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels? I find they have deeper insight into the nature of men than any number of “more serious” authors. Or LeCarre’s spy novels, which have so much to say about bureaucracy, about the banality of international conflict, and about the effect on the human soul of being caught up in the game even after one recognizes its emptiness.

      Meanwhile I find F. Scott Fitzgerald both easy to read, and not very interesting or deep, yet he’s considered high brow. Right now I’m reading Forester’s Hornblower novels, and while they’re much more adult than I had expected, they’re still very much adventure novels. But Forester–author of African Queen–is high brow, right? Or isn’t he?

      I don’t really know. I can’t tell where the dividing line is.Report

      • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

        If The Crossing isn’t literature, I don’t know what is.

        One thing Sam has right about art is that the canon has been defined and populated by rich white folk for a long time, and the thing about this fight is that it seems to be between rich white folk about whether it’s OK to like stuff that’s not in the rich white folk canon or at least the next best thing, the NYRB. Yawn. If high art isn’t boring, the folks who think this is a fight worth having certainly are.

        Oh, the other thing Sam has about art is that people like what people like, and trying to convince adults to like other stuff by any means other than, say, recommending some stuff you think they might like and telling them why, without putting down what they already like, you’re probably going to fail.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        What about LeCarre? What about True Grit, or the Searchers? Those don’t require “struggle,”* but they’re all, to my mind, very deep. Or The River Why, or even more so, A River Runs Through It, which is one of my favorite books.

        Not that there’s anything wrong with a book you have to struggle through–I’ve read Crime and Punishment several times, and managed to struggle through Durrell’s bewildering The Black Book, but by that standard, none of the above are great. And yet I keep returning to them, over and over.
        *Well, sometimes LeCarre is a struggle, but that’s just because he’s got such a dismally English view of marriage.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to James Hanley says:

        The dividing lines between low, middle, and high brow can get blurry at times. I’d argue that most book series like Aubrey/Maturin fall into the low to high middle brow areas. They might possess some deep insights into human nature but the use of language is often non-experimental and the focus is more on the plot rather than the theme and characterization. LeCarre is a middle brow author for similar reasons, focus on plot and non-experimental use of language. Cormac McCarthy is leaning towards high brow at the very least.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        If you don’t think LeCarre and O’Brian are heavily into characterization, I wonder if you’ve read them? And LeCarre is very much into theme (O’Brian, being historical fiction, theme is less of an element).

        And that “experimental use of language” bit. That’s where you’re losing me. You seem to come close to suggesting that not being experimental with language disqualifies a work/author from being high-brow.

        And there’s the rub, I think, for Saul’s thesis. The more rarified your standards for defining high brow, the less justification there is for being critical that more people don’t attempt it. You push the line out there to where even highly accomplished works of literature don’t qualify, intentionally limiting it to a very small core of difficult and envelope-pushing works, works that are intentionally designed for an elite, rather than the masses. To then critique the masses for not reading them is a bit of a nasty game, then, right?

        (To a certain extent I’m conflating what you and your brother have written here, and I’m aware of that. I’m not saying you are necessarily taking his position, or that he would necessarily draw the line where you do. But he does speak explicitly of works that are more challenging, works that by definition have less mass appeal, and then critiques the masses for not finding them appealing. That is what I have trouble with, rather than with where we actually draw the boundaries.)Report

      • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

        Having just read and re-read a bunch of Le Carre, I have actually been contemplating where he fits a lot. His novels involve elaborate, carefully worked plots, and are deeply character focused, at least the ones I’ve read. They’re full of psychological, political, and at times social and cultural insights that make them both novels of their time and, at least temporally, somewhat transcendent. I think that’s what literature is. Plus, he has moments of real beauty in his prose. He may be Conrad or Cooper, but he writes great novels, not just great spy novels.

        It’s been a very long time since I read True Grit.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        He may be Conrad

        I agree.


      • Glyph in reply to James Hanley says:

        “Having just read and re-read”

        So I was wondering where Chris finds the time for all this reading, then I remembered that he doesn’t have three small children at home.

        I miss reading.

        Tell me it gets better, parents. Please. My to-read stack just keeps growing.Report

      • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

        See, I cannot write anything on my phone. Yesterday, Crocodile Tears, today he may be Conrad. As Conrad is pretty much my favorite novelist, I’m not going to say he is Conrad!

        And Glyph, it does get better, particularly when they’re teenagers. So in like 15 years, you’re going to be reading like a fiend. And you’ll be looking at your teenager over the top of some strange sci fi novel and thinking, “where has the time gone?” Hell, I’ve even started going out again pretty regularly. It’s like I’m 22 all over again, only sleepier.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        He may be Conrad or Cooper, but he writes great novels, not just great spy novels.

        Who’s the second “he” there? Does the “but” imply that that he, whoever he is, writes great novels not just great spy novels unlike the others in the sentence, who don’t write great novels, only great spy novels? Or should the “but” maybe just be an “in that”, i.e. “[LeCarre] may be Conrad or Cooper, [in that] he writes great novels, not just great spy novels.”

        I think a key point of distinction is that Conrad and Cooper wrote at least lasting and literary, if not great, novels that were not at all spy novels. David Cornwell is clearly perfectly happy being thought of as a great spy novelist, since he consciously confines himself to the genre. If you confine yourself to a popular genre, no matter how well you do it you’re going to be known as a genre writer not a literary novelist even if in fact you’re a literary novelist in the genre. I’m a huge LeCarre fan, but it’s clear to me why he’s not thought of as literary fiction, but instead literary spy fiction, even though Conrad’s and Cooper’s spy fiction is thought of as great literature alongside the rest of their work. I don’t really see a lot of point in putting much energy into comparing the prose itself to try to bring him up to their level. It’s not going to happen. He’s a genre writer while they’re not, and that’s that. It may be stupid, but that’s how it works.

        To me, if you can’t roll with clear (and to be honest imo sensible, but obviously ymmv) realities about how the perceptions of different types of literature relate to each other, I don’t really see the point in wrestling with the subject. These categories aren’t inherent to literature, they’re products of communities of readers and how those communities relate to each other. You’re not going change that with the force of argument or make perfect sense of it through analyzing works or even authors in isolation. You just kind of have to take the categories as they are out there in the world – or just ignore them, not worry about them, and read what you like. IMO.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        …Ah. May not be Conrad or Cooper.

        I’d say he writes great novels that are, significantly for how we’ll categorize him, all (or very very nearly all) spy novels.Report

      • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

        Michael, that sentence should read, “He is no Conrad or Cooper, but he writes great novels, not just great spy novels.” Everything from the “but” on is meant to counter the impression that he is just a spy novelist (with the negative connotations that tends to carry, as evidenced by some of the discussion we’ve had about him on this blog).Report

      • zic in reply to James Hanley says:

        @chris & @glyph

        What Chris forgets to mention here is that there’s some chance what you’ll be reading in between now and 15 is the stuff your kids are reading; it really is like a second journey through literary childhood. If you’re really lucky, they’ll keep sharing the reading their doing as they progress through college, too.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        What Chris and Zic said. Be optimistic–it’s a great time when you can discuss with your kid what you and s/he are mutually reading.Report

      • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

        Zic is correct. In fact, I’ve read everything my son’s read for his English classes for the last few years, so that we can talk about it. I’ve read some cool stuff that I definitely would not have read otherwise (like this).Report

      • zic in reply to James Hanley says:

        Nice one, @chris

        My favorites are probably War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges and Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salmon Rushdie.

        But even before, there were the Harry Potter books, Holes, and going way back to beginning to read, My Father’s Dragon, which I think would be useful in teaching how to plot stories for any age group.Report

      • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

        My son liked Ship Breaker so much that we went and met the author when he was at a book festival here, and got a signed copy of the sequel, Drowned Cities.Report

      • @james-hanley

        And that “experimental use of language” bit. That’s where you’re losing me. You seem to come close to suggesting that not being experimental with language disqualifies a work/author from being high-brow.

        comment post past hanley and lee (introibo ad altare interneti!) so f’rover signons with nojohnlecarrecormacmacarthybutmozartsymphonicrhapsodiclenozzedifigarobravo! in the unrevision new post no edit no upvotes no downvotes but coming around to chris&glyph writing theReport

      • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

        Talk of the experimental use of language in literature makes me think of this priceless Amazon review.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        Cooper? The only one who comes to mind is James Fenimore, about whom Mark Twain said everything that’s required.Report

      • Chris in reply to James Hanley says:

        I remember reading that Twain essay when we read The Deerslayer in high school. As I recall, high school students enjoyed the essay significantly more than they enjoyed The Deerslayer.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        Also, if we’re talking about literary spy stories, let’s not omit Graham Greene (The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, etc.)Report

    • Road Scholar in reply to Zac says:

      Album rock… Um, yeah. The best of it should really be seen as the equivalent of an extended orchestral piece in several movements. For instance, at this very moment I’m rockin out to Supertramp’s Crime of the Century. One of my favorites, but of course tastes vary. But the point is the thing hangs together as one piece of art, thematically and stylistically. Is it lower brow for also inspiring a bit of sing-a-long or air drumming?

      When it comes to music in particular, it seems to me that artists work with the technology that’s available. They assembled these big orchestras for a reason; given the lack of modern amplification that was how they made it LOUD. If you magically transported some of these classical masters to the here and now would they be competing against John Williams composing movie scores? Or would they be working in rock or jazz, perhaps?

      It’s the genre snobbery that puts me off.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Road Scholar says:

        BTW, genre snobbery seems like it’s primarily an affliction of critics and posing consumers. Actual artists freely express admiration for the work of artists in other genres.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Road Scholar says:

        This is true.

        On the other hand, artists have a better developed sense of what requires more skill in their medium. Michael Chabon and John Grisham, I have read, both enjoy one anther’s books. But neither of them is under the illusion that the books of each are equal, from the viewpoint of a writer. The reason they know this when someone who rarely reads doesn’t has everything to do with what they know that the guy who rarely reads doesn’t.

        It doesn’t mean that Grisham’s writing is inherently bad, or that it isn’t enjoyable, or that you shouldn’t read it, or even that other writer’s are “better” than Grisham. It just means that, where artists themselves are concerned, all things are not equally impressive achievements.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Road Scholar says:

        I had dinner tonight with some co-workers. My host and I were talking about the music we remember and love from college (for me, the 70s, for him, the 80s.) One we agreed on was Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. He’d mentioned that he didn’t like classical music, so of course (being several glasses of wine in) I had to point out that WYWH is very classical in being a theme and variations. He got a very interesting look on his face.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Road Scholar says:

        That might be one of the best hook stories for classical I’ve ever heard. Bravo.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Zac says:

      I’m not really sure if the Internet is to blame for what you term learned ADD. The trend of people staying with their genres or not being able to appreciate forty to sixty minutes of uninterrupted music started much earlier than the Internet. A former acquaintance thought that the American trend for learned ADD goes back to vaudeville, which had very disjointed and mixed format. I’m not really sure how many people liked concept albums during their hay-day.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the quintessential concept album, holds the record for consecutive weeks on the Billboard Top 100 album chart at, IIRC, 749. That’s like, 14 1/2 years. The earliest example that immediately comes to mind is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to LeeEsq says:

        [Finishing comment (damn phone…)] During the classic rock era, a great deal of the albums, at least the best–and very popular, too–were concept albums to varying degrees. That was when high tech was the LP played on a decent turntable. It was expected that you would typically listen to at least a whole side at a time. Not from any artistic conceit, but just because, prior to music going digital in the ’80s, it was something of a PITA to play a single song, apart from 45’s on a jukebox.

        I blame the iPod. (Damn you, Stevie Jobs!)Report

      • scott the mediocre in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @road-scholar – Seems like for the most part, the concept album was much more a British, Canadian, and occasionally German thing (I suppose Pet Sounds would be the great counterexample?). Of course, so was prog in general, but it seems like concept albums were even more concentrated among the Anglos. I wonder why that might be?Report

      • Glyph in reply to LeeEsq says:


        “Seems like for the most part, the concept album was much more a British, Canadian, and occasionally German thing (I suppose Pet Sounds would be the great counterexample?). Of course, so was prog in general, but it seems like concept albums were even more concentrated among the Anglos. I wonder why that might be?”

        Completely uninformed speculation to follow, but there’s a thread in American (and Aussie) culture that rejects anything deemed too “full of itself” (tall poppy syndrome), and often concept albums and rock operas (and overt, unrepentant theatricality in general) skirt too close to that for us Yanks to ever be totally comfortable with them. It’s just not our native tongue. We want “authentic”.

        I love Elvis, and I love David Bowie; but one could only ever be American, and one could only ever be English.

        I’m a pretty big Anglophile, while also loving American rock music, and I will accept (even expect and appreciate) levels of ego and pretension from my English artists, that I frown upon in my American ones.

        For example, in the 80’s the Bunnymen were making epic, sweeping orchestral music, and giving these overblown messianic quotes about how they’d made the best album of all time – and I loved it. Awesome. Nothing like a British ego. Hilarious, and the music’s almost good enough to justify it.

        Now, a band like Arcade Fire lifts a lot of the Bunnymen’s sonic elements – even going so far as to cover their songs, with Ian McCulloch – and I think they are annoying, pretentious gits, even though they are nominally “humble”.

        Please understand I’m not attempting to justify the view. Only saying that I think it’s there. We want our artists to be hardworking everyday folks like us.

        Even though that’s as much a pose as anything.

        Who’s the English Bruce Springsteen? Is there one? Billy Bragg, maybe, but even he’s probably a little too “academic” for most Americans.Report

      • Chris in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Two words: (The) Flaming Lips!Report

      • Glyph in reply to LeeEsq says:

        The Lips only get away with it because of their lo-fi punky origins, and knowing junk/trash aesthetic, crossed with a willful childlike approach.

        It’s not rock opera capital-T Theatah (they pretend); it’s kids putting on a play.

        Ever see “Christmas on Mars”, their sci-fi movie, filmed in Coyne’s backyard with obviously homemade sets made of castoff stuff they scrounged?

        The Lips understand that it’s important for an American artist to see/show the seams, to undercut pretense.

        If they have a three-foot-tall styrofoam Stonehenge on stage, it’s intentional, not an embarrassing accident while they were shooting for something more convincing.

        And even if you don’t buy my analysis, the Lips are nowhere near as well-known/respected as Floyd et al.Report

      • Chris in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Makes sense. Plus, no one should be as well known as Floyd.Report

      • Chris in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Concept albums, it should be noted, are not uncommon in hip hop. But pretentiousness and over-the-topness specifically have never been frowned upon in rap. “You have a Lamborghini? Then I’ll get a McLaren!”Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Kolohe says:

      Did anyone else see LL Cool J, Hugh Jackman & T.I. rap “Rock Island” from Music Man last night? It was insane.Report

      • scott the mediocre in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Of course. It was a cute bit, though I don’t think it rose to the level of “insane”. Please tell me more why you think it was that good? BTW, I liked Neil Patrick Harris kissing his husband as part of the Hedwig number, but I would have liked a bit more [gender bending] play between him and Lena Hall in the number.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I just thought it was ingenious lifting of an artifact from one cultural space and an unexpectedly comfortable placing of it into a quite remote (in the American context) cultural space. It was “insane” (unexpected) how natural it felt; whether it was “that good” or not I haven’t and will not make an assertion about.Report

  19. Damon says:

    I think you make a good point about the interweb being better utilized for pop culture…but really, why all this interest in what other people like? We each like what we like. Nuff said.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Damon says:

      I agree with this, but if we read Saul charitably I think we find it to be consonant with his basic plea.

      Saul says that he has at times felt scolded for his artistic preferences. In turn, he does a bit of scolding in return, but the motivation for it appears to run like this: “Perhaps if you gave what you view as my hoity-toity stuff a bot more of an honest shot, you wouldn’t find as much reason to laugh or categorize me for what I like.”

      Perhaps if people did not make Saul feel like they think he’s pretentious and elitist for liking what he likes, he would still come down on them for not giving “so-called elitist or high culture” more of a chance. But perhaps he wouldn’t. Perhaps his attitude would be exactly like Damon’s. What’s clear is that he indeed has at times been called names, made to feel like he doesn’t belong or like he in some way is thought to be intentionally alienating people simply by maintaining his preferences in art.

      In other words, he doesn’t feel that people have taken the attitude with him that Damon prescribes. His response seems to be, Well, if that’s how you’re going to treat me due to my preferences, then, in this world of ever more democratic access to various kinds of art, indeed I will think a bit less of you if you’re going to do that just out of prejudice and without making a real attempt to understand what I might see in what I like.

      The main caution I’d offer to Saul is to remember that access to elite art has hardly been completely democratized. IMO it’s very different if you’re dealing with someone who belittles you for your preferences who could have as much access to the art you prefer if they would simply apply the brain and legpower to it and is simply choosing not to than it is if you’re dealing with someone who genuinely has not been fortunate enough to yet gain the means to do the exploration you’re calling on those with access to do.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Saul is upset that the mainstream is negatively stereotyping him due to his preferences in art?

        Welcome to the club that sci-fi fans have been living in since, um, forever.Report

  20. Jim Heffman says:

    I’m also reminded of the many articles about how so-and-so did a blind taste test and people totally liked cheap wine better than expensive wine therefore expensive wine is a scam.Report

  21. Kim says:

    Proper scolding comes in Review Form.
    Please submit more to Mindless Diversions.Report