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yer aesfetic elitism, innit?


There's an interesting piece by Ben Hoyle in yesterday's Times. Here's the start and finish; there's quite a lot in the middle that's well worth reading too.

Edinburgh arts boss Jonathan Mills claims UK cultural diet is pap

The trivialisation of British life has left millions of people subsisting on a cultural diet of “white bread without the crusts”, according to one of the country’s most influential arts leaders.

While a large minority is taking advantage of a golden age for the arts, Jonathan Mills, the director of the Edinburgh International Festival , said that many Britons were missing out on “incredible experiences” because of an entrenched suspicion of anything serious, highbrow or experimental. Coherent ideas and intellectual rigour had lost their value for much of society, he argued, to be replaced with a consumer emphasis on simplification and entertainment for its own sake, whether it be through football, pop music, the media or comfortingly familiar classical works.

Sportsmen such as David Beckham were more widely respected than leading scientists and great artists, partly because we could no longer be bothered to understand what the scientists and artists did, Mr Mills suggested.

“We have gone so far in wanting everything to be babyfood and pre-digested that we have actually missed out,” he said.

“I believe [this is] at the source of many people’s frustrations. I’m quite happy to stand up and be counted and say enough of this trivialisation of all that is great about this country. I just wish there were more political leaders who had the guts to say the same.”
[. . .]

Mr Mills said that he was determined to shed the festival’s “stuffy, out of touch” reputation and did not mind upsetting the odd traditionalist. He also said that he would not make any concessions to popular tastes even if it meant that the international festival continued to be seen as elitist compared with the Fringe.

“Elitist is the most extraordinarily abused word in the English language,” he said. “Do we ever use the word elite for the people who are truly elite — the David Beckhams of this world who are paid vast, vast fortunes for what is basically entertainment?

“I reject the idea that I’m elitist. What I am, absolutely, is a person who believes in the power of ideas and the power of creativity to transform people’s lives. What I do in this job is search that out, and some of it is well known and some of it is not known.”

A spokesman for the Fringe Society said: “There are over 2,000 shows in this year’s programme and there is something for everyone, from pure escapism to challenging new writing.”


I can remember a time not all that many decades ago when I'd have been inclined (though not overwhelmingly) to agree with some of Mills' critics, whose views are expressed in the omitted longish central portion of Hoyle's piece; at the time I was all for "the people's culture", and would loudly champion genre literature (say) over its snootier equivalents. (Music was somehow a little different.)

However, things have changed a bit since then. Of course, genre literature is one of those things: pick up a 1970s skiffy paperback and its modern counterpart and the contrast is all too plain to see. The modern paperback is likely to be a whole lot prettier, of course -- at least in the US, where the standard paperback format today is of the svelte semi-trade variety as opposed to the yellow-edged, tiny-fonted, collapsibly bound and rankly odoured monstrosities of old. I'm tempted to say the content has likewise hugely improved, and indeed I was halfway through typing a sentence to this effect when I remembered that probably the majority of the skiffy bought in this country consists of endless series of movie/tv/comix/game tie-ins and "sequels by other hand".

We'll not talk about what has happened to urban fantasy, once a favourite subgenre of mine and now a roiling mass of extraordinarily derivative series and soft porn that I've come simply to avoid. (Again, I generalize: I know there's some good stuff in there, but the proportion seems pretty small and I can't face vomiting my way through the 95% crud to get to the 5% I might enjoy. No: to be honest, I'd probably not enjoy the 5%, either, because at the back of my mind the whole time would be lurking the miasma of the 95%, poisoning my reading experience.) (Oh, hey, and look: I've talked a bit about what's happened to urban fantasy after all.)

And look at the transformations the pulp thriller has undergone. Put a John D. MacDonald alongside one of James Patterson's co-authorships and the contrast is, well, downright embarrassing. The works of people like MacDonald, Cain, Thompson and of course the other, differently capitalized Macdonald read today like material for college literature courses . . . if only college students were lucky enough to be prescribed them. Those writers -- and countless like them -- didn't feel they had to assume their readers were so dimwitted as to have difficulty with paragraphs more than a couple of sentences long, or chapters that sprawled onto a fourth page.

(Another big difference is that a lot of the great hardboiled thrillers went straight into mass market paperback. This week's James Patterson novels are in hardback with full-colour jackets and embossed lettering and will set you back $20 or so, even after discount.)

Maybe I'm being a bit unfair. For every Patterson, for every excruciatingly run-out-of-steam Kellerman or Cornwell, for every inept Johansen (and a billion Johansen clones) . . . for every fifty godawful if-there's-a-lower-common-denominator-we'll-find-it thrillers responsible for the book-shaped dents in my bathroom wall you can pick up a Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine or an Ian Rankin book and realize that, yes, progress has been made in the thriller field: these are novels that can be set beside the best that modern literary fiction offers and not found wanting, which isn't something you could claim of, say, Agatha Christie. Even so, I think it's fair to say that what was once the most lowbrow end of pulp fiction has now become the median.

(As an aside, I'm currently reading Donna Tartt's The Little Friend, one of those novels that I so much want to read that, rather than devour them instantly on acquisition, I keep on the shelf for months or years until exactly the right moment comes along. As anticipated, I'm adoring it: it's a book full of prose to relish and savour. Yet it's also slow-moving [so far] and there are 555 biggish pages of smallish print. I could imagine many genre readers saying it could easily have done in half that length, and they'd be right . . . but also most egregiously wrong. It's a book not intended to offer instant gratification.)

Within skiffy, as intimated above, the picture's slightly different. Ignoring the tie-ins and their like, I think it almost certainly true, depending on definitions, that the quality of the average skiffy novel is substantially higher than it used to be four or five decades ago. But at the same time it seems to me there's emerged a certain complacent self-censorship within the field. Cast your mind back to the mid/late 1960s and you'll recall how, once Mike Moorcock and the New Worlds writers had blazed the trail, skiffy was approaching the world with the attitude that there was nothing which speculative literature could not do. Whole new fields of subject matter opened up, as did the portals to a near-infinite plethora of stylistic experimentation. Some of the results were astonishingly turgid and conceptually surprisingly barren; yet the attitude itself was something golden and wonderful and precious. When cyberpunk came along there was a scent of that same feeling . . . but then everyone started churning out cyberpunk novels and, while arguably some from the later generations might be better cyberpunk novels, they weren't challenging reader (or writer) sensibilities in the same -- or, for the most part, any -- way.

And there seems to me today a resistance within the genre to changing the situation, to the notion that skiffy should be throwing open the gates to all of yesterday's forbidden playgrounds. I've been on editorial panels galore at conventions where the first answer from genre editors to the usual tedious question "What are y'all looking for?" is of the order: "You gotta grab us by the throat in the first paragraph. You don't do that, buster, you're trash."

It seems to me no surprise, in light of this, that almost all the best skiffy/fantasy novels I've read in the past decade or so have been published on mainstream not genre lists, and that quite a few of them have been in translation. In a sense I've got nothing against instant hooks; yet the very fact that they seem to have become a requirement has made them a complete turn-off for me: if I pick up a novel with a wonderful grab-you-by-the-balls opening sentence I'm quite likely to put it back down again on the grounds that the novel itself is probably puerile. (I was reading an excellent essay somewhere recently which put forward the case that, while the writing of skiffy may have become far more sophisticated than in days of yore, many aspects like characterization, motivations and indeed plot often remain stuck in the Boys' Own Adventure Story days. I'm still thinking about whether I 100% agree. If I can remember where I saw this essay I'll post a link.)

But the other important thing to change in this very personal little equation is me. As I've become ever boringer, older and, um, fartier I suppose, I find I have less and less patience with the easy-entertainment side of culture. Yes, of course, I can still get enormous pleasure from movies like Alien and The Long Kiss Goodnight, but I don't want a constant diet of them: like cheesecake, they're a wonderful self-indulgence once in a while but I get bored of them far quicker than ever I used to. Now I want a main diet of things with subtitles, or stuff that leaves me thinking "What the heck was that all about?", or old black-and-whiters with Barbara Stanwyck in them and a plot that lacks explosions, spiffy CGI or a happy ending. And the analogous yearning is there in my approach to fiction, too: I quite like the instant-gratification junk some of the time, but I grow weary of it very much more readily than I used to. These days it's the light novel that tends to get set aside because I've got bored with it while I plough on doggedly through the stuff that demands more effort.

And my guess is that it's probably more because of this latter change -- the change in my own perspective -- that I read Hoyle's article and let out something of a cheer for Jonathan Mills. I wouldn't say I've become an ideological elitist, but I've gravitated to a position where I think elitism in literature and the arts is a damn' fine thing, and that we ought to have a bit more of it.

I've been waffling on here a bit aimlessly. Pam has just appeared and told me it's effing well supper time, and she's right -- in fact, it's way past. I'll leave this uncorrected for the moment and maybe polish it a bit later.


Comments

( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
southernweirdo
Aug. 15th, 2009 04:03 am (UTC)
"Elitism" is fine and has a place, but we must always keep in mind that what we value will not always mirror what others value. One man's Proust is another man's Gogol, after all.

Great post!
realthog
Aug. 15th, 2009 01:51 pm (UTC)

we must always keep in mind that what we value will not always mirror what others value

I think that's a separate issue, to be honest. The division I'm talking about is really one between (a) things in favour of whose quality someone can present a rational, coherent argument and (b) things about which people can only say "I like it". Of course there are a few transcendent works of art whose effect is such that it's difficult to think beyond response (b), but in general I assume you'll see the distinction I'm pointing at.
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realthog
Aug. 15th, 2009 01:19 pm (UTC)

*sigh*
(no subject) - sarcobatus - Aug. 18th, 2009 05:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
thisplacehere
Aug. 15th, 2009 10:14 am (UTC)
Agreed absolutely. Elitism gives itself a bad name when it tries to dismiss entire categories of cultural artefact. What it should be about is championing the best of everything, wherever it comes from -- and I think there's a slow-but-sure move in that direction now (e.g. an Elastic Press book winning a major literary award).

I've become less tolerant towards mediocre books, particularly now I have less time to read than I used to. It's changed the way I review: these days, I don't want to write about books that do mediocre things with middling success; I want to tell people about great books that do interesting things. And, by being that bit more selective, I've read so many excellent books this year.

Did you see the brouhaha that came about when Adam Roberts took the Hugo shortlists to task for being -- as he saw them -- mediocre? He got accused of elitism by a number of people, and some didn't seem to like the idea of reading anything challenging. Which is fine, if that's what they want. But... all the best books I've read this year were challenging in their different ways, and enormous fun to read. There's no way I can be satisfied with a diet of entertaining-but-ordinary fiction after that.
realthog
Aug. 15th, 2009 01:42 pm (UTC)

Elitism gives itself a bad name when it tries to dismiss entire categories of cultural artefact.

Yes, but those "entire categories of cultural artefact" -- in this instance, genres -- have to (a) aspire to the elite and (b) at the very least not be resistant to the aspiration. I think skiffy at the moment is, by and large and outside the small presses, being hugely resistant to the kind of experiment that's a necessary part of the aspiration: there are plenty of skiffy novels around that I'd regard as good, solid examples of the genre, but damn' few that show much promise to blast my socks off. And, when something radical comes along (immediately my head empties of examples!) it's as if the "professionals" within the genre shrivel up like a snail on contact with salt. This may be an American thing: I was about to say that a reviewer like yourself, who casts the net wide, would be a bit of an exception and then I realized that, of course, in the UK there are plenty of eclectic reviewers. Here there are far fewer, I think, so that someone like Jeff VanderMeer is especially valuable.

Did you see the brouhaha that came about when Adam Roberts took the Hugo shortlists to task for being -- as he saw them -- mediocre?

Yes. I both tended to agree with him and didn't, on first reading his piece, think he was saying anything very controversial or, to be blunt, new: it's a criticism that's been leveled at many Hugo lists over the past couple of decades at least. So I was startled by the subsequent furore!

Usually, even in years when the Hugo shortlists are a bit drab (as no one sensible could doubt they sometimes are), they're compensated for by the World Fantasy Awards, which almost always have a pleasing independence -- even an idiosyncracy. It's very depressing that this year's WFA list, despite one or two shafts of sunlight (Kathy Sedia's antho Paper Cities is a noteworthy example), is so grey and same-old same-old. I'd been vaguely thinking of trying to make it to WFC, even though it's on the far side of the continent, but when I saw the WFA list my heart just plummeted and I abandoned the notion; if that's the best a supposedly innovative genre can muster up for the year, who can be bothered with it? Such a pity. Let's hope next year's judges are a bit more imaginative.

[/curmudgeonly]
(no subject) - thisplacehere - Aug. 15th, 2009 06:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
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pompe
Aug. 15th, 2009 10:52 pm (UTC)
This is so very much what I feel too. In a sense, I think it is about growing up a little, but when I think about it I think it is about a personality which demands some sort of new challenges. I mean, there's a type of elitism which is conservative and inward-looking and a different type of elitism which is about being challenged by things requiring more effort than a lot of people can take, and the two are frequently confused.
realthog
Aug. 16th, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC)

there's a type of elitism which is conservative and inward-looking and a different type of elitism which is about being challenged by things requiring more effort than a lot of people can take, and the two are frequently confused.

That's an extremely perceptive observation, and it's clarified my thinking considerably. Many thanks for it.
(no subject) - sarcobatus - Aug. 18th, 2009 04:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
fledgist
Aug. 16th, 2009 12:53 am (UTC)
What's wrong with quality, high standards, and so on? With wanting to read stuff worth reading, that draws you in, makes you want to figure out the plot, understand the characters and people, und so weiter? There's a reason why Little Women is still in print, why Kim is the best boy's adventure story ever written, huzoor, why audiences still turn out to see Antigone, why La ci darem la mano still pulls at the heart strings after a quarter of a millennium.

I can still recall the excitement I felt when I encountered The Lord of the Rings for the first time; and the horror I felt that I could only take out one volume a week from the library. There's good stuff being written now, but you have to wad through a huge bog to find stuff that generates the kind of excitement that LoTR created in my seventeen-year-old mind.
realthog
Aug. 16th, 2009 06:08 pm (UTC)

I can still recall the excitement I felt when I encountered The Lord of the Rings for the first time

The problem is that too many readers (and writers) seem to think the way to recapture that thrill is via something that's just like LotR -- hence the endless retreads. Some of which may be better than LotR (just as new cars can be better than old ones because the technology has advanced) but all of which miss the point that the thrill of reading LotR came precisely because there wasn't (when you and I read the book) anything else around that was like it.

The thrill can be reproduced, of course, through books that have as a common factor with LotR not a fantasyworld or wizards or a good-vs-evil Last Battle or any of those things, but the fact that they're themselves rather than derivatives of other books.

Not sure if I'm making myself clear here. If we each had a pint of Troegs in our mitts and a table between us to thump, it'd all be much more coherent, honest.

(no subject) - fledgist - Aug. 16th, 2009 06:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
thisplacehere
Aug. 18th, 2009 08:35 am (UTC)
You might be interested Carlos Ruis Zafon's response to Mills: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/specials/edinburgh/article6798465.ece

Also, spot the typo in the sidebar...
thisplacehere
Aug. 18th, 2009 08:42 am (UTC)
Not to mention the typo in my comment! 'You might be interested in...'
realthog
Aug. 18th, 2009 04:16 pm (UTC)

To be honest, I think Zafon's saying very much the same sort of thing as Mills is: that it's really worth while to reduce the amount of high-cholesterol fast food in your diet. The only real difference is that Mills has the honesty to describe his own as an elitist approach whereas Zafon, less defensibly, believes his tack to be "the people's".

(His claim that there's no distinction between high art and low art is patent tosh, and may be a clumsiness of translation; there obviously is a distinction. What he may mean is that there's no clear demarcation line, and I imagine anyone of sense would agree with him on that.)

spot the typo in the sidebar

Either I'm unusually dozy this morning or they've corrected it!
(no subject) - realthog - Aug. 18th, 2009 04:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thisplacehere - Aug. 18th, 2009 06:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
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sarcobatus
Aug. 18th, 2009 04:45 pm (UTC)
Thank you. :-)

realthog
Aug. 18th, 2009 04:50 pm (UTC)

It's my pleasure, ma'am!

Er, for what?
(no subject) - sarcobatus - Aug. 18th, 2009 05:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
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