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The more it stays the same

The more literary and cultural history I read, the more I find exactly the same patterns recurring. One such pattern is the way that exponents of what is perceived to be high art look down on what is perceived to be low. But those identifications, high and low, are constantly changing, what is low one day is high the next; and yet the pattern never changes.

Donald Sassoon, in his The Culture of the Europeans, notes that in the 18th century the “avalanche of novels upset the intelligentsia”, because novels attracted an inferior audience, they were read by women and the impressionable and the lower class. Serious, elevated people read non-fiction. As Sassoon puts it:

Novels had ‘feminine’ characteristics: they were subjective, emotional and passive, while high culture was ‘masculine’, that is objective, ironic and ‘in control’.

In other words, the high culture is marked by cleverness, the low culture is for consumers.

Here, the divide is between the novel and non-fiction, but you encounter exactly the same arguments, often couched in the same ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, consumer and clever, terms about fantastic literature v realist literature; realist literature v modernist (and later post-modernist) literature; genre fiction v mainstream fiction; television (and later computer games) v reading; computer games v television; and so on and so on and so on.

In every case the new kid on the block is characterised as ‘feminine’ and consumerist; while the established form is unquestioned because it is ‘masculine’ and clever. Even today, long after its tide might be said to have receded, I am still seeing essays that praise post-modern fiction for its ‘cleverness’. And we never learn that we are running along exactly the same track in exactly the same way for the umpteenth time.

4 thoughts on “The more it stays the same

  1. Paul, touché, et mes complements. Myself, I nod my most vigorously at what you have to say about the brainless criticism of postmodern fiction. I’ve spent a good half my writing life trying to cure the kneejerk reaction against newer novelistic forms, far too often dismissed as “effete” and “out of touch.”

  2. You’re probably right and have thought a lot more about this than I have, but I’m going to say that your observation has more to do with what people choose to enjoy and enthrone in those works than the works themselves i.e. I’m not impressed by someone who likes Gravity’s Rainbow or Paul Celan simply because of the occasional smug moment or the bizarre systems the writer constructs. Not that one can’t be interested because of those things or be entertained by those characteristics. I’m not here to praise all of the highbrow shenanigans but I think there’s a higher chance of that team taking the art seriously in a way that’s more compelling than what so much entertainment cannot bring.

    That last bit’s too sentimental but I hope that makes sense. Thanks for posting!

    1. Nick, yes, this is certainly a comment about response rather than the work itself. I get irritated with people who criticize, for example, postmodern fiction simply because it is clever (they are only talking about their own lack of cleverness); but I get equally annoyed with those people who praise postmodern fiction simply because it is clever. Neither of these are responding to the work. But it is a very common response.

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