by carl wilson

Flowers of Romance?

John S. at Utopian Turtletop poses a good question: "Pop music critics posit that pop music is as worthy of study as classical or jazz or any other music. Some pin that worthiness on sociological grounds, some on aesthetic. Some say that pop is more worthy of study than music of the past, on grounds of contemporaneity and anti-elitism ... My question is, do the pop partisans (and I'm one) believe the same of literature?"

He specifically asks "why not romance novels?" That's a bit restrictive - it's kind of like saying, "why not novelty songs," which get some critical attention but not much, and more on the sociological end, just like romance writing (a massive subject in feminist criticism, by the way).

Pop lit. gets more respect than you may think - crime and science fiction have cred, and Stephen King gets namechecked by everybody as a good writer now. But John's right that drugstore tomes, the thrillers and family epics and Jackie Collinses, generally go begging when it comes to critical respect. I have a handful of ideas. [ ... yes, yes, go on?...]

1. Listening to a pop song takes three minutes, while an 800-page bestseller takes at least a day - so people disinclined to like them don't give them a chance.

2. Pop albums have obvious visceral qualities that "art" music doesn't, while it's not so obvious to me that John Grisham is that much more exciting story and suspense wise than a lot of more literary writers.

3. Critics are writers, so we’re bigger prigs about literary qualities. We tend to think the question of whether music is good or bad is more subjective than whether a piece of writing is good or bad. If we were musicians, would we think differently? Perhaps. Or perhaps music has a different kind of range.

4. What’s more, quite possibly the artistic standards in technical terms in pop music are more stringent than they are in pop literature. I can’t prove this, at the moment, but I certainly think that if you ask a musician about a pop hit, they’re more likely to say it’s well crafted than a writer will about a bestselling potboiler.

5. Music is better positioned to ravish you against your will. As I always say, you can close your eyes but you can't close your ears. You can accidentally hear Justin Timberlake in your car - you don’t accidentally read The Da Vinci Code.

6. And finally: Literature is a more marginal art in the culture market. Which makes it all the more intensely partisan - when the spoils are scarce, everyone becomes less willing to concede anything to the other party. ("Fine! You've got the money, but you can't have the kudos!") I don’t see any equivalent to the indie artist who is happy not to be in the top echelons of the music biz, so she can pursue her artistic goals with a sustainable mid-sized audience and dodge the potential toll pop stardom can exact. Every author would be happy to have a bestseller - because the benefits are big and the risks minimal.

Not trying to justify the non-love, just sourcing it some. I find the idea of a culture where the hottest critics wrote essays on the latest romance or thriller a, well, romantic thrill, thanks to the pace some pop critics have set. (Hasn't John Leonard done this, once in a while?) But for reasons 1-6, I'm not waiting up.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 25 at 11:33 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)

 

COMMENTS

Very interesting blog!

Posted by Gaby on September 16, 2005 07:55 PM

 

 

The reasons you've listed all seem plausible, but what if we're _justified_ in not according comparable attention and respect to pop literature?

Can't we say that popular literature can in principle be just as valuable--but as a matter of fact, it just so happens that it's not so? There is no Beatles of literature. When one shows up, we'll give them the attention they deserve.

This would require a good explanation of why pop lit hasn't been as artistically successful as popular music. Writers with great talent and artistic ambition tend to avoid the realm of popular literature--and can do so, since the world of "high" lit is still vital enough to support them. That's not so much the case in music. The audience for music in the classical and experimental traditions is so miniscule that it's more of a historical curiosity than a living artistic form. In other words, musicians who want to have a profound impact upon the culture have the choice of pop music or nothing. Consequently the most talented and artistically ambitious musicians are likely to end up making pop music.

Posted by Yan on August 29, 2005 08:59 AM

 

 

Some discussion of mystery novels' (partial) emergence as a serious literary form is a running them in Tom Nolan's fine biography of Ross Macdonald.

Posted by Carl Z. on August 28, 2005 10:14 PM

 

 

. . . though it occurs to me that I may be confusedly confusing things, because I'm not sure that there's not a distinction to be made between Romance novels and Bodice Rippers -- I don't know! Either way, I do like that name.

Posted by John S. on August 27, 2005 05:45 PM

 

 

Carl,

if it's not too late to register a quibble, I would agree with you that limiting my original question to Romance novels is too narrow, but I'm not sure that novelty songs is the best analogy. Maybe MOR heartthrob pop like Michael Bolton?

Also want to register my fondness for the genre's alternate name: the Bodice Ripper.

Posted by John S. on August 27, 2005 05:43 PM

 

 

Great, thought-provoking post (and responses). I often wonder if it isn't futile or foolhardy to compare different forms of artistic expression (books music movies etc), but hey, it's too tempting to resist.

Some quick jumbled thoughts that I'd love to see someone call me on or debunk altogether...

Unless you're referring strictly to the Billboard top 100 or whatever, "pop music" is a pretty catholic term, arguably encompassing everything from Ashlee Simpson to Sun Ra at his skronkiest. (Isn't there some quotation about the term "rock and roll" to the effect that anything that refers to both Elvis Presley and the Velvet Underground is meaningless?)

Whereas when we talk about popular fiction we tend to mean very specific genres -- mystery, sci-fi, romance, historical novel, soldier-of-fortune saga, etc. -- that proceed from very specific sets of narrative strategies and formulae.

So there's just more room to play around and find interesting stuff when you're talking about "pop music." Not that a lot of it isn't formulaic and predictable -- and not that all the stuff that IS formulaic and predictable is necessarily any the worse for it -- but it seems to me almost anything goes.

Even with a more limited definition of pop, say, by keeping within the Billboard top 100, there's way more variety than there is in the latest mystery bestseller list or whatever. (Or at least, there used to be. My sense is that it's less so these days, but I haven't been following the charts that closely so I could be out to lunch on that.) There are all kinds of smash hits of yesteryear that seem like weird, unlikely hits. I don't think the same is true of romance novels.

I absolutely agree with the point that the fact that people writing about music are, after all, writers affects things disproportionately. (As a teenager in the 1980s I used to wonder why the sensitive-guy-heroes in teen movies were always "the most promising student in senior English class." Then I clued in as to where movie scripts come from.) It seems very possible to me that if we lack the technical vocabulary to explain authoritatively why something is musically better or worse than something else, we respond more instinctively and viscerally when it comes to music.

I've also long been fascinated by the question of craft in music versus writing. I love a lot of music that's primitive, raw , and even deliberately amateurish in technical terms. (Lately, for example, I can't stop listening to the Tall Dwarfs' Hello Cruel World.) But in writing -- well, fiction, anyway -- craft is everything, or almost everything. I can't think of a literary equivalent to the Tall Dwarfs (anyone?), and in fact I find it hard to imagine digging such a writer if there was one.

There's Kerouac, I suppose, but I've never been able to get into him. Maybe the closest analogue (in my own reading experience) is Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, which is powerful and compelling despite being clangingly poorly written. And not poorly written because of some amateurism aesthetic, but simply because of incompetence.

Maybe that visceral if-it-ain't-got-that-swing appeal just plain counts for more in music than it does in words. Or maybe in music it's a more inexhaustible kind of pleasure.

After all, the literary equivalent to the headrush that a great pop song gives you would be the what-happens-next urgency you feel as you're turning the pages of a really suspenseful novel. But if reading is important to you and you read widely and broadly (and I'm shamelessly generalizing here), that what-happens-next pleasure isn't really sustainable unless there's something else going on as well; there are diminishing returns every time. Whereas in pop music there are always more pure and simple headrushes to be had.

Posted by DW on August 26, 2005 03:34 PM

 

 

Provocative post. A few thoughts:

1) Canonical lit has received a much greater, er, reading in our education system than canonical music. Thanks to Miss Grundy's English class, readers of every inclination are a little more comfortable with the terms of discussion for literature than for classical, jazz, etc (sorry Mr. Flutesnoot). But we still want to talk about music, so pop music is almost the default choice... which leads me to:

2) To turn Carl's point about the 800-page investment on its head, when we do focus on literature, we may want to spend a little more time finding out what's really worth reading, i.e. what reaches the lofty plateau of literature. I'm not sure I buy Carl's guess that writers are unlikely to recognize genre fiction as well-crafted. The best of the romance or horror genres do get props from everyone (newspaper and magazine reviewers are usually writers themselves, after all)... but for critics to devote much attention to the bulk of those genres (or to the bulk of pop music) would be to miss the point: they're designed to fit a formula, so there's not much there to talk about. Those pushing the boundaries of genre, or conforming to them in the most interesting ways, do get critical praise (thank Vishnu, or I wouldn't know what to read or listen to on the beach).

Harper's ran a great piece in their Readings section a few months ago excerpting the instructions for writers of Hardy Boys mysteries. I can't imagine, having read that, that any serious critic could say anything of value about the books themselves as literature.... but it was still an interesting article, which brings me to:

3) Anyone who's ever taken a class on pop lit or pop music will rapidly realize that they're spending an awful lot of time discussing what makes works popular or relevant in their historical context, and not so much on what makes them worthwhile, musically or literarily speaking.

On the music side, those who rhapsodize about the use of polyrhythms in, say, OK Computer, or who add more than an adjective or two about the thumpin-ness of a particular bass line, risk sounding a little ridiculous, because that's rarely the point or intent of the music.

On the literary side, the fictional lit that receives the most critical attention these days is increasingly not that of elegant, psychologically perceptive writers such as Margaret Atwood or Saul Bellow, but those who best incorporate pop elements from our culture: David Foster Wallace, Bret Easton Ellis, Michael Chabon (as noted), etc. For better or worse, literature is becoming increasingly pop, de-emphasizing the human condition in favour of reflecting our culture back on ourselves in an interesting way. (For a beautiful elegy on the old guard, read Louis Menand's essay on Edmund Wilson in the New Yorker a few weeks back, available at http://www.newyorker.com/critics/atlarge/?050808crat_atlarge .) With this blurring of the lines, the best pop novels, like the best pop music, are unquestionably literature/art, and thus worthy of critical attention.

Which doesn't lead to:

4) I don't know if John S. mentioned this in his original post, but the real pop lit these days isn't genre fiction, but non-fiction -- the Gladwell books, "On Bullshit", etc. I don't know if that says anything about this debate, but with respect to Carl's point about music being better positioned to take you down against your will, I'd argue that the growing popularity of non-fiction is making it harder and harder to avoid phrases like "the tipping point." The crossover may be this: who cares if I understand the phrase or the Timberlake song? They're both catchy and worth a listen, even if they're arguably forgettable enough not to deserve anywhere near the level of critical attention they get.

Posted by jk on August 26, 2005 12:40 PM

 

 

Carl,
I'd add this too: both pop music and pop lit attempt to engage the senses. Good pop music makes you bop your head and good pop lit either plays to a salacious side (romance novels) or the bizarre imagination (sci fi/fantasy). However, pop music is just pop music if all it does is make us bop our head. The same with pop lit. I'd venture a guess that JR Tolkien is revered because he did more than just create an imaginative world.
And so, sure, a good crafter pop novel or song is nice. But pop music more often, I think, uses that sensation to engage our intellect too.
Also, people have been giving a lot of cred to comics and sci fi novels (Michael Chabon for example).

Posted by whb on August 26, 2005 08:55 AM

 

 

Good points, Carl.

I'm guessing that best-selling potboilers take more craft than you're guessing.

This post at 2Blowhards
http://www.2blowhards.com/archives/002196.html#002196
is all about Jackie Collins's excellent craft. Michael Blowhard agrees with you about John Grisham. I read one Grisham book. Not as exciting as Sara Paretsky, and much more sour.

Posted by John S. on August 26, 2005 05:19 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson