Showing posts with label high-brow vs. low-brow. Show all posts
Showing posts with label high-brow vs. low-brow. Show all posts

14 January 2015

Genre & Its Discontents

by David Edgerley Gates


There was a recent newspaper article on the wire services - courtesy of the Houston CHRONICLE - about video games now being treated seriously as an academic subject. Not simply gaming design, which is a career path, but themes and narrative, studying the art of the medium. The first thing that struck me was there's sure to be pushback, from more conservative circles, a sense that this is frivolous, or another sign of the impending doom of Western Civilization.

What's the world coming to, that we seriously look into the origin story of Batman, for example, and the dark graphics of Bob Kane, or the influence of MAD Magazine on American culture? There was a time, not that long ago, when comics were seen as a malign presence, poisoning youth. (See SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, published in 1954, which led to mutterings in Congress.) The comic book industry got ahead of the curve with the so-called Comics Code, akin to the Hays Office in the movie biz, which self-censored content. These days, Archie Andrews takes a bullet and dies in a pool of blood. What's next, Nancy Drew comes out to her dad as a lesbian dominatrix, or the Hardy Boys cook meth in their garage? The mind boggles.

This goes back to an older division of the spoils, low-brow vs. high-brow. Or the related question, does commercial success compromise literary integrity? ULYSSES got
tied up in court for a dozen years, remember, over whether it was obscene. Its publication in the U.S. led, for better or worse, not just to LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER seeing the light, but MY GUN IS QUICK. Spillane's books were wildly successful, and struck a deep chord, but the critics took him over the coals, the brutal sadomasochism, the perceived contempt for women, the casual Red-baiting. Not that Mickey gave a rat's ass. He wrote a book in three months, and spent the other nine months fishing off the beach.
The issue is their staying power. Who would you rather read, Spillane or Melville? No disrespect to MOBY-DICK, but most of us are gonna go with the more lurid and accessible.


G.K. Chesterton once remarked that any informed person knows the difference between literature and printed matter. (Chesterton, of course, wrote the Father Brown mysteries, so you couldn't call him a snob.) Genre writing - gothics, Westerns, thrillers, SF and fantasy - has for a long time been condescended to. So have novels themselves, for that matter. Early on, they were thought of as unserious, books for women, who were frivolous by nature. Maybe it's the comfort zone. There's a shapeliness to fiction, unlike life, say. Fiction of itself is a construct, a pattern, a design. Life is messy, and unresolved. Stories are rounded and complete, and usually have a satisfying punchline, mystery stories in particular. I don't think of this as a weakness. There's something to be said for the familiar. That doesn't mean it's paint-by-numbers, or unoriginal. You don't let it get stale. You write faster and smarter. You don't settle for less, although sometimes less is more. And if it ain't broke, don't fix it.


We'll leave the last word with Spillane. (Spoiler ahead.) I, THE JURY ends with Mike Hammer and the killer alone. They have a sexual history together. She tries working her wiles on him yet again. Hammer isn't having any. He shoots her in the belly. She sinks to her knees. "How could you?" she asks him tearfully, holding in her stomach, blood leaking through her fingers.

Mike looks down at her. "It was easy," he says.

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