Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, August 21, 2005


The pop crit explosion of the last 20 or so years -- is there an equivalent for romance novels? 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 (assuming that classical is elitist; some classical people say, yes, of course classical is elitist; other classical types say Get Thee Behind Me Satan when they sniff elitism in the room; me, I think elitism is a silly state of mind, which is a very silly and elitist thing for me to think [*see footnote]).

My question is, do the pop partisans (and I'm one) believe the same of literature? Are romance novels as worthy (or more worthy) of study than Keats or Virginia Woolf? (I know there are intellectual defenses of mystery novels, but I haven't seen one for romance novels.)

Sociologically, I say yes, sure, worthy of study (not *more* worthy; same with pop music). Aesthetically, I'm not there, but I'd be open to reading an argument in favor.

I mention it after noticing that most pop-music-partisan writers have "high art" sensibilities in literature, including me. I read a lot more poetry than fiction; if I read, say, three novels a year, one may be a mystery or thriller which I immediately forget and two may be something from the mainstream literature courses, Austen or Wharton or Woolf or Forster, say.

* [footnote] Elitism-shmelitism. The public classical-listening ritual presents itself as middle-to-upper-class even though anybody can catch some for free on PBS and the tickets for a live show aren't any higher than a football game. The middle-to-upper-class vibe of the classical show echoes the milieu of the original patrons of most of the classical repertoire, starting with the sons of Bach. (The Great Bach wrote primarily for the church.)

Any listening experience takes an act of imagination. To relate to a piece of music, one imagines oneself in the milieu where the music makes social sense. Rhythms have a lot to do with body carriage; the beat of a song indicates how one should stand, walk, move. Just as a lot of people can't imagine themselves into a classical vibe, so a lot of people can't imagine themselves into a hip hop vibe. The beats don't speak to them. (I have limited reggae vibe-ability.)

Being able to imagine myself into a Haydn vibe doesn't make me an 18th century royalist in any meaningful sense, just as being able to imagine myself into a blues vibe does not make me a humanistic egalitarian. For most of his life Haydn was a domestic servant in the house of a hereditary nobleman; in that house the composer had less status than the cook.

It's silly and elitist for me to think that elitism is silly because: 1) it's an attempt to opt out of the question; and 2) by calling elitism silly, I'm putting on airs, implying that I think I'm better than those silly old elitists. Guilty as self-charged: I think elitism is silly, and I'm a silly elitist.
Very interesting post. You might want to check out this post at 2Blowhards on Jackie Collins's novels. The question raised in the comments section is: why do culturally literate people easily accept pop albums (by the Beatles and Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, say) as "art" but balk when it comes to pop novels (by Elmore Leonard or Stephen King, etc.).
Thanks for the compliment and the tip. Michael Blowhard makes me want to read Jackie Collins.
I have some ideas on this - I'll put 'em on the blog when I get a chance. You're half right, half wrong, I think.
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