The WSJ has a very good and perhaps provocative article about popular culture, Elmore Leonard, and some TV series. Some will agree with the premise; others might be pig-biting mad. But a good read. Thoughts? (Hope I got the link in there correctly.) Lee Lamothe

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Well, there are the established criteria. The novel was not my field. Poetry was. But I know that a lot of books and articles have been written on novels individually and as a genre. All tend to analyze what aspects work together to make a masterpiece.

Leaving aside the literary novel for a moment, it could be said that genre novels also have such criteria, and while some of these may shift for different periods (intricate puzzles areout at the moment in favor of a darker atmosphere), we could judge a novel safely by characterization or pacing or theme, among others.

Yes, criteria. They do still exist. 

Some folks on this forum are reacting very defensively to Mr. Teachout's article, and I can sort of understand that. Seems to me he  was reacting to what he saw as an over-the-top elevation of this one writer, who was very influential and much loved. 

Yet above all  he seemed to be saying that we miss out on a lot when we value popular culture works above all else, by  neglecting to consider all the other criteria.    If you have strong criteria, you have, in effect, a sort of "scale."  If you've never read anything better than Leonard, how can you measure his work? How can you even rate it?  It helps to have read a LOT when you are setting standards. Good writing is just the beginning.

It's difficult to compare different kinds of art---music, poetry, novels, painting---sort of like comparing apples and oranges. But there are standards by which all work can be judged. Technique, complexity, content.  

For instance, I happen to love the music of Paul Simon. (Just one example---I also love The Beatles).  I think Simon is one of the best songwriters of our time, and he ranks right up there, in my estimation, with the great songwriters of the past---Schubert, for instance, whose work I also love. So when I "judge" Paul Simon, or compare him favorably, I have some "basis" for comparison. My own, perhaps, but based on a lifetime of listening. Both musicians spoke to an age. The music is complex, beautiful, passionate, poignant---it has content. Because Simon's music meets the same criteria as Schubert's, for me, I do call it art. High art?  Maybe not quite as high as Bach. :) 

About Breaking Bad I will say----I enjoyed it.  Great entertainment. Good TV.  Not great art.

But of course, as IJ says,  "I know what I like" is hard to argue with.

"What is art?"  One of those endless arguments that used to (and still does I assume, among the young who think they have plenty of time to waste) preoccupy artistes of every stripe, sitting for hours getting drunk and discussing  Art, instead of actually making any! 

My primary objection to Teachout's article had to do with blaming the media for the elevation of popular culture to the status of art, then taking the artists to task for it. It is the artist's responsibility to create the best work of which he or she is capable; it is not the artist's responsibility if the work is not considered "art," as even "experts" can argue about the definition of art till all the bars close.

Do we then rest on our laurels when we finish a novel and say, "Well, I did my best?"


I think not.  I don't think I've ever written a book I was completely satisfied with. And I believe I am capable of doing better.

No, but we also can't become better writers than we are just because we want to be. Everyone settles; there's no way around it except to fail better next time.

Heck, if you know what didn't work, you can do it better next time. Of course, we can improve. I grant you that we let books go when they are passable, but we also hope that the next story will give us a chance to do better things with it. I'm totally aware of which books are my best.  Alas, readers don't always agree.

These same complaints were made by people about Alice Munro when she won the Nobel Prize recently - that her work was repetitive, the characters similar and the stories weren't ambitious enough to be high art.

What these critics are really saying, I think, is that they don't think that what happens to these types of characters - mostly not college-educated - doesn't interest them.

Alice Munro and Elmore Leonard both worked over long careers refining the voices of the characters they were interested in - most of the time these characters are under-represented in "literature" and "high art."


I don't think that's true of the late 19th and 20th centuries.  Think Steinbeck for example.


As for not caring for an author's characters because they are uneducated:  it's the author's fault if he/she fails to make us care.

Yes, I agree it's changed since Steinbeck.

As for the author making us care, I was talking about the critical reception. I think in the case of Alice Munro and Elmore Leonard there's no doubt the readers of their books care about the characters.  This doesn't come up directly in the criticisms but the article that started this thread thinks there's a difference between 'high art' and 'pop culture' but, of course, makes no effort to define either one.

And what I've started to notice is that quite often when something is dismissed as not 'high art' or not 'literature' the characters usually have some things in common...

I'm not following this about characters too well. Let's face it, certain genre novels specialize in type-cast characters.  That would include the early versions of the down-and-out P.I. and the sultry blondes that cross his threshold. My feeling is that those who have been most down-trodden by society are often the very people celebrated by 20th century literary novelists. Social agendas were near and dear to Dreiser, Steinbeck, Faulkner and others. Meanwhile, romance novels (surely not high art) preferred lords and ladies in their cast. 

From Lee Lamothe. Well, good. It was after Ms Parker's "grumbling" post recently that I thought I'd urinate on the hornet's nest -- I think that was another evening I was ... pleasantly drunk and needed a break from actually writing.

It seemed to have worked, though: more than two dozen buzzing comments and stinging rants. So: I done good, methinks. My own thoughts -- as a visual artist who's had three group shows this year, to the detriment of my writing -- is that I go with a forgotten Parisian who said: anything an artist does is art. I think Mr. Leonard was a great writer, but not an artistic writer. I think Mr. Leonard was a great entertainer, but not at all an artist. Much as some people on the screen are great movie stars -- de Caprio, etc. -- they aren't actual actors in the thespian sense of creating roles that live on through future generations; they're popcorn sellers. Unlike early DeNiro, early Pacino, early Brando, etc. I mean, who could among us with a mind that functions could prefer a Gwyneth Paltrow to a Katherine Hepburn?

In the event, glad I could generate all the back-and-forth.

Having just had a new book released (no, not BSP, here; I can't figure out how to promote it on this site anyway) and having the next few going straight up as ebooks, I'll present a question under a new thread in a day or two.


Well, the title of the WSJ article is "Pop Culture's Limits." Seems to me Teachout (the author) is not so much slamming Elmore Leonard, or even Popular Culture, but rather the sad fact that only perhaps ten percent of the US population gives a damn about culture other than Pop Culture. The Pop Culture society does not go to art museums, classical music concerts, operas, ballet, etc, and consequently the media, as TT points out in the article, no longer cover these events.

And what about literature? Well, we all know that book reviews are a disappearing phenomenon. I was a bit disappointed though that TT did not mention a single living author. (correct me if I missed one). Flannery O'Connor. Tennessee Williams. Alas, even Aaron Copland is dead. Maybe TT only likes "dead people."

I admit to agreeing that American society as a whole has been so completely "dumbed down" by television that "high brow" culture is now restricted to the elite whose parents have money to send them to private school to learn about art and music and literature. The public schools no longer teach these subjects, trust me.

But geez, we can't blame Elmore for that!  I just finished reading Riding the Rap for the third time and it is still breathtaking!


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