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« Coming to Grips with Nietzsche, Part I | Main | Teaching Company Lecture Series on Sale »

November 21, 2003

King vs. Hazzard

Dear Friedrich --

A couple of people have written in asking what I think about the Hazzard vs. King dustup at the National Book Awards. Hey, imagine that: people who mistake me for someone with an interesting opinion. Fools! (You can read about the comments Hazzard and King made here. Terry Teachout was on the awards committee; you can read his accounts here and here.) In case you didn't follow the news: Stephen King, who was receiving an honorary award, urged the audience to give popular fiction more respect, while Shirley Hazzard, the novelist receiving the award for best fiction of the year, delivered a highbrow scolding. But I'm in a mood to indulge my pomposity, so ...

I may be an odd one, but generally speaking I root less for one side or the other in a debate than for the debate itself. I want it to be a good one. (I'm like this even watching sports; I want the game to be a good one far more than I want one side or the other to win.) I want sparks to fly and brains to sharpen. I want to walk away thinking fresh thoughts and noticing new things. Still, in this case, if I absolutely-absolutely, gun-to-my-head had to pick a side, I'd go with King. He's as smart as can be (I've interviewed him a couple of times), he's unquestionably supertalented, and Hazzard makes a prissy case, thereby proving everyone who resents highbrow art correct about its prissiness.

But my real feeling in this case is simple: this is a debate I'm very, very tired of. And I wish it would end. Art vs. business; literary fiction vs. popular fiction ... -- really, what conversation could be more tedious? Haven't the arguments on both sides been made often enough and well enough? And many times already? Why rehearse them again?

The main reason I groan at the debate is that it supplies (IMHO, of course) a lousy picture of how American culture works, let alone what culture more generally is. When I scan the horizon, I see lots of cultures. I see folk cultures, international cultures, regional cultures, popular cultures, pop cultures, commercial cultures, traditional cultures, cutting-edge cultures, and many kinds of high cultures -- and beyond that, lots of individuals leading all kinds of lives, as well as making and enjoying all kinds of things.

Categorizing is a necessary (and inevitable) cognitive exercise, but narrowing this rich vista down to "business vs. art" does a disservice to almost everyone; it also, needless to say, promotes a kneejerk view of business as automatically bad and art as automatically good. (As if the movies could exist as an artform without also being a business.) It also makes me wonder: what sort of person is it who visits the cultural sphere and comes back describing what he saw as "business vs. art"? I'm suspicious of this person; I suspect him of tunnelvision and of projecting an agenda; and I'm pretty sure that I don't like him.

Also (IMHO of course), America's a special case. (For the sake of spiraling off into my self-indulgent rant, I'm dodging the fact here that Hazzard was born an Aussie.) In many of the older Euro countries, the commercial aspect of life is part of some larger idea of culture; "being French" is the point of French life, while "making the money to enjoy being French" is subservient to it. In America, we're a primarily commercial culture; nearly everything here happens in the context of commerce and business -- "being American" is all about getting ahead in an economic sense. You can like or dislike this (I semi-dislike it, semi-like it). You can envy other countries whose cultures seem less shot through with business and money concerns (I do, a bit). But "commerce rules" has been a pretty intransigent feature of American life for a long, long time.

We're a special case too because our commercial culture is so overwhelming that our high culture winds up feeling beleaguered. It flinches; it cowers; it gets on its high horse; it begs for donations -- anything to defend itself against what it conceives of as the evil commercial juggernaut. As a consequence, American high culture is often prone to getting whiney, grandiose, political, and morally accusing -- to carrying on like an adolescent who's always threatening to go on the dole. Perpetually possessed by the vapors, contempo American high culture loses track of what it might have to contribute -- it wants to be loved for itself, not for what it does -- and goes into protest mode instead, thereby rendering itself irrelevant, and thereby driving many who might otherwise be open to it back to commercial culture, where you can at least feel semi-certain of getting a little something for your time and money.

I understand and share the dream of an American high culture; an interest in high culture is a big part of what led me into the media-and-arts life in the first place. And I wish a lot of Americans would get over their rube-ish aversion to exposing themselves to something more subtle and complex than what's generally dished up at them.

At the same time, I understand the rubes too, as well as other people who turn their backs on much of what the high-end art worlds offer. In this country, it takes an awful lot of effort to stay in touch with Culture-with-a-capital-C; popcult is so much more convenient. And is high culture, at least contempo high culture, worth making all that effort for? IMHO, some of it is. But that's me. And still: how much contempo high cult compares to "The Simpsons"? How much 20th century high culture compares to Chuck Berry and Buster Keaton? Commercial culture generates immense amounts of crapola but some dazzling things too; nearly everyone agrees that most of America's real contributions to world culture have come not from our self-consciously high cultures but from our folk and commercial cultures: jazz, rock and roll, hardboiled fiction, movies.

So there we Americans go once again, ping-ponging back and forth. We want the energy, the convenience and oomph, and the accessibility of popular culture -- but sometimes it seems to lack something ... Our art and entertainment appetites get mixed up with our fantasies of stardom and our religious yearnings. And so we may turn to high culture, hoping for something calmer, deeper or more expansive. But often it doesn't deliver. Often, in fact, it's thumbing its nose at us. So it's back once again to commercial culture, where you can feel pretty certain that ya get what ya pay for. But once again we finally feel dissatisfied ...

Back and forth, back and forth -- I find the cycle tedious and wish it would come to an end. There have been moments in American cultural history when stable footing seemed to have been found, and when the manic-depressive thing seemed to relent. This is one reason why I cheer on John LaFarge, big-band jazz, Addison Mizner, '30s romantic comedy movies, the New Urbanism, post-WWII foodie culture. These are classy American artists and achievements that didn't defy the market but instead worked and grew within the commercial framework that is our country. I cherish these moments infinitely more than what might be called National Endowment for the Arts or PBS moments. Besides, when Americans try to bureaucratically (instead of informally) create a noncommercial high-ish culture, we do seem to show an unfortunate knack for letting it get taken over by administrators and political people.

What I'd like to see is many more get-on-with-it, don't-fight-the-monster moments. And I'd like to see our high, folk, low and commercial cultures stop warring with each other. What prevents this from happening more often? My theory (disputable, of course) is that it's largely the fault of the snobs. They may be right to complain about money pressures -- but, heck, we all have to make a living, and we all have to find time for what we love. It's not as if that predicament is going to come to an end. And does anyone really think that there's much likelihood American civ will stop being primarily commercial? Are we willing to hold our cultural breaths 'till that happens?

Why not accept these as inevitable features of American life and get on with having ourselves a thriving and variegated culture? I think one reason that high-end people often find it so hard to let go is that they'd have to give up some cherished fantasies and delusions -- such as, for example, that they represent something more than a niche market. High-end people often like to believe that they represent something potentially transformative. They're an elite; they're enlightened; they have magical powers -- it's part of the vision they're selling, partly to the public but also to themselves. And a few of them may in fact represent such a thing -- but only in some cosmic sense. In a realistic sense, American high culture is a niche market, akin to the market for fine cars, wine, clothes and food. Me, I can't wait till the snobs finally let go of their hysteria and start seeing that "niche market" equals "opportunity," not "humiliation."

For no particular reason -- I'm just feeling patriotic -- here's a stanza of lyrics from Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?":

The night was dark
The sky was blue
Down the alley the icewagon flew
Hit a bump somebody screamed
You shoulda heard just what I seen
Who do you love?

"You shoulda heard just what I seen"? And set to a Bo Diddley beat? Good lord, that's so terrific it brings tears to my eyes. (Here's the complete lyrics to the song.) I wouldn't know what to say to someone who'd argue that Americans shouldn't be proud of the cultural contributions of Bo Diddley. On the other hand, maybe later tonight I'll be in the mood to listen to a CD of music by the high-end New Classicist composer Stefania de Kenessy (buyable here). Who knows? I'll decide when the time comes, and maybe then I'll change my mind. As an artist friend likes to say, "Why do I have to choose one or the other? Why not both?"



posted by Michael at November 21, 2003


Not to overdo the Nietzsche thing, but the Big N does make an excellent point that people who don't feel powerful (and it sounds as if neither King nor Hazzard do, for different reasons) will tend to compensate by indulging in moralistic arguments. Come on, people, let's feel a little more powerful here, and give up on such specious moralizing!

P.S. Bo Diddley is the man.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 21, 2003 03:51 PM

FvB channels Nietzsche! Makes me feel young again.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 21, 2003 03:56 PM

Michael, maybe if our literati stopped shoving 'culture' down our throats folks would be more apt to give it a try. You know, instead of telling us, "This is something you must read." try showing us that literature is a good read.

"What?! Literature as entertainment?! That aint right."

To which I say, all fiction is entertainment. Those who forget that condemn their favorite fiction to oblivion. If they want their favorite stories to last through time it must be sold to new generations, and the only real way to do that is by presenting it as good entertainment.

For Mr. Hazzard may I suggest a good whapping with a rubber chicken, then exposure to popular culture in the form of a high school D&D group.:D (You don't know the depths of my cruelty.:))

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 21, 2003 05:34 PM

Amen to that!

And you're raising another question (which I think Tim Hulsey was raising a few postings ago), which is: if we aren't to some extent forced to give the highbrow stuff a try, how many of us will ever get around to doing so voluntarily? Any thoughts about that? Or worries about it? I guess I worry a little. But maybe it's better to think in terms of exposing people to more nuanced work rather than forcing them to bow down before it, eh? Your thoughts? Anyone's?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 21, 2003 05:45 PM

Increased exposure. We have the bad habit of separating the highbrow stuff from the low and middle brow material. We set literature off as being "Important", and in the doing give the casual customer the impression that literature is something too high above them to be a good source of entertainment.

Then you have the antipathy in the high brow community against literature as entertainment.

Though I suspect it has more to do with tribalism than with anything else. A case of, "This is our fiction, don't you plebes dare touch it."

What could be done? Instead of having fiction divided into separate sections based on 'genre', mix it together. Spenser next to R. A. Salvatore, Dickens on the same shelf as Disch. Teens go from reading about Little Nell to reading about Hammers Slammers. We would get two positive results out of this; 1. The kids would be exposed to a wider range in fiction, 2. It would give high brow elitists conniptions.:)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 21, 2003 06:05 PM

A hard-to-resist plan of attack.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 21, 2003 06:11 PM

Hey, here's a hopeful and sensible sign: Jonathan Yardley praising John D. MacDonald's hero Travis McGee as "one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction -- not crime fiction; fiction, period." Couldn't agree more. It's a good piece.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 21, 2003 06:30 PM

I agree that if literature is good, people will find it. I think the literati would have more success with converts it (a) the literati themselves didn't seem so damn wierd (how many college students have been turned off by a wierd professor?) and (b) the highbrow stuff they were "forced" to read wasn't typically so bad. In the space of one two year period in highschool, I had to read "Billy Budd", "The Crucible" and "A Separate Peace." In college I took a class called "Women in Literature" and had to read Eudora Welty and Sylvia Plath. No Austen, not even Ayn Rand (although not "Atlas Shrugged"!), not even "Jane Eyre." I mean, it's amazing I ever picked up another book.

But don't you think the highbrow crowd wants itself to remain exclusive and inscrutable? It's what makes them feel important. They don't want a lot of people involved---it would mean they might be....ordiary. GASP.

Posted by: annette on November 21, 2003 07:05 PM

The main difference between the literati and rednecks is, the literati get the elbow patches when they buy the jacket.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 21, 2003 07:12 PM

Dumb ol me, I finely saw something that explained and encapsulated the density of your expositions:

"You can like or dislike this (I semi-dislike it, semi-like it)..." Sheesh

One is in fear to ask what you semi-like and semi -dislike about it.

Now, let's see, it's not that certain works are by themselves distressingly highbrow but that the the Commissariat of Enlightenment elevates them to a canonical stature and coerces the unsuspecting and weak minded among us.

And there is notion whistling in the backgorund that we are a comnmercial culture and that doesn't involve coercision and manipulation and let's face it brainwashing. Shit, if we sold Melville and Henry James the way we shill Big Macs and beer and Viagra we'd be a nation of scholars and at least the public discourse would be more interesting and dare I say it, our politics would be more evolved...

And Stephen King—what's his problem? Doesn't get respect? What is it about those prissy high brows that King requires for validation?

Yardley's Second Readings are a great public service and his John D McDonald was dead on. He—Yardley—does buck convention by stepping outside our current cultural moment (read commercial) to focus on writers who are not being serviced by a publicity machine or literary SWAT teams.Just a guy talking about books and writers sans the demoniacal fury of a Harold Bloom or a --------. Cool.

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on November 21, 2003 07:36 PM

"How much 20th century high culture compares to Chuck Berry and Buster Keaton?"

Hell, Buster Keaton and (sometimes) Chuck Berry are American high culture. There isn't any inherent distinction between high and pop culture, American or otherwise (think Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Dickens). Sure, a lot of high culture isn't all that pop, and heaven knows that a lot of pop isn't all that high. But it's the silliest thing in the world to think that it's awful to "elevate" something like The General or Sherlock, Jr. or the The Navigator to high art; what do you mean "elevate"?--these things are high art. So what if these movies also--at one time, though probably no longer--appealed to the masses?

What I say here may suggest that I side with Stephen King over Shirley Hazzard. Hell no. The problem with King--to the extent that I know his work--is that he's a talented hack. Maybe he's "smart as he can be"--Michael, I'll take your word for it--but so am I, at least on my good days, but I'm no artist, literary or otherwise. What separates Stephen King's work from high art isn't his ability to reach a popular audience. Dickens and Shakespeare and the Beatles and, to a somewhat more limited extent, Buster Keaton, were quite popular. What they had that King hasn't got, as far as I've been able to tell, is the ability to get us to perceive anew and to move us in original and sometimes subtle and complex ways.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on November 22, 2003 12:09 AM

Annette -- I think you're onto something. It's their little club, goshdarn it, or so they like to imagine.

Robert -- Did I call something "distressingly highbrow"? I don't think I did. Anyway, how'd you respond to the King/Hazzard brouhaha?

Mike -- I'm puzzled: you seem to claim that there's no difference between high culture and popular culture, but you also seem eager to canonize Chuck Berry and Buster Keaton (nothing if not popular artists, at least in the conventional sense) as high culture.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 22, 2003 12:51 AM

Cultcha wars. Pigeonholes. Blahblahblah.

You say tomahto, I say tomayto.

Still, Travis McGee rulez. (rulz?)

.......what? you can dispute taste?

Posted by: degustibus on November 22, 2003 04:30 AM

I read the link which described the dustup. One more comment....why do people like Shirley Hazzard think that anyone would listen to her opinion about anything when she displays such poor manners in public? If she questions the wisdom of giving an award to Stephen King, then OBVIOUSLY one must question her award. Why not just be gracious? I think King makes a good point. Why are people like her proud of being out of touch with her culture? Maybe the fact that she took ten years to finish this book just means...she's really not that good a writer.

Neil Simon wrote of an encounter with Pauline Kael once, which seems similar:

(They were outside a restaurant waiting for a cab). "She made a half-hearted attempt at a smile and said "I haven't been awfully nice to you over the years, have I?" I made a full-hearted attempt not to smile and said, "No you haven't." She said, "Well, it's hard not to knock you, you keep coming around so often." Then she got in her cab and quite surprisingly flew up into the night sky, as I thought I heard a cackle in the distance....If she had said to me as we waited for the taxi, "I'm sorry, but I just don't like your work," I could have dealt with it. Like grabbing the cab before she did. But her objection to me was that I was prolific, as if had I written fewer films, she would have liked them."

Posted by: annette on November 22, 2003 06:19 AM

Ah, digression seems to rule the day here.

Here's a Philip Roth passage I came across last week (I'd say I was foisting it on the unsuspecting as I have read to every one from my shrink to my canine— but by the end of it they enthusiastically assent to its truth):

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick: you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them: you get them wrong while you're with them and then you get home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of al l perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we all to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we are alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.

As for King vs Hazzard, I cared not a wit about it since I though they were both right (which when you think about what is at issue, is not the contradiction it appears to be)

What I do care about is the fiction choice—setting aside whether the finalists were the five "best" books of the year. Though I liked Boyle's and Spencer's novels and know Wiggins to be an ambitious and compelling writer and I noticed my home town book sage Gail Caldwell had convincing reservations about Hazzar's The Great Fire, the thing of it is that Edward Jone's The Known World was so much a far and away magnificent work, the writing, the breadth of imagination, that I just can not grasp how the NBA judges failed to see that. A younger me would be wailing, "He was robbed He was jobbed." The now me, well, the beat goes on...

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on November 22, 2003 06:53 AM

I own the de Kennessey CD. Great stuff. I read the McGee books when I was in high school, and up until MacDonald's death in 1986. My temperment has changed over the years regarding MacDonald's economics opinions. Where he backed Keynes and Veblen, I back Hayek, Friedman, Von Mises, and Smith!

Posted by: Michael Serafin on November 22, 2003 12:25 PM


I didn't mean to imply that there's no difference between high culture and pop culture. All I meant to argue is that the objects of high culture and pop culture often overlap.

Think of it this way: There's clearly a difference between being an engineer and being a lawyer. But there've been people who were, nonetheless, both.

What I object to is the notion that just because something is pop it can't also be high. Maybe that was the gist of Stephen King's argument and I should have said that I agreed with him in the King/Hazzard dispute, but I took his point to be a bit different: I took him to be saying that the arbiters of literary taste should pay more attention to certain authors just because those authors are popular. That, I think, is just as nonsensical as the idea that pop and high are mutually exclusive. (If Hazzard's claim was that they are, then I might have to say that I disagree with both King and Hazzard.)

Posted by: Mike Kelly on November 22, 2003 12:25 PM

"And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we all to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day?"

Oh dear. I must admit, Roth has produced some...writin'.

Posted by: annette on November 22, 2003 12:27 PM

The short version is this ain't Dodge and there's room enough for the both of'em.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 22, 2003 05:38 PM

Amen, pardner.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 23, 2003 05:58 PM

My fiction shelves , like Kellog's. are not divided by genre.

One thing that occurs-- my scientist friends tend to know art, but my arty friends know little science (exceptions, like Fred Turner or Jonathan Kingdon, noted as such.) Similarly, King reads highbrow-- but does Hazzard read genre?

Raymond Chandler said in an essay somewhere-- I'm paraphrasing-- that there are no genres, just bad writing and good writing-- and precious little of the second.

Posted by: Steve Bodio on November 23, 2003 08:38 PM

The Chandler remark is right on, and the nub of the problem with King: he's not a very good writer. He's certainly readable--good!--but it's important to venerate well-written genre fiction, e.g., Mr. Chandler's work.


Posted by: Bill Sebring on November 24, 2003 01:53 AM

I read for good stories well told. It may be P.D. James or C.J. Cherryh. Or it may Trollope or Tolstoy, Dickens or Austen. If you look, you can find good writing everywhere.

Now what will last and be "important" to future readers is a different thing and that, I think, is part of the highbrow's beef. They are writing for posterity, for culture, for Art. Pop writers are just writing. Dorothy Dunnett's historical novels, little known but incredibly good, seem to me to be something that will last. Stephen King? Maybe.

Posted by: Deb on November 24, 2003 10:02 AM

C.J. Cherryh? Dorothy Dunnett? And here I thought I was familiar with most of the good contempo writers. Who are they?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 24, 2003 10:59 AM

Stephen King may not be very good (He's never had pretensions to that effect). The man consistently states that his main goal is tell a ripping yarn. King is not a technical virtuoso, or a literary genius. He's more of a social scientist than a writer, tapping into our fears and jettisoning them at us with not inconsiderable force. Always readable, King is like the Sammy Sosa of fiction, missing as many times as he hits...hard...far...and memorably.

Posted by: Fayez on November 24, 2003 01:57 PM


C.J. Cherryh? Cherryh writes science fiction novels: some space opera and others more focused on contact with alien life forms.

Dorothy Dunnett? Dunnett writes multi-volume historical fiction set in 14th and 15th century Europe.

Great blog, BTW.

Posted by: C. S. Froning on November 24, 2003 04:40 PM

If you havent read Dunnett's books, run, Michael, run to the bookstore.

Posted by: Deb on November 24, 2003 05:01 PM

Mike - "I took him to be saying that the arbiters of literary taste should pay more attention to certain authors just because those authors are popular." I thought he was pointing out that if you want to be a voice in a time and a place, you should have a good look around that place, you know, at the time. (And, not incidentally, you can’t criticize what you don’t know.) My take on Hazzard's claim is that he feels that high and low are two separate brows and shouldn't be allowed in the same room and it's a cryin' shame people aren't more outraged about this terrible state of affairs. But perhaps he was just happy to have a say and any old rant would have done him just as well.

Steve - I am not alone? Not only do the arty types know nothing about science: My chums with "hard" degrees know more about the arts than people who, according to their student loan records, studied those damn subjects for years. I think it's a question of studies that require rigor. But maybe it's simple "IQ" and people with the brains to map genomes are the only ones with the wit to read and look at art and enjoy fine musical evenings in the concert hall.

Posted by: j.c. on November 25, 2003 10:22 AM

We have no high culture because there is no longer any folk culture in America. Folk culture: poor people entertaining each other to the best of their ability with whatever is lying around; spoons, a washtub, a campfire, a fast-talking bullshitter who can tell a story. Commercial America has made all levels of society conscious that "there is money to be made in this." The top of a tree is in constant communication with its roots. Artistic culture is like a High culture needs low more than vice versa.

Speaking of writing, we inherited the form of the novel from Europe. It's a toolkit that comes with dialogue, description, character development, plot, etc. Dialogue always seems phony in American novels because we Americans are not very good at talking to one another. All the crisp snappy dialogue in novels seems so artificial. John Cheever, as an exception, seems to capture something very American when his characters go off on monologue. American novelists need to come up with literary tools that translate our reality.

Genre fiction is all a variation of Fantasy Fiction: Crime Fiction a fantasy that there is some intelligence among crooks, Horror Fiction a fantasy that there is some traffic between the dead and the living, Western Fiction a fantasy that things were more interesting than they really were in the Old West, Science Fiction a fantasy that big distances in space and time equal big imagination. High culture literature tries to present itself to the reader as an artifact torn from life. It's not easy to produce but even so we are right to dogpile on the purveyors of high literary crap. If their work doesn't feel torn from life they need to work harder.

Posted by: Doug Anderson on December 2, 2003 07:25 PM

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