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« Cultural Hype | Main | Guest Posting -- Toby Thain »

March 26, 2004

Light Entertainment

Dear Friedrich –

Do we give light entertainment the respect it deserves?

I started wondering about this question today as I was finishing the first book I’ve read by Ngaio Marsh, a mystery called Tied Up in Tinsel. (I listened to it on audiotape; it's rentable here. Hats off to the book's astoundingly good reader, Nadia May, by the way. I've listened to her read probably a dozen audiobooks, and she's never been less than clear, crisp and terrific. She has a flawless instinct for when it's appropriate to do some acting and when it makes more sense simply to read. When the time comes to act, she's dazzling: able to juggle scads of characters, as skillful with men's voices as well as women's, and able to score with dry humor as well as crude, knockabout farce. What a performer.)

Do you know Ngaio Marsh's work? She's considered one of the half a dozen greats of the Golden Age, by which is meant the era ('20s-'30s) when audiences and writers had a taste for puzzle mysteries: Mr. Mustard in the cloakroom with a dagger, that kind of thing. She was born in New Zealand; although she was Anglo, her first name is a Maori one, and is pronounced "Nye-oh." She painted and wrote plays, and after she found her stride as a novelist split her adult life between NZ and Britain. Her writing has a lot of theatrical zing. She's one of those rare fiction writers whose characters stand up and walk around on their own; nearly all of the characters in the book I read were bursting with life. What she's most prized for is her dazzling social satire; when people get grumpy about her work, on the other hand, what they tend to say is that her novels are sparkling comedies of manners -- and then the crime happens, after which the books bog down. In any case, a not-bad way of describing "Tied Up in Tinsel" is P.G. Wodehouse meets Agatha Christie, with an added soupcon of malicious sexuality.

Which is immensely high praise, at least in my cosmos. Reading the book, I had the following sequence of reactions and thoughts. At first: "This is brilliant! This is amazing! Wow! Who knew?" Then: "Well, harumph, let's be adults here: excellent though this book is, it is mere first-class light entertainment, after all." And, a while later: "Why the hell am I slamming on the brakes like that when this book is giving me so much pleasure? Isn't calling a book this good, this -- harumph, harumph -- phenomenal mere first-class light entertainment an act of condescension? And where do we get off condescending to something that's fantastically enjoyable?" When I emerged from the novel, I'd worked myself into quite a state of indignation about how dismissive we can be about light entertainment.

To be sober for half a sec: it doesn't hurt to remember that we don't want to discuss the frothy stuff we love in ways that ruin or betray the kinds of pleasures it delivers. So perhaps making straightfaced, grand claims for it is exactly the wrong thing to do. On the other hand, what fun is discussing the arts unless we occasionally throw caution to the winds?

Why are we so damn shy about acknowledging how much pleasure light entertainment can give? Do we value pleasure so little? Perhaps it's that we're confused, and that the confusion makes us cautious. It seems to me that we may scramble two different indices. One of them is purely descriptive: light entertainment and tragedy are both points along this line, and are simply two different kinds of art. The other index indicates worth, and on it "light entertainment" is seen as trivial where "real art" is something else entirely, deep and perhaps worthy of immortalizing. But when we scramble these two indices, what we wind up convinced of is that light entertainment can't be terrific art.

But what is light entertainment anyway? It seems like one slippery category, if category it is. As a conversation starter, here are a few art-things that I don't mind seeing labeled as light entertainment.

* Cary Grant
* The work of Jay Ward, who created "Rocky & Bullwinkle" and "George of the Jungle"
* Carole Lombard
* Gilbert & Sullivan
* James Thurber
* Cole Porter
* P.G. Wodehouse

Amazing stuff, no? All of it's work that has given me tons of pleasure. Looking at this list, I find it hard to imagine doing anything but enjoying and marveling. Yet there's always that one voice that pops up and says, "Yes, but it isn't 'Lear'." I confess that I'm dumbstruck by this voice. What kind of person says such things? Is the point of this person's rankings-obsession to associate himself with nothing but the best? Is he desperate to play arbiter and judge?

Anyway, here's a question. Is tragic or straightfaced art by its nature to be granted a little extra room for "greatness"? If so, on what basis? Indulge me for a sec and watch why I don't think such a claim can hold up.

If Cab Calloway is light entertainment, then why not Fats Waller? If Fats Waller, then why not Art Tatum? If Art Tatum … Well, if I remember FvB's tastes accurately, I'll get no disagreement from him when I assert that American artists don't get greater than Art Tatum. So in a matter of a few EZ steps we've moved from the hi-de-ho entertainer Cab Calloway (whose work I love, by the way) to one of America's very best. At what point along this continuum did the art stop being "light entertainment" and start being "adult, substantial work that might deserve to be called great"?

Why not continue this game? If, say, Noel Coward is light entertainment, then why not Oscar Wilde? If Wilde, then why not "Lucky Jim"? If "Lucky Jim," then why not Jane Austen? If Jane Austen, then why not Moliere? And if Moliere, why not the comedies of Shakespeare?

Perhaps there really is a line, and to the left of it everything is froth and will never be anything but mere froth, while to the right of it everything is adult, substantial, and has the potential of being found great. But where does that line get drawn? And who gets to make this decision?

It often seems that many people want to reserve critical kudos and in-depth appreciation for works that are turbulent, rounded, even painful. For these people, work that wants to amuse and divert simply can't qualify. But what does this imply? Are we meant to conclude that it's only when we're deeply moved by a work that we can begin to consider it important and worthy of grownup acknowledgment?

But even if we accept that premise, I think we've still got a problem, because there's more than one way by which a work can move us. On the one hand, Bambi's Mom might die -- we're moved (or we might be moved) by what's happening to the characters. On the other, we might be moved by what the work itself represents -- the kind of thing it is, as well as the care and love it expresses.

Let me try to explain. Here's Life, a thing full of beauty, frustration, boredom, tragedy, waste, delight, etc. An artist chooses a response (or simply has a response) to this thing, "Life." One artist chooses to try to portray this panorama in its fullness. Another wants to rub your nose in the pain of it all. Faced with chaos, another artist chooses to show off his brilliance.

But what about the artist whose response to the confusing mishmosh that is Life is to supply moments of diversion and amusement, of relief and contrast? Who can claim that this is a less admirable response than the others I've described? And who can explain why it's any less deserving of deeply moving us? In my own personal ranking of these responses, in fact, I'm far more deeply moved by this response than I am by the others. To want to give pleasure strikes me as touching; to succeed in doing so strikes me as beautiful. I'm as moved by fluff that works as I am by a Raymond Carver alcoholic hitting bottom.

Do we grant more potential-greatness slack to works that have more cultural influence? That doesn't seem to stand up: has the lauded lit-writer Tobias Wolff (whose books I like) had anything like the influence of "Airplane"? Perhaps the Faulkners and the Joyces deserve straightfaced appreciation because they're just better writers than the lightweights. But in what sense can it be said that Wodehouse or Marsh have anything whatsoever to apologize for? They're both brilliant virtuosos, equipped with awe-inspiring amounts of fiction-writing firepower -- they're masters, really. And why not admit, if only for a sec, to being impressed by the amount of high-quality entertainment both P.G. and Ngaio created. Didn't Wodehouse write around 100 books? Marsh wrote about 40.

Well then, how about the difficulty of the stunt? Isn't it simply much harder to write a "Sound and the Fury" than it is to write an amusing murder mystery? But how do we know this for sure? If it's really so easy to pull off a light entertainment, why are there so few successful romantic comedies? (Chefs have told me that there's little harder in the cooking game than making topflight pastries.) Why is there only one "Importance of Being Earnest" while there are tons of well-praised, high-minded, autobiographical family dramas? The best light entertainers are juggling intangibles: the chemistry between performers; hard-to-nail-down matters of style and tone; impossible-to-analyze matters like humor and wit. And what's easy about juggling intangibles?

Our disrespect for easy pleasures and light entertainment steers us into too many bad corners. An example: Jim Carrey, who received far more praise for "The Truman Show" than he ever did for "Ace Ventura" or "Dumb and Dumber." Yet (IMHO, of course) weren't his performances in "Ace" and "Dumb" just about peerless? Who else could have put those movies over? While I can easily think of a half-dozen actors who'd have been fine in "Truman."

In any case, isn't viewing light entertainment dismissively rather like criticizing a sushi dinner for not being a meat and potatoes meal? It's missing the point. And in a culture of abundance where none of us is exactly starving for entertainment or art, and where we get to choose our own pleasures, what's the point in being exclusive?

So a couple of questions. A) Do you think we give light entertainment the respect it deserves? And B) How might we best discuss and appreciate light entertainment without betraying the nature of the pleasure it delivers?

As for Ngaio Marsh's "Tied Up in Tinsel"? Seriously good light entertainment.



PS: Thanks, by the way, to Will Duquette, whose book review (here) is the most straightforward and appreciative light-reading website I know of.

posted by Michael at March 26, 2004


"Why not continue this game? If, say, Noel Coward is light entertainment, then why not Oscar Wilde? If Wilde, then why not "Lucky Jim"? If "Lucky Jim," then why not Jane Austen?"

... I was delighted and hugely amused to see how shocked and appalled a friend of mine was when I once told him I was reading Jane Austen because I wanted to find out what happened next in the story.
(Whilst also recognising that she was bloody clever too - see the great piss-take that is Northanger Abbey)

(I apologise for the sudden outburst of English slang in the previous parenthesis.)

Posted by: Alan Little on March 26, 2004 4:32 AM

Could the problem really be that light entertainment bears a close relationship with comedy, and comedy seems to threaten the whole notion of the 'dignity of art'? (Or is it the dignity of the audience?) Is Aristophanes really a lesser writer than Euripides? Why don't comedies, even comedies of greatness like "Duck Soup" ever even get nominated for Oscars? I would actually place comedy and "pure" tragedy (which strike me as having strong affinities of world view) at the top of the pantheon, and most of the rest of our 'classics' below it. (Remember, Tolstoy, after reading a number of the Greeks, dismissed his own novels as the works of a windy gasbag.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 26, 2004 9:19 AM

I remember a documentary on the early days of The New Yorker, where a writer was shocked to learn he had to the Talk of the Town, a light casual story, the kind tossed off at a dinner party. Why was he shocked? Cause He said the hardest story to write are the light, funny, pieces that appear effortless.


Posted by: jleavitt on March 26, 2004 9:37 AM

Michael, if that was the first Marsh mystery you read you have some seriously good reading ahead of you! Have you read Dorothy Sayers? And a contempory author you may enjoy are the Amelia Peabody stories by Elizabeth Peters or the Mary Russel stories by Laurie R. King. Both of them have thier roots in Marsh and Sayers.

I read somewhere, and I cant recall where, that the mystery genre of the 20's and 30's was where women found their voice in literature. Marsh, Christie and Sayers are the big names but there are a whole slew of others. Phoebe Atwood Taylor comes to mind. She wrote mysteries about Cape Cod that read like radio dramas and are hilarious.

I do think it's possible to discuss any book whether a mystery by Marsh or a comedy by Wodehouse (my favs are the Blandings Castle stories, btw) or Austen, who is a comic genius, or Tolstoi if you judge the writing by whether it's a "good story well told." There is much more freedom and higher standards in that criteria than what I was taught in my English lit-tra-chur classes in college.

Posted by: Deb on March 26, 2004 9:45 AM

And what of the authors of "light-entertainment" who at a certain stage in their careers feel the desperate need to be taken seriously and consequently produce guff nobody cares for. Thanks God the likes of Wodehouse were perfectly content to have their work be accepted as .. whatever anybody liked to think it was.

Posted by: stephen baldwin on March 26, 2004 9:49 AM

Why do Academy Awards for Best Pictures always go the most serious movies?

Was Igor Stravinsky pinpointing this tendency -- to elevate serious works over lighter, more comedic works only because they were serious --- when he criticized late Romantic music for confusing religious and aesthetic impulses?

Posted by: JT on March 26, 2004 10:02 AM

Have you watched the movie, "Sullivan's Travels," written and directed by Preston Sturges in 1941?
I recommend it highly for its insight into the issues you have raised.

Posted by: Bill on March 26, 2004 10:15 AM

The Oscars are notorious for ignoring great comic performances. I didn't think Lost in Translation was a great movie, but Bill Murray's performance was remarkable. Everyone knew he didn't have a shot, though. Was it because it was an arguably comic performance or because he is known as a comic actor? Peter Sellers won a couple, but if he didn't get one for Dr. Strangelove they might as well have closed up shop. Oscar-magnet Tom Hanks is a skilled "light" actor rather than a comic actor, but he won his first for Philadelphia. These awards are voted by actors, who know better than anyone the skill required in a comic performance. Sly Stallone has an Oscar, but then Arafat has a Nobel. Go figure.

Posted by: Mike Hill on March 26, 2004 10:55 AM

This post dovetailed nicely with my belief that the three-minute Beatlesque pop song is the greatest art form humankind has ever produced. I'm not exaggerating to make a point--I really think so. When I came to this conclusion I figured it wouldn't bother anyone in this postmodern, cultural relativist, anything-goes culture. Turns out a lot of people get really annoyed if you suggest pop music is as worthy an art form as classical music--even people who themselves prefer pop music!

So, to sum up: Beethoven good, Belle & Sebastian better.

Posted by: Matthew on March 26, 2004 10:57 AM

Probably goes back to the Greeks. The Greeks saw the world as a terrible place, a tragic world with a tragic human existence. How to respond? With terror and *compassion*(pity). Why not laughter? Laughter implies that the world does not matter. The world does matter. Laughter is renunciation. Laughter is madness. Aristophanes arose out of a destroyed Athens.

We no longer live under these premises.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on March 26, 2004 11:13 AM

What a terribly inaccurate and unfair description of the worldview of the ancient Greeks. I can't even begin to respond.

I do want to recommend a light, comic novel written in Greek in the second century, Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius. It's weird and fantastic and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. It's been neglected by critics until very recently because it was felt to be insufficiently "classical" by dour 19th-century Germans who better fit the mold invented by Mr. McManus.

Posted by: Agricola on March 26, 2004 11:44 AM

Hey, Michael, thanks for the plug!

The thing about light entertainment is that it has to look easy--that's what makes it light. And if it looks easy, it must not be worth much, right? On the other hand, soufflés are light, too--but they ain't easy, and neither is writing like Marsh or Wodehouse.

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton says that we place far too much value on being serious--and with his typical love of word play suggests that the devil fell through "gravity".

Posted by: Will Duquette on March 26, 2004 12:31 PM

To add to your light entertainment list, I would recommend any performance by Maggie Smith. Also, Peter Sellers in "A Shot in the Dark". (I just saw a clip recently, where he as Clouseau immaculately mounts parallel bars, does his routine, and attempts to immaculately dismount off the other side. The problem is the other side isn't a solid floor, but a stairway, which he very un-immaculately tumbles down. He then leaps to his feet, debonair as Cary Grant, as if it had not happened. Hilarious). Also, "Play It Again, Sam" by Woody Allen. When Diane Keaton comes to his apartment, he can't find a hanger in the closet, so he just drops her coat on the floor.

I also second Deb's suggestion about the Amelia Peabody mystery series. Also, some of Agatha Christie.

Also, as opposed to most of his performances, seeing Hugh Grant get interviewed as himself.

I just think light entertainment and heavy literature or drama are two different things. I've certainly derived pleasure from both. I don't think one is more important than the other. In fact, I basically think laughter is one of the most precious things in the world. More precious than tears. I also think Johnny Depp should have won the Oscar this year for his Pirate instead of Sean Penn. Why doesn't Hollywood? I've often wondered if one reason (and this is going to sound VERY snobby, I admit) is that Hollywood is poulated with talented people who do not have a lot of formal credentials---not a lot of M.F.A.'s out there. Now, I don't care, but I wonder if they do. If there is a complex about that that makes them think---we'll only be taken seriously if we make serious choices, which is more a result of not being really well-read and well-cultured as anything. (Demi Moore used to run around asking people what she should read, for example).

Posted by: annette on March 26, 2004 1:42 PM

My impression -- could be a wrong one -- is that this problem is worse in America than elsewhere. In England, Wodehouse seems to be pretty widely accepted as a great author, or at least a real cultural treasure. Could it be that a particular American insecurity over being cultured requires us to feel like our great works must be serious ones?

Posted by: williamsburger on March 26, 2004 2:52 PM

Really deep souls have always understood that light entertainment is the appropriate response to a universe in which, as Leonard Woolf said, "Nothing matters."

Posted by: John Ferguson on March 26, 2004 3:27 PM

Isn't the mere fact that a writer from the 1920's is still in print a pure sign of quality enough? Regardless of the genre?

Posted by: ijsbrand on March 26, 2004 3:28 PM

Guess I was a little brutal and elliptical above, but studying Thucydides lately and not seeing enough sweetness and light in the Greeks. My point was trying to go to why we elevate or overrate tragedy and high art. Partly because the Iliad and the Three Tragedians were admired as near the pinnacle of written art for 2000 years; and partly because Aristotle in the Poetics said we should. Epicurus and Lucretius set up heirarchies of pleasure, ascending toward the most spiritual.

I think Shakespeare's Comedies and Tragedies are equal in quality, yet we see many more productions of King Lear than Love's Labours Lost.
I expect it is a natural human desire to transcend ourselves rather than escape ourselves.

And yeah, I am ruined for life by too much German philosophy in my youth. They need to give advisories and warnings

Posted by: bob mcmanus on March 26, 2004 4:04 PM

Oh And I write this surrounded by nearly 5000 hard-boiled detective paperbacks. Not very picky, I read it all. Recommend Stuart Kaminsky and Harlan Coben

Not really a snob, our dour classicist. Well, maybe dour and pessimistic, but light enough to indulge sentiment and cliche.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on March 26, 2004 4:10 PM

In what sense does the Iliad not qualify as light entertainment?

Posted by: Will Duquette on March 26, 2004 4:47 PM

I have this week been deriving enormous pleasure from a CD of Ronald Isley (of the Isley Brothers) singing Bert Bacharach songs -- and I'm thinking that Matthew is on to something. I devote much more time to listening to pop music than classical, though given the "desert island" choice, I guess I would still take Bach rather than Bacharach . . .

[new poster who has just discovered your wonderful site . . . talk about pleasure . . . ]

Posted by: missgrundy on March 26, 2004 4:56 PM

Have you ever read Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca"?
I've just read an excellent "rereview" of it on the Arts & Literature Daily website. She's a little later than Marsh, has a wonderfully distinctive writing style, & Rebecca is her best. Highly recommended. Johnathan Yardley who wrote the "rereview" addressed your question about light entertainment in terms of Gothic novels.

Posted by: Susan on March 26, 2004 4:58 PM

Uhh, excessive pride and wrath leading to anti-social, self-destructive, and dishonorable behavior? If Achilles is the good guy, the story is a tragedy. It ain't Beowulf, the hero kills pretty good guys, and dies in the end(actually, what's extant ends with the defilement of Hector I think). Louis Mayer wouldn't go the movie.

Looking forward to the movie, though. I hear the fight scenes rock

Posted by: bob mcmanus on March 26, 2004 5:00 PM

one of my pet peeves is how this bias plays out in movie reviews: a truly mediocore film that seemingly aims high is cut all sorts of slack (e.g., last samurai, road to perdition, whatever) while truly entertaining films without the pretension (e.g., runaway jury, dawn of the dead, whatever) are generally disdained by reviewers who feel they must apologize for enjoying the dreck. which is silly. point of art is to entertain. shakespeare lived and died by market, as did beethoven, mozart, the beatles, miles davis, etc. the notion that high art shouldn't be entertaining or please the masses is a modern one and sheer crap. and i actually think it's probably easier to write the dreary ironic novel (e.g., the corrections) rather than the phenomenally entertaining genre piece (e.g., silence of the lambs). so even in terms of effort the pecking order might often be reversed.

Posted by: dj superflat on March 26, 2004 5:16 PM

"Do we grant more potential-greatness slack to works that have more cultural influence?"

Just the plain old book snobbery you encounter at Barnes and Noble's. Sort of like the Emperor's New Clothes?

You ask this of a woman who has read "Gone With the Wind" and "Little Women" seven times over. I re-read my Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew books, too. So little time, so many books. Tis my dilemma. Oh - yes Rebecca is a re-read as well!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on March 26, 2004 5:19 PM

Ronald Firbank.

His novels are like Paul Klee in words.


Posted by: graywyvern on March 26, 2004 5:53 PM

"point of art is to entertain"

So Jackass and The Real World are the pinnacle of art?

While entertainment value is a side-product of good art, it's not the point. To me, the point of it is to reflect life and expand people, emotionally and cerebrally.

I don't doubt the difficulty involved in creating a great, light story. I just think the more ambitious works (comedy or not) that cover the deep, weighty themes deserve the extra attention they get.

Posted by: Michael L on March 26, 2004 6:16 PM

I have yet to meet the zombie movie fan who will not only say that she liked zombie movie "A" better than zombie movie "B", but also that zombie movies "A" & "B" are actually better than zombie movie "Z" ( because the zombies in "Z" couldn't act).

Everybody I have met recognizes some kind of non-relative standards for judging art.

The fact that I prefer zombie movies to Italian neo-realist movies does not mean that "Dawn of the Dead" and "The Bicycle Thief" are not comparable or rankable. Sometimes my tastes are untrained or lazy, and I look outside myself to the consensus of experts for guidance. I say "Bicycle Thief" is better than "Dawn of the Dead" and slap those zombies into the DVD player again.

I like some inferior or mediocre stuff and that makes me sometimes a tasteless and mediocre person. I have survived several decades of this failure. Better this than saying there is no such thing as quality.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on March 26, 2004 7:33 PM

Is anybody arguing that there's no such thing as quality?

Posted by: Will Duquette on March 26, 2004 7:51 PM

"Do we give light entertainment the respect it deserves?"

My answer is yes. The "we" refers to those of us who read genre fiction (for example), and not those who will not approach it. "We" give it our time and money and affection; and understand the advantages and sacrifices involved in its use of formulas and conventions.

Is "literary fiction", which I actually consider another genre, "superior". Well after the hype and fashion fall away, and given a couple of hundred years of natural selection, probably yes it is.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on March 26, 2004 8:25 PM

Is anybody arguing that there's no such thing as quality?

I am.

Posted by: Fed Up on March 27, 2004 12:47 AM

There's this passage from Chesterton that is, I think, to the point:

"A few people have ventured to imitate Shakespeare's tragedy. But no audacious spirit has dreamed or dared to imitate Shakespeare's comedy. No one has made any real attempt to recover the loves and the laughter of Elizabethan England. The low dark arches, the low strong pillars upon which Shakespeare's temple rests we can all explore and handle. We can all get into his mere tragedy; we can all explore his dungeon and penetrate into his coal-cellar, but we stretch our hands and crane our necks in vain towards that height where the tall turrets of his levity are tossed towards the sky. Perhaps it is right that this should be so; properly understood, comedy is an even grander thing than tragedy." (Illustrated London News, April 27, 1907)

Love your blog, by the way.

And Wodehouse is a genius, I think. Who was it that said that he was the second great master of the language, after Shakespeare?

Posted by: Alexandre on March 27, 2004 12:59 AM

And if we're talking of quality and skill - it's obvious that Wodehouse was much more skilled in novel-writing and prose in general than many serious novelists. More skilled than almost anybody, in fact. And should we have no respect for skill? For brilliance?

On the other hand, one can't compare really the Beatles and Beethoven in terms of skill. Which makes me think that if artists in general got ranked in terms of skill, not in terms of seriousness, we would have a much clearer view of the order of things...

Posted by: Alexandre on March 27, 2004 1:11 AM

I was writing a response to this on my own blog and trying to come up with a recent example of masterly light entertainment - when in a gloriously serendipitous coincidence my wife decided to put on Toy Story 2 for our baby son. Light entertainment? Unquestionably. A work of genius? In all seriousness, not far off.

And I also absolutely agree with Bob McManus and his hierarchy of zombie movies - Night of the Living Dead is clearly a vastly superior film to The Beyond, which in turn is a distinct cut above Night of the Zombies. And while the latter may well be the worst film I've ever seen, that didn't stop me from eagerly snapping up the DVD (under its semi-literate British title Zombie Creeping Flesh, which I enthusiastically reviewed here)

Posted by: Michael Brooke on March 27, 2004 5:16 AM

I return to the novels of Dostoevsky for the same reason others read genre mysteries and thrillers -- for their pure, attention-grabbing entertainment value. I suspect many recoil from the Russian, thinking his stories are too dark, dour, and profound; yet, D. was quite the comedian -- many characters and scenes from, for instance, "The Possessed" and "The Idiot" are hilarious. And Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain" is a page-turner, containing such laugh-inducing characters as Mynheer Peeperkorn. Yes, I think the lightness of being gets shortchanged in many critical assessments of our cultural heavyweights.

Speaking of the sublime Peter Sellers: how about that scene in "A Shot in the Dark" where, after the stuck-gloved, chain-and-mace weilding Cluseau accidentally demolishes a grand piano; the bourgoise, high-falutin' lady exclaims: "Inspector, that was a priceless Steinway!" To which the nonplused, self-logically assured detective replies: "Not anymore."


Posted by: Tim B. on March 27, 2004 12:08 PM

Tim B,
You have to be quite a detective to find humor in Dostoyevsky (or so I remember from my school reading years, when I was much more responsive to hidden treasures), satire-yea, sometimes. But I guess, you right- satire is entertainment. You might want to check out Russian specialists in it - Gogol (since you like XIX c. classics), or much better - books by Ilf& Petrov.
With I&P you'll probably need a companion, if you're not familiar with soviet realities of the 20's and 30's, but it worth the effort.
Oh, and another delight - Michael Zoshenko, of the same era.
I noticed, even with your love of Tolstoy epics, you don't find humor in him...

Posted by: Tatyana on March 27, 2004 12:26 PM

Good light entertainment makes me happy, uncomplicatedly happy.
Astaire dancing, a Hope & Crosby road film, or, dare I say it, once a year a song by Barry Manilow, for the pure shmaltziness of it.
That said, it's right that it shouldn't be accorded the respect of high art. At its best high art lifts you to realms where light entertainment can't, isn't meant to, go.
But it's fun. And there's a lot to be said for fun.

Posted by: ricpic on March 27, 2004 1:15 PM

It's amazing that 35 comments have not yet turned up Stephen King, an addictive pleasure who is, I think, grazing perilously close to Art with his current Dark Tower series.

I think most of us know instinctively when something is really good - Important with the capital "I," if you will. At that point we may or may not like it, but we're happy to acknowledge its Importance. I don't mind people who don't like Shakespeare; he's hard to read without help (and to the poster above who wonders about Lear and Love's Labor's Lost, well: Lear is just a better play. Though LLL has gems in it, it's tough to produce and it's not much fun to read. I played Nathaniel). But if you want to make a case that Shakespeare has no place in the cultural pantheon, and that Tama Janowitz (for example) does, I can't agree.

It doesn't bother me that I don't respond to Schönberg. I'm perfectly happy to know that I can't stand most Henry James. I don't begrudge you their pleasures, nor would I say that they don't deserve their fame and accolades. I just don't like 'em.

It's a different case with Belle and Sebastian, though. B&S (heh) are a moment in time and nothing more. When I find them flimsy, whiny and repetitive, except for that "Century of Elvis" song, I don't feel the need to make allowances for their brilliance - we're all brilliant, after all, given our right contexts. The trick is to keep it up and to turn out a body of work that will move the world, or speak to the world, or make it laugh. Belle & Sebastian may give you some joy, right now, but they aren't moving the world, and that's that.

Pop music can be that good, of course: The Beatles will speak to the future, and others will as well. But most acts won't. There are something like 60,000 releases per year these days. We need to draw lines just to keep sane, and we need shared cultural experiences so that we can keep discourse going.

I first discovered Stephen King in my junior year at college. I was reading Kant's Prolegomena, and it was so dense and awful that I was actually going backward - I'd lose the thread on the page I was reading, turn back a page to try to pick it up again, and ... well, repeat as necessary. At some point I just couldn't stand it any more. I don't remember which King it was that kept me in school; The Shining, I think, perhaps Pet Sematary or Salem's Lot. What I do remember is that I devoured it, and it was delicious. I had forgotten that reading could be fun.

Similarly, from the flip side, when I first read Steinbeck, I was shocked and thrilled to discover how much fun it was. Who knew? Could this, this wacky touching silliness, be Art? I was overjoyed.

I don't mind the nebulous division between high art and low. I think it's healthy. The Ramones were wonderful and they were part of my life in a powerful, intimate way. But they have no place sitting beside Mozart, in the scheme of things. That's as it should be.

Though I suspect Joey and Wolfgang would both get a kick out of it.

Posted by: Linus on March 27, 2004 1:24 PM

How about Mark Twain? You do have InnocentsAbroad on your blog roll. I believe that counts as one of his lightest works.

Posted by: Neha on March 27, 2004 11:11 PM

1) Comedy, genre stuff, pop music is usually more *topical* than the high art of its era. The language is more informal, it is filled with current pop culture references, etc. And will be harder to approach as its time grows distant.

2) You praise Ngaio Marsh I think too much for her literary value, those assets that are not genre related: character, style, wit...and then she doesn't write a good who-done-it. Christie and Stout have survived better. This is I think wrong, and dangerous. Genre literature needs to be appreciated how well it uses the conventions of its genre, and a language of criticism for genre material is slow in development.

A lot of critics praise James Lee Burke and Walter Mosley for "transcending" the genre. I prefer Sue Grafton for grabbing the classic hard-boiled style and creating perfect classics entirely of the genre.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on March 28, 2004 12:53 AM

I think the prejudice against light entertainment comes from the fact that it's a much easier art to appreciate. Anyone can laugh at a comedy such as Jim Carey's Ace Ventura, but few can see and appreciate the underlying themes in more dramatic styles of art. I think that's the reason, even though I certainly do not agree with it.

Posted by: Rod on March 28, 2004 2:41 AM

I don't understand this need that people seem to have to categorize works of art as either "light" or "serious", and I never will... either these things liven up your mind or they don't... there really isn't anything else to say--talk about the impact and leave the "evaluation" out of it...

Michael--did you really get something out of Jim Carrey's performance in Dumb and Dumber, or do you find it peerless for some other reason? there's no reason to laud a person for doing something unique if it has absolutely no impact on anyone's life. I'm not saying a person couldn't be affected by Dumb and Dumber--I'm just saying: how about describing that experience, and leaving the questions about whether we respect "light entertainment" out of it?


Posted by: David Fiore on March 28, 2004 2:43 AM

There's an essay at Arts & Letters Daily,, that relates to this topic: "Where did musical quality dissapear to in the twentieth century? Hollywood?" An interesting read.

Posted by: ricpic on March 28, 2004 10:35 AM

I'm new here, but Kundera's book The Unbearable Lightness of Being speaks really well to this question, I think. What is lightness, what is weight, which is to be the better respected? It is odd that we think Shakespeare greater than Twain because he is weightier, but do not think lead greater than feathers for this reason.

While Kundera argues for the value of weight in a world which in his view is driven by levity and forgetting, he seems most interested in showing the interplay between them, rather than assigning them a value. He shows some characters, cursed with weight, who search in vain for some release from their burdens; and other characters who can't escape their own complacency and levity, who, despite all the responsibility they should feel and be tortured by, can't keep themselves from sleeping well at night. The book itself is kind of light, but also kind of not.

Posted by: paul on March 28, 2004 12:38 PM

Michael: Thanks for the Ngaio Marsh recommendation! Gives me something else to look for.

Also, I strongly second Deb's recommendation of the mysteries of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, and would add the "Father Brown" mysteries of G. K. Chesterton to her list.

Posted by: Steve Casburn on March 28, 2004 2:53 PM

Back to the comments on Iliad...

I've read both Iliad and Oddysey, and the Iliad is definitely the lighter read. The overarching story is tragic, I'll admit. The movie-versions may play up the tragedy--I haven't seen them.

The best I could make out, the narrator in Iliad is doing his best to play up enjoyment of the scenery, and the fight scenes read in a smooth, enjoyable, manner. Admittedly, there's lots of death and destruction to go around, but the narrator enjoys the telling, and the audience (apparently) is meant to thrill over the broad scope of action and sharp detail in the fights.

When I was done reading it, I wondered where the dark, tragic tone was that I had expected. The story of Achilles and his prideful fall produces darkness, but I had to remember from other stories that Achilles died in the next big battle. Somehow, the story never gets to that point--it ends with the funeral of Patroclus, and the celebrations ensuing during the funeral.

It's been awhile since I've seen so festive a funeral in literature. Achilles is mourning, but a chariot-race is part of the day's events, and everyone watches the race closely.

So is Iliad light or heavy? I can't quite make out.

Posted by: steve h on March 29, 2004 9:40 PM

No one has mentioned Terry Pratchett - I would call him the modern Wodehouse but that would be to miss the point - he is of course himslelf. He does however have the joy of language, the exuberance and the erudition of Wodehouse.

Posted by: Ian on April 1, 2004 5:28 AM

Light entertainment is paid for 100% by the people who want it; it doesn't beg for taxpayer's money and imply that civilization will collapse if it doesn't get it.

Posted by: J.L. on April 1, 2004 5:05 PM

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