Wednesday, July 10, 2013

High brow and low brow

I always swing a bit on this issue - between high brow and low brow art, yet I have an inkling its coming back into fashion as a (too) easy dualism. In  a world of "Fifty Shades of Grey"and Dan Brown it becomes easier, I guess, to use these bestsellers as a distinguishing mark: that literature is over there, and these are just entertainments for the masses. Then we have those writers like the very entertaining novelist-blogger Matt Haig who is wryly pithy about the writing life with posts like "literary fiction must go." I've not read his novel(s) so can't really comment, but lines like "Our minds aren’t VIP rooms that only allow Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence passed the velvet rope" play into this idea that there is high brow and low brow fiction. The choice of those two authors is interesting (after all Woolf was no fan of Lawrence), as somewhere along the line in the last 20 years or so, modernism has gained a label for being "difficult". I don't remember this being the case when I studied them. Perhaps its the case that nowadays with nearly 50% of people going to university, there's a kind of new inverse snobbishness, backed by the confidence that being a university student gives. I think in the past maybe only English graduates had an opinion on literature - these days being an English graduate seems almost a curious affectation, even for wannabe novelists.ere 

Until Joyce of course, it was relatively uncommon for novelists (or at least the ones we still read) to have gone to university. They were journalists, or working or lower-middle class, or women... auto didacts perhaps but not necessarily with a "classical education." Not so true of poets of course, but whatever the background the writers that we remember tend to not fit any kind of template. Yet at the same time its fair to say that's there's a literary culture that sits fair and square at some kind of top table; that if not quite "posh", is certainly not poor. On the few occasions I came into contact with literary London in the late 90s, I was almost always "put in my place" as an aspiring writer; I looked wrong, spoke wrong. Maybe now that literature is so internationalised (taking a look at the hybrid nationalities of the Granta Best of Young British novelists for instance), there does seem to be a little drawing of ranks around "high brow" literature that has little, I think, to do with the writing itself. We know that poetry doesn't sell, but neither, increasingly does literary fiction. How does a man (or woman) of letters exitist in this world? Clearly somewhere between the broadsheets and the BBC, or in the pages of the LRB/TLS or - increasingly - in the universities. This shouldn't be so bad, of course, but does there come a point where its not a university education that is the problem so much as the university berth? Like our political class rarely getting "real jobs", the winnowing of the press has clearly had an impact on writers' "other" incomes. In this world I guess there can be a sense that the "intellectual stamp" of an academic career becomes something that people must fight to keep. 

Yet I wonder if we end up with a strange kind of dualism where there is an out-and-out commercial fiction (it hardly stretches to poetry of course, but can include TV and film) on the one hand - a kind of well-heeled, and possibly complacent merchant class, with a tendency towards either the safe or the kitsch; and on the other academy-centred literary careerists, who, inevitably, need to subsidise their novels, stories and poems with a mix of research, teaching and media work.  Careerist - by the way - I'm not meaning to have a negative connotation here; in many ways I admire the portfolio lives that our university system makes possible. I think of the rich intertwining of an editor likemy old tutor Michael Schmidt at Carcanet, and how much his publishing career benefits from his academic career and vice versa; or the brilliant work that Writers' Centre Norwich does, bringing in great - but often mid-list - authors from round the world and their close links with the literary powerhouse that is UEA. (Where I stand on these initiatives should be clear enough: I've long thought the universities should do MORE rather than less for contemporary writing -  surely the raw material for future critical thinking?)

In 2011 UEA celebrated it (and the UKs) 40 years of creative writing with a lovely anthology "Body of Work." Philip Hensher's castigation of this in the Spectator felt churlish. Any "anniversary" will list as many good books as bad, failures as successes. Also, surely the long review of the weekly magazines is exactly the same kind of literary careerist move I'm talking about above? From my perspective - northern-based, small press published, blogger, writer-with-a-day-job - surely Hensher was part of that same "industry"? However, I do think, in retrospect he was touching on something....

...for if we look at the work that matters now, mattered then (and I'm going back as far as you care), literature is something that defies the career planner. This obviously causes a few problems. After all if I'm a writer based in an institution its not just my writing that is at risk, but the other elements of my portfolio. At the other end of things, how much easier for a journalist to get a book deal than someone who isn't in the "industry." This all feeds on itself of course. We all need a track record. Yet, I'm wondering if - going back to the "high brow" and "low brow" thing we're seeing a little bit of a cutting off between the two. You'll read a certain kind of poem in some of the "big" names - whether its the LRB, PN Review or one of Duffy's poetry spreads for the Guardian - and moreover, there's a certain kind of poem you won't ever see; even if its happening on the ground. Say the same for the big prizes and for the BBC and Times short story competitions. In these unpopular art forms, there's as much circling of the wagons as elsewhere; yet when someone a little bit new or different does breakthrough they are often embraced even more closely as it kind of proves the system is "working." Alice Oswald, say, one of our best-loved poets, or Daljit Nagra, one of our more original ones; I don't remember either of them being particularly lauded before their breakthrough. The poetry did the work.

And that's what we see with the Booker and other prizes. Its rare to find a totally untutored writers; and dig a little deep in the biog of a Magnus Mills or Jon McGregor or Gwendoline Riley or William Letford or Alison Moore or Chris McCabe and they're not so different than me or a hundred other "wannabe" writers - educated, self or university; driven to find the time, to finish the work, rarely "trust funded" or other sinecures - often successful after quite a period of not failure exactly but quiet, slow endeavour; and - and this is the curious thing: they've written something good. Not high brow or low brow, and that's what I think's quite important: that the work itself is what determines. What's next of course is dependent on the realities of the current literary world - do you take what work comes your way: judging competitions, running writing classes, joining a university department, working for the BBC or the Guardian in some capacity; or will the writing provide.... see the latter is what's in question now. Whereas a commercial author can, I guess, build a loyal audience on a thriller a year, and the high brow writer use their work as a calling card to be invited to literary festivals or whatever else is on offer - I do wonder whether we might lose something of the "high-low hybrid" that for me has almost always offered the best writing. Whether that's bohemian writers getting picked up by a changing literary establishment (Miller, Nin, Burroughs, Kerouac) and readership; storytellers stretching their art (Burgess, Fowles, Lessing, Orwell); or poets demanding a voice in the conversation (O'Hara, Ashbery, Ginsberg.) The "bold spirit" as Hensher mentioned is of course the only kind that literature should have time for. That means drawing some lines of connection that trash the assumptions of which literature is high brow and which is low brow. Writers sometimes do it themselves of course: the restrained police procedural that is Amis's "Night Train" for instance felt like a different writer than the wunderkind of "Money." Yet is there a book published this century that is as low brow as "Yellow Dog?"  

With poetry its the same, but perhaps even more vital. Its not that poets are so identical as the be indistinguishable, though there have been times in the not-so-distant past when that is the case. I'd say the "evidence" of "Identity Parade", recent Forward and Salt "best of" anthologies, and "Dear World" make the case for poetry being as wide as its ever been. Poetry seems able, in my mind, to make itself anew - there are so many good people writing it. Short fiction seems to be a little too identikit for my tastes at present - though I'm not sure if it lends itself to revolution.

I'm taken by the way that literature is itself an educator: that a writer who strives beyond the mere chase of audience is always going to be part of my high-brow conversation. Its a truism that men (mainly) who've never read a book will rave about Bukowski or Carver or Irvine Welsh; yet those writers have to different degrees rewritten our understanding of "literary fiction". If Salinger's Caulfield dismissed "all that David Copperfield crap", its something that all writer-narrators have to do at some point. 

The worst thing we can do is see a solidifying of both commercial and career writers into their equally listless trajectories: a midlist writer like Hilary Mantel gained massively from what might not seem like a risk in retrospect, but may well have done at the time. A "one of the many" poets David Constantine, has a flourishing second career as one of our most consistent short story writers, because (at least partly) of the faith his small publisher put in him. There are a few hares in literature, of course, but its not quite untrue to say that before they were hares, they were often tortoises.

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