What Makes Art High Brow?

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I was listening to James O’Brien on LBC this morning and, inspired by Dylan’s Nobel Prize win, asked the interesting question of ‘what makes art high brow’?

Tragically, I didn’t have time to ring in, so I thought I’d summarise my thoughts here. I’m woefully ignorant on the matter of art in terms of painting and the visual arts, so I’m going to stick to the written word here.

First of all, a quick word on Dylan’s win. It’s been dismissed by some as an insult to novelists who create whole philosophical worlds, and I get that, I do. It’s much more of an effort to create a layered world with multi-faceted characters and an interesting plot than it is to write a poem. But that does not mean that a poem cannot have the same impact on a person as that novel. For example, the piece of literature that most sticks with me is Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘The Hero’, despite the plethora of fascinating novels I have read.

So a poem can be as socially powerful as a novel, and Dylan is certainly a poet. Poetry evolved from song, not the other way around. The first western poetry was The Iliad and The Odyssey; songs sung at banquets which are now seen as the highest of high brow. This evolved through Europe with wandering troubadours singing lyric poetry through the 13th century before anyone was writing poetry to be read on the page. The very reason poetry has rhyme and rhythm is to  make it easier to remember for the bard when he was performing it to a live audience. So how anyone can argue Dylan is not a poet in the purest form is beyond me.

Anyway, I digress.

Back to the question of what makes literature high brow or low brow. Everyone knows the distinction we’re drawing here; the kind of book you’re proud to be seen reading in public versus the one you consider putting a different dust jacket on for your daily commute. I’m not going to name names, because I personally think all literature has a certain value, but you know the books I’m talking about.

To answer this as concisely as possible, my feeling is that it comes down to what you take away from whatever literature it is you are reading. From ‘high brow’ literature we come away with themes and philosophical questions; ask someone about To Kill A Mockingbird and you’ll invariably get a discussion about racism and its interaction with society, ask them about Don Quixote and it may involve into an analysis on delusions of grandeur and themes of sanity and madness. The point is, the plot is often secondary to the themes that are brought forth.

This isn’t so true of what we call ‘genre fiction’, whose primary focus is normally the plot. In a conversation about a spy thriller or a crime novel, the will to keep reading is driven by the plot and the primary takeaway is what happens, rather than why it happens. It rarely has an effect on you that lasts beyond your interaction with the book. Of course, that’s not to say that a crime novel can’t be literary fiction. John Le Carré is considered a literary novelist, and a crime thriller that deals with the themes of, for example, police brutality, could well be considered high-brow.

It’s not the genre that defines the work then, but the questions that arise out of it that, for me, make something high or low brow.

That’s just my two cents, anyway, and I’d be really happy to discuss it further, given mr O’Brien only had an hour to deal with such a complex subject I think this could run and run. I’m extremely open to having my viewpoint challenged so please do get in touch in the comments and let’s hash it out.

 

One Wish

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One Wish
If you had it,
That one little wish,
what would you ask?
A Manifesto For A Better World,
Perhaps.
Or something more…
Selfish.
War,
Hunger,
Cancer,
Ended.
Or not.
Heartless not to want these, no doubt.
But if I had it,
That one little wish,
Well.
I fear that the world
Would continue to wait.
To wait for an unspoken wish.

Confessions of a Failed Novelist.

This is the last piece of writing ever found by Alexander H. Cochran, a self-described failed novelist. His work was never published. 

My folks died when I could barely call myself a man. Fresh out of college and ready to face the world I was, when that truck hit ’em on the highway back from my grandfather’s funeral. They never had a chance. There was a lot of death in the air that day, I guess.

My daddy made his money in oil when I was a young ‘un, so I never had to worry about nothing from that day forward. Looking back, I like to think that was the first mark against me, as a writer. I never had to do it, never needed it to provide my next meal, would never not be alive the next day if I didn’t sell a story. I never needed writing to survive, at least not physically. But hell, maybe that’s just me making excuses in my old age.

Not that I hadn’t always wanted to be a writer, far from it. When I was going through my adolescence I could barely believe people got paid anything to write, let alone could make a hell of a living off of it if they were any good. Words had always had a strange old draw for me, they provided a kind of haven for my imagination, somewhere that worlds could be created and personalities fleshed out that were far more interesting than anyone I’d been unfortunate enough to meet in the real world, where they teach ya that a firm handshake is more important than a good story. Bullshit.

And it wasn’t that I was no good, or that I didn’t try neither. I wrote some stuff that I was kinda proud of too, but it never saw the light of day. My words were fine for me, but I couldn’t imagine how anyone else would be interested in any of the things I had to say. A curse of being even a moderately good writer is to be forced to be a great reader, and to be a great reader is to be aware of just how damn good so many others are at this writing business.

How, then, knowing the work of Papa Hemingway and Fitzgerald, of Verne and Faulkner and Whitman, how am I supposed to let my thoughts out into the world and try and compete with them? Anything I could think of in a year any of them could do on a bad morning. Hell, Hemingway wrote drunk better than I ever have sober.

I tried that too, tried every trick in the book to try and get something, anything that I wasn’t sick of the sight of by the time I finished writing it. I drank bottles and bottles and bottles of scotch, and it never did nothing for me. It didn’t make me no Hemingway, just made me tired and sick and cranky.

I tried to travel myself interesting, but that didn’t work, the cultures jumbled and produced a mess, so that nothing I wrote seemed honest or believable. I even locked myself in a damn cabin out by the lakes with nothing but a typewriter, a box of cigars and some matches, but I ended up using the matches to burn the mediocrity that I’d written and hightailing it back to the city with nothing.

You might wonder why I’m writing this now. I’ve asked myself that question too. Well, I know the answer, I’m going to die soon, my heart’s finally given up on me it seems. I guess I wanted to write something honest before I went, ’cause I think that might have been the problem all along. I worked so hard to create worlds, and emulate my heroes, that I never put an honest word down on paper. Not once, in my 45 years of trying to write, did I ever write anything that I would want to represent me, that I would want my name attached to once I’m gone. That’s why I never sold anything. Oh, I had the offers, would have made a tidy sum too. But like I said, I was never in it for the money. I’d’ve only sold if I knew it was going to go down real well in posterity, not some market pleasing fiction that anyone can churn out if they turn their mind to it.

I wanted to be a novelist remembered as a great, but in chasing that dream, and stubbornly sticking to it, I failed to be a novelist at all, and in ten years it may be that nobody even remembers my name. In trying to change the world, I overreached, and couldn’t even change my own. But that ain’t to say I ain’t proud to have tried. Better to shoot for the stars and dance with the moon than content yourself with changing to please the masses. Never forget that.

Sincerely,

Alexander H. Cochran
A Self-Confessed Failure

 

An Announcement: To those who have yet to lose interest in me

As anyone kind enough to follow this blog on a semi-regular basis might have realised, I have not been incredibly active of late. This has been down to a number of factors, but mainly due to my work as Senior Editor for a new website that has recently launched, which has been taking up most of the space in my head.

As such I have very much neglected my creative duties here on this blog, failing to judge contents I started, and not writing for months on end, for which I can only apologise.

However, having now achieved more of a balance in what I am doing, I am attempting to make a foray into the more creative world once again. I won’t be doing any contests for now, due to not wanting to take on more judging time than I can hope to give back to read all the superb entries I invariably get sent. I will, however be writing some stories of my own, both of the six word and short variety, as well as allowing the poetic side of my brain to crawl slowly out of hibernation. If this sounds like something you’d enjoy reading, then read on, friends, read on, I’ll be back soon.

Impressions

Impressions

All things pass,
Leaving their scars
Upon our skin.

Moments of ecstasy.
Trauma.
All of it, fleeting
Yet stubborn,
Fixed in its place.

The remains are there
For all to see,
A reminder not of who I am,
But of how
I have been made.

What can I be
But a palimpsest of
My experiences?

Shaped by how
I have lived.
Living by how
I have been
Shaped.