WHICH CULTURE? ROBERTS VERSUS FRANZEN… SORT OF

Adam Roberts has written a (typically) interesting blog post about the division between the “Booker culture” that favours formally complex and “clever, clever” writing and the popular arts that have set “the parameters of the Great Human Revolution of 1950-2020”. You need to read his post to get the full force of his argument but, simplifying, he argues that there are three great forces of change that dominate our era: technology, globalisation – particularly the way it encourages (or forces) people to interact with different cultures – and the extension of childhood deeper into adult life. His point is that literary fiction, of the kind that dominates the Booker shortlists, fails to deal convincingly with any of these forces.

It is the final element – the spreading of an immature sensibility deeper into the span of human experience – and the way in which it is absent from Booker culture that Roberts focuses on. In literature, cinema and music, the most popular and most powerful expressions of these forms in the modern era have been delivered in the form of youth culture.

This is our culture. I mean, ‘youth culture’ as a specific marketing category invented to relieve young people of their pocket money in the 1950s—pop music, movies, TV, pulp fiction and comics, games—has become Culture. Pop music is clearly (it seems to me) one of the great art forms of the second half of the 20th-century, and it’s all about youth. Cinema becomes big-hitting only when it channels youth — comic books adaptations, and so on.

But despite (or, more likely, “because” – but I’ll come back to that) of their popularity, these artforms are not just overlooked by those who consider themselves the arbiters of our culture, they are actively belittled. This applies not just to those who deal specifically in the adolescent (Roberts considers writers like Meyer and Rowling) but also those who are deemed insufficiently mature:

one of the things I love about Dickens is his ability to immerse his text in the experience of childhood itself, to see life as a child actually sees it, not as a proto-adult does. And of course people often denigrate him—compared say, to ‘properly adult’ writers like Eliot or Thackeray—as somehow an immature figure, a child who never quite grew up. Bollocks to that. Feature not bug, people! Feature; not bug.

But the “maturity” that the dominant culture values so profoundly is one that ignores large aspects of the way in which the majority of people actually live. It fails to take seriously the experiences of youth, except as they contribute to reaching maturity, and it treats every human emotion and experience with the forensic detachment of a pathologist conducting a post mortem. By contrast, the popular arts are, according to Roberts, primitivist – allowing them to “capture energies and aspects of existence” that are beyond the scope of the dominant cultural forms.

So this, in a nutshell, is my problem with the Booker prize. Imagine a music prize that has, through the 70s and 80s and up to the present, shortlisted only abstruse jazz, contemporary classical and Gentle-Giant-style prog rock concept albums. I love my prog rock, and partly I do so because it ticks all those aesthetic boxes—it is complex and challenging and intricate music (and I am a preening middle-class pretentious twat). But how would you tell the judges picking those shortlists about the Ramones, the Pistols and the Clash? How would you persuade them that they’re missing out not just good music but actually the music that really matters?

The reason I wanted to discuss what Roberts said at length is that, first, I think he makes some insightful points, and, second, it rubs interestingly against two other things I read on the same day.

The first thing that struck a chord was Roberts’ discussion of an “extended childhood” as a characteristic of the modern era. He says of the transition from childhood to grown up “…has expanded so much that for many people nowadays it lasts literally decades (I’m 48 and I don’t really feel ‘grown up’).” And, Roberts suspects, this has contributed to the fact that young adult literature, despite its increasing popularity and economic importance, gets overlooked or actively disparaged by the cultural elite “because ‘we’ have made a fetish of adulthood, maturity, perhaps because so many of us (alright: because *I*…) secretly feel that we’re immature individuals souls walking around in grown-up bodies.”

I read the Roberts’ piece after reading the essay “An Unprofitable Masculinity” by Edward E Cohen 1. Cohen discusses how the Athenian idea of masculinity (andreia) – which regarded salaried, regular employment as beneath “real” men – also provided opportunities for slaves and women to gather wealth and exercise power beyond the apparently rigid rules that excluded them from public life. Almost as an aside, Cohen mentions:

Late marriage for men (usually at about 30) encouraged prolonged male adolescence and dependence; early marriage for women (often shortly after puberty) meant early maturation – and most significantly in many cases early widowhood. Hence the Athenian phenomenon [...] of numerous naïve young men of wealth whose widowed mothers actively managed the family property. (105)

And this led me to think about the peculiar privilege we (I) enjoy in not having to be “grown up” – to have time to take pleasure in things that can be frivolous or, at least, non-essential. Outside fortunate groups, like the scions of wealthy Athenian families mentioned by Cohen, this privilege has been vanishingly rare through most of humanity’s history. After a brief period of infancy most of humanity has had to devote their lives to the hard work of staying alive. And, even today, there is enough hardship in the world to ensure that this freedom is unequally spread – not just geographically but across race, class and gender.

And while I was thinking about this I read, in The Guardian, Jonathan Franzen’s a piece about Karl Kraus 2 (“the Great Hater”), which he uses to write at length about what he sees as the “corrupt and tasteless ways” in which culture has developed.

Franzen, despite the constant pleading that he remains true to some form of “60s radicalism”, grips angrily to the same cultural conservatism that Roberts dissects.  But why is Franzen so angry? Why is someone in a culturally privileged and secure position so upset that other people don’t share his values or enjoy the things he enjoys? In his piece Franzen asks the same questions of Kraus (and himself) and concludes that it was because they had

the gifts, both intellectual and financial, to cultivate that love [of culture]. And the person who’s been lucky in life can’t help expecting the world to keep going his way; when the world insist on going the wrong way … he feels betrayed by it. And so he gets angry, and the anger itself further isolates him and heightens his sense of specialness.

Franzen, then, is aware that the core of his argument is a defence of his own position and the “privileging the things I personally find beautiful” against the debasing nature of the “technoconsumerism” that he believes has gripped the masses. How can this tidal wave of the common be resisted? Franzen has specific praise for Kraus because he produced work that was deliberately impenetrable: “to his cult like followers his dense and intricately coded style formed an agreeable barrier to entry, it kept the uninitiated out.”

One thing both Roberts and Franzen’s pieces share is that they consider where the authors have come from – their relatively comfortable upbringing, university-educated, securely middle class and deeply entrenched in the culture that values the “clever, clever” Art that Roberts claims dismisses so much of experience as it is lived by the majority of humanity. The people who Kraus (and Franzen) want to exclude are the people who don’t share their privileges.

Culture is, of course, a battleground. It is the site on which one set of interests seeks to establish and maintain their positions in society 3 against others. Those cultural elements that we now consider respectable were once highly contested. Roberts places jazz music in the category of the “grown-up” but in the 1930s the Frankfurt School – Adorno, Horkheimer and the rest – found jazz infantile and debased. Franzen is a novelist, deeply invested in that artform, but it is a form that had to struggle to be accepted as it emerged from its scandalous roots and has only firmly established itself in the (relatively) recent past – so that Franzen must concede that the line he has drawn would have been a line too far for his hero Kraus who “disdained” the novel as a popular genre. These are artforms that champion, and are championed, by a specific set of interests and, in narrowly defining them and in fighting to defend those definitions, Franzen and those who contribute to the Booker culture are also fighting to maintain the privilege of the groups who embody them.

I am suspicious of the argument made by Franzen that art which, like Kraus’s writing, seeks to exclude should be regarded as representing a higher level of creativity. I am also, in any case, convinced that such arguments are futile for the ignore the way in which art has developed over the millennia.

The art that has lasted through history 4 has been the art that grants access. Art that lasts is like the pages of an illuminated manuscript created by monks whose goal was to give those who could not experience the words directly some sense of the transcendence that they found in biblical stories. None of this is to say that creators should not seek to experiment with the forms in which they work, but it is to argue that we should be suspicious of those who believe that great art seeks to exclude. Works which were intended to be popular and inclusive – from Homer’s Illiad through Bach’s Masses to Michelangelo’s David and Shakespeare’s history plays – have endured and that remain instantly recognisable, exercising influence beyond art historians and a select group of creators.

The spread of literacy and the development of a mass readership was a crucial, revolutionary, moment and its impact has been primarily democratic and populist. The works that have had “legs” – that history has shown to have continuing impact – has not been that which places the greatest emphasis on formal experiment, but that which seeks to engage with the audience. It is the likes of Austen and Dickens and Carroll who prosper over the longer term, not their more artistically praised contemporaries.

This is not, as some have suggested in the comments on Adam Roberts’ post, about advocating a race to the bottom. The simply populist doesn’t necessarily survive any better than the deliberately obscurantist. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, though selling by the bucket load in his day, is now remembered (if he is remembered at all) for the competition bearing his name 5. I sense that a writer like Jeffrey Archer (who, Wikipedia reckons, may have sold up to 250 million books in his career) is being forgotten even as he continues to write.

Nor is this to attack those authors who seek to push the limits of their chosen field. I admire those authors. I read those authors. We need those authors. But we do not only need these authors. And we should not only celebrate the culture that those authors embody.

When a writer like Franzen calls for art that deliberately excludes and the Booker culture seems so narrowly bound to one form, a form that overwhelming represents just one set of interests, we should at least ask whether this status quo is serving us all and whether we want it to continue in this way. And I would go much further. I would argue that an argument like Franzen’s is despicable, because it is an argument not just for privileging one type of writing but for the privileging of one culture and to benefit just those who are embedded in it while excluding those who are already less advantaged.

Notes:

  1. In “Money, Labour and Land: Approaches to the economies of ancient Greece” (Routledge 2011) edited by Cartledge, Cohen & Foxhall
  2. ”What’s Wrong With the Modern World”, The Guardian, Friday 13 September 2013
  3. I would call it a struggle of one class to establish a hegemonic domination over others, as I’m not embarrassed by the Gramsci/Marxist associations, but it can be just as easily conceptualised as things flowing – as in Foucault or Castells – or as the struggle of the post-modern individual to define themselves in the soup of modern culture
  4. And I’m happy to concede, here, that I’m probably speaking from a narrow, Western, frame of reference
  5. Which is awarded to the novel with the worst openings.
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One Response to WHICH CULTURE? ROBERTS VERSUS FRANZEN… SORT OF

  1. Lee says:

    The fact that you don’t feel grown-up at 48 may not have all that much to do with our culture(s)’s extended childhood. I remember my father, who had an early 20th c childhood and died many years ago, telling me in what was then old age that he still felt young inside. Perhaps we all retain a good deal of our youth, and perhaps too, this sense of agelessness derives from continuity of mind and self.

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