18 February, 2016

I was a literary snob: low culture, high culture, and Southern Culture on the Skids

I didn't get this here baby just a choppin' on wood. -- "Voodoo Cadillac", SCOTS

But it's writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can't or won't, it's time for you to close the book and do something else. Wash the car, maybe. - Stephen King, On Writing
"The Sisters of Eluria"

Formal education is a mixed bag. When approached with the proper mindfulness and humor, the process can be enlightening. Or at least, it used to be able to be enlightening. The powers that be have been stripping away everything worthwhile about formal education, moving away from educating a future citizenry in favor of training an army of monkeys to bear the tax burden the corporate class feels they should not have to bear at all.

But, one of the drawbacks to a formal education -- even when it was a good -- and especially a college education -- and in particular to a degree in literature -- is that sometimes, you end up getting bit by the green meanies.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a college lit professor swear an oath against a popular writer -- in this case, Stephen King -- I'd be able to pay back student loan debt tomorrow. Seriously. There's so much jealousy and bitterness masking itself as critical contempt that it hardly seemed worth it to mention that both Dickens and Dostoevsky wrote FOR A LIVING. And while I'm not a fan of every word the guy's written -- I certainly think he needs an editor sometimes -- the fact is he's one of the more popular practitioners of the writing craft still living.

Which, if most of his academic critics were honest, is really the only problem with him. Tommyknockers could be forgiven as a serious lapse in an otherwise good string of books if he were dead and the unabridged version of The Stand were on some canonical list.

One of the things you run into in among the would-be and self-proclaimed American literati is the overwhelming notion in order to be "literary" a work must be all style. I understand this. I'm a word guy. Sometimes I just like how words sound together, and it's important to be able to string words together in an interesting.

Unfortunately, another problem you run into among the would-be an self-proclaimed American literati is that they have, for the most part, swallowed the idea that anyone who is truly engaged in the artistic process should not be able to make a living because:

  1.  America is full of tasteless philistines;
  2.  American culture doesn't respect the place of the arts.

You hear the second reason in public more than the first one because, well, the literati only talk that way to other accepted literati. But it's utter bullshit. Yes, thanks to the stripping away of literature and art appreciation classes from college general education requirements, it's true that the general population is increasingly less schooled on what is generally thought of as higher culture, and they are less apt to make connections between The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Force Awakens. I think about my old man, though, who was not schooled on the arts -- he was, in fact, a high school drop out who later went back for an education after serving in the military -- but who would proclaim, "I don't know art, but I know what I like."

He liked George Jones, Johnny Cash, Juice Newton, and the Cincinnati Bengals. He also loved going to the beach. He was also something of a storyteller, as his father was before him, and he was a voracious reader of the newspaper and watched the news every night.

When I started writing poetry, he didn't quite understand what would make me do such a thing. But he didn't wrinkle up his nose and tell me I was wasting my time, either -- something that more than one self-anointed member of the literati and my first ex-mother-in-law has suggested over the years.

The other thing I think of is when I published Living Broke: Stories, some of the best reception I got was from people who didn't, as a general habit, read books. They liked my stories because they identified with the people in them. All the stories were honest, un-sanitized, and sometimes brutal.

I get some of the best kinds of responses to my poetry from readers who tend to avoid poetry as well.

It's not that Americans don't have taste. That's not the problem.

The problem is that many of the purveyors* of the arts market them as some kind of exclusive club. It's not.

Sometimes it's about throwing chicken at the audience.**

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*Purveyors, not creators. I'm talking about commodifiers and sellers of art, not artists.
** If you haven't been to a Southern Culture on the Skids live show, you're missing out.
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