Two roads diverged

The writer known to the ponyverse as Bad Horse explains the bifurcation of culture, and why it’s becoming more so:

I’d given up on writing, because I’d convinced myself that you could either write interesting fiction, or entertaining fiction, but not both. Even Shakespeare, who’s famous for writing for both the literati and the pit, did it by alternating between highbrow and lowbrow in a clumsy way that he only played for humorous contrast and that comes across as condescending. Then I read Fallout: Equestria. It proved that you can write fiction that’s interesting and exciting at the same time.

Only later I realized why you never find writers who are both interesting and entertaining, and why it had to be a fan-fiction writer who combined the two again. There’s probably always been a polarization between highbrow / intellectual and lowbrow / commercial. But for the past 100 years, it’s been a war. The highbrow, serious, academic works in every art — literature, poetry, painting, architecture, music — deliberately cut themselves off from the mainstream and forced anyone who wanted to gain admission to their circles to make art that most people hated. I’m not making this up; you can still find manifestos that artists from the 1910s like Ezra Pound churned out like conspiracy-theorist blog posts, explaining why art has to be unpopular to be good. This is why, for example, the great poets of the 20th century, like Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, and Billy Collins, were insulated from academia or studied other, older traditions. Likewise, kkat [author of Fallout: Equestria] probably didn’t realize she was stepping into the middle of a war and was supposed to choose sides. If you write mass-market paperbacks, you’re pretentious and artsy if you challenge the values of your target audience. If you write for a literary press, writing an exciting adventure would be gauche. It’s not about art; it’s about tribal affiliation.

One need only look downtown to Stage Center to see a shining (if the sun hits it just right) example of a genuine work of art that rather a lot of people can’t stand. The true artiste does not compromise with mere taste; Arnold Schoenberg once said that “if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.” And Billy Collins, despite having served a term as the Poet Laureate of the US, is not exactly a household word; I have long suspected that he’d have achieved greater fame had he twisted his name into something like “B. Coraghessan Collins.”

I encountered an example of this disjuncture myself, as a high-school student earnestly blabbing away about a Jack Finney novel — no, not the one you’re thinking — and then being shot down by a teacher who wondered why I was bothering with this comparatively “accessible” stuff while dust accumulated on The Vicar of Wakefield. Then again, I suppose this must be taken in context: said high school’s campus was constructed circa 1915, which made it hideously contemporary in a city founded in 1670. For that matter, it wasn’t like Oliver Goldsmith truly aspired to the highest of brow heights; from better habitations spurn’d due to his dissolute lifestyle, he churned out lots of sub-Dickensian prose for hungry London publishers.

And there are times when I give thanks for my own relative insulation from academia, though this reaction may be more political than cultural.


  1. Charles Pergiel »

    7 July 2013 · 3:59 pm

    Yada, yada, yada. Everybody has something to say. People express themselves in different ways, talking, writing, painting, chiseling, acting, etc. etc. etc. Sometimes other people like what they do. Good. Sometimes other people don’t like what they do. That’s fine too. Some people like to be told what to think. That’s too bad.

  2. nightfly »

    10 July 2013 · 3:19 pm

    It was Twain who compared his work to water, as compared to the wine of the great masterpieces, and then concluded “Most people just drink water.”

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