"Culture is on the horns of this dilemma: if profound and noble it must remain rare, if common it must become mean."
- George Santayana, Spanish-born philosopher (1863-1952)
I came upon this quote recently and it got me thinking. I had just been reading an article in Booknotes, the quarterly publication of the NZ Book Council, by a self-described NZ "chick-lit" novelist who had published her debut novel. In the article she compared her situation with that of her friend who had published a debut novel which was an Historical Romance. She wrote that despite the Romance genre being probably the largest-selling genre in the global book world, she and her friend were likely to be shunned and patronised by the literary novelists.
Now I don't read romance, but being a middle-class male I am not the reader demographic for the genre. But I realise that anyone who writes a book of any type and gets a publisher interested enough to invest in it, has done a lot of hard graft in writing and rewriting. They have my admiration even if the genre holds no appeal to me.
Expanding this situation beyond books and writing into other forms of art, I cannot help but think of musicians who sell millions of records often being snubbed by the "hip" because they have "sold out" art for commerce and the baubles of Mammon. The same hipsters want the artists they admire to starve in garrets, but, I'm sure if asked, would not want to share their heroes' fates.
The argument goes that if an artform or artwork is popular with the unwashed masses it is somehow inferior. Not every Beatles song was a masterpiece, but they certainly created some songs that transcended a mere cheap and tawdry commerce, sold in their millions and have still stood the test of time.
I would not argue that all popular artistic endeavours are shining artefacts of culture. I tried to read a Dan Brown novel to see what the fuss was about and I could not get beyond page 2 or 3. There are children in primary schools who could write a vastly superior sentence to Dan Brown. I concluded Dan somehow got by on racy plotlines alone.
But it is a vexed question. Acclaim or money? I imagine most writers from Salman Rushdie to Robert Ludlum would like to reach as many readers for their work as possible. So when does a literary novel cross over to a popular novel. Does the fact that Lionel Shriver's book, "We Have to Talk About Kevin", has probably sold truckloads make it any less powerful and moving and thought-provoking? I think not. Surely there is some middle ground where art and commerce peacefully co-exist.