High art vs. Low art:

A recent blog post by literary agent Rachelle Gardner got me thinking about finding purpose as writers. Not in a higher-power sense, but in a more pragmatic way. Are we out there to sell, writing with a strong commercial bent? Or are we telling our heart’s truth—even if that means we reach a smaller group of people? Do we want to make a living from our writing, or are we content to reach a smaller group of people but perhaps take a more literary bent? As Gardner points out in a related post, the books that win prizes don’t always become bestsellers. The books that are bestsellers sometimes don’t get the best reviews.

I’m not sure I believe in this dichotomy and, to be fair, neither, it seems, does Gardner. We can find a middle ground, writing for market and still trying to unravel the mysteries of the human condition. I do believe that is possible. The books we love tell us something about ourselves. There are many writers whose works are testaments to the fact that writing popular novels doesn’t mean letting go of the search for deeper meaning.

So how do we find the line? What’s the difference between Milan Kundera and Sherrilyn Kenyon? Aren’t they both telling us something about ourselves? Don’t they both move us? I enjoy the works of both and consider them good—no, make that really good—writers. Who wouldn’t cry while reading about Karenin’s smile in The Unbearable Lightness of Being? (I dare you to try.) Who isn’t moved by the healing power of love that is such a strong motif in Kenyon’s novels?

I often dream of writing those “high-art vs. low-art” categories on a board. Where does J.R.R. Tolkien go? Ursula K. Le Guin? Do they belong next to reality shows like Rock of Love or Jersey Shore? Have they “earned” a place next to Pablo Neruda and Albert Camus? At the end of this imaginary exercise, I envision myself drawing a big ‘X’ over the entire thing. I believe this is best done with chalk in a rough, wide movement to achieve the most dramatic effect. One must always be dramatic when asking such questions. 😉

It’s the work of scholars—and perhaps humanity as a whole—to ask and ponder questions about art and society. All sides have merit and value. You don’t have to love Twilight, but I think it’s still worth scholarly study; it’s still worth talking about. It’s still worth pondering why we love the books we do and what that says about us as individuals and cultures.

So, as writers, do we have to choose? Who out there is torn between writing what’s “literary” and what “sells?” Have you been asked to choose? If so, what would you choose, and why? Is there a line we have to toe, and how do you find it? And I wonder, if I write a thousand novels, will I ever know the answers to these questions? Or are there no answers?

Well, I’m getting verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves!

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7 thoughts on “High art vs. Low art:

  1. *Or are we telling our heart’s truth—even if that means we reach a smaller group of people?
    THIS!!! For me, it’s always this. We don’t have to choose, but I feel strongly that our truth matters. I wrote my first novel from a place of authentic experience. To have made it more ‘commercial’ would have meant compromises I wasn’t prepared to make. I could easily have done so & got it published. In the end I published it myself & although it hasn’t sold well, the people who have bought & read it love it for it’s truth.
    As for the Twilight series, sorry, but I can’t agree it’s worth even a glance. Not only are the books badly written, they are unforgivably misogynist, have neither merit nor value & in my view, are unworthy of anyone’s scrutiny. And I did read the first one.

    • Carol,
      I guess I’m somewhere in the middle. I believe we should write from the heart, but my marketing/PR background always forces me to consider the biz angle. I think a lot of beautiful books (and award-winning) are also well read (I’m thinking The Color Purple by Alice Walker or The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin). And there’s probably a healthy dose of luck involved in anything we do! I think marketing and reaching out to readers can be as heartfelt and creative as the writing process.
      I might not be a die-hard Twilight fan, but I can’t pass up a good gender discussion.
      Thanks for writing!
      Janelle

      • Sometimes I wish I was more ‘out there’ with regard to the commercial side of writing. I am my own worst enemy where self promotion is concerned.
        Yes ~ luck does play a big part. The publishing world is cut & thrust with luck as a side order!
        I take your point about Twilight but can’t disengage from the covert messages therein which, in my view, harm young women by negatively colouring their perceptions of themselves.
        Always good to talk about books!
        Carol

      • Carol,
        Growing up, I had a hard time finding books that spoke to me. Sometimes I think I started writing fantasy so that I could read about strong girls and women who made their own decisions. So many of the fantasy novels I read growing up (by C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, et al) were so masculine focused. No matter what I write, I’ll always write about women who follow their hearts and make their own choices. That’s my default setting.
        Yes, I don’t always agree with the ideologies of the books out there. Writing for young adults carries with it a responsibility, I think, to help young people think about themselves and their decisions. That’s why I think it’s important we start conversations about books, so that those dialogues continue.
        Your comments are insightful and thought-provoking. I always enjoy them.
        Janelle

      • I agree with you entirely about the lack of positive female characters in Lewis, Tolkein et al. (I longed for Lucy & Susan in, The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe to just tell their brothers to naff off!) There were so many books in my youth that while I loved the stories, drove me mad at the injustice of, ‘a woman’s/girl’s’ designated place. (No wonder I became a radical feminist!)
        My point is, young women deserve better role models than those created by Meyers to shape their sense of themselves as ‘powerful.’ Learning to stand in our power as women begins when we are vulnerable & susceptible to all manner of influences.
        Your ‘default’ setting is admirable ~ would that there were more writers with your integrity.
        C x

  2. I don’t remember the last time I seriously pondered something but this made me stop and think!
    I see so many authors say, “If you don’t love writing for yourself, it’s not worth it.” But then a LARGE majority of the people who say this are already published so perhaps they have the vision to feel that way now, but did they feel that way BEFORE they were published? I don’t know.
    I’d like to think that I write for myself and the small number of people who might love my stories. But where does dreaming-to-be-published cross over into writing-to-be-published?
    On the other hand, how low can art go? I mean I feel like JERSEY SHORE and ROCK OF LOVE are the rock bottom of “art” (if they even qualify, lol). But is that just my prejudice towards the mindless? Maybe. Probably.
    You have verklempt me as well… 😛

    • Patricia,
      Yeah, not sure Jersey Shore and Rock of Love could be called “art.” Yet there they are!
      I think the biggest mistake we can make is not to listen to our gut. Of course, it’s hard to drown out all of the noise. But I think there are so many books that are lovely, thought-provoking, artful, and, yes, quite popular. Cassandra Clare and Melissa Marr are two authors who spring to mind. So just keep the faith–it can be done!
      Janelle

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