Pop Culture’s Limits

The late Elmore Leonard © Greer Studios/Corbis Outline

The late Elmore Leonard © Greer Studios/Corbis Outline

[For the best reflection on Elmore Leonard read Robert Ferrigno‘s NRO item: “Thanks, Mr. L” from our August 23rd edition]

From this weekend’s WSJ.com: When Elmore Leonard died in August, the papers were full of obituaries that described him as “a novelist who made crime an art.” So, at any rate, declared a headline writer for the New York Times. A year earlier, the National Book Foundation had presented Mr. Leonard with its annual medal for “distinguished contribution to American letters,” calling him a “great American author,” and the Library of America announced that it would be bringing out a three-volume edition of his work in 2014. I didn’t want to rain on his cortege, so I didn’t say what I thought, which was that he was one of the most overpraised writers of our time. A very good one, mind you—I’m a passionate fan of Mr. Leonard’s brisk, funny crime novels—but overpraised all the same.

What’s wrong with his books? For one thing, they’re repetitious to a fault. I can’t count the number of Mr. Leonard’s novels that revolve around a divorced man of a certain age who falls hard for a wised-up younger woman. On the other hand, a cheeseburger is a cheeseburger. No matter how many you’ve eaten, you can usually make room for another one if it’s good, and Mr. Leonard wrote a lot of good books—”LaBrava,” “Maximum Bob” and “Tishomingo Blues,” in particular.

So why grump about his obituaries? Because they exemplify a trend that has gotten out of hand. It used to be that we didn’t take popular culture seriously, but now we don’t take anything else seriously.

Do I exaggerate? Consider the endless encomia that greeted the airing in September of the final episode of “Breaking Bad,” which the Daily Beast described as “a perfect, A-1 piece of televisual filmmaking…an unparalleled valedictory achievement.” Or Tuesday’s announcement by LA Weekly that it’s cutting back its theater reviews from seven per issue to two. Or the fact that no classical musician has appeared on the cover of Time magazine since 1986. Or…but why go on? You know as well as I do that in postmodern America, pop culture gets most of the ink. It always has, but nowadays it also receives the kind of dead-serious critical attention in the academy and elsewhere that used to be reserved for high art—and increasingly it does so to the exclusion of high art.

It may well be, of course, that America’s pop culture is on balance better than our high art. I don’t think so, but you can certainly make a case that the best of it aspires to a degree of aesthetic and emotional seriousness that is directly comparable to all but the very greatest works of high art. Can you honestly say, for example, that “Citizen Kane” is a “better” movie than “Chinatown”? Or that Ned Rorem wrote “better” songs than Donald Fagen ? Maybe, but I wouldn’t want to have to argue the point.

The problem is not that pop culture doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. It’s that a culture totally dominated by popular art is by definition limited. Let’s go back to Mr. Leonard’s novels for a moment. Sure, they’re superbly crafted, but they’re all pure melodramas whose subject is crime, with a little romance thrown in for seasoning. So, almost without exception, are the television series that have come of late to be widely regarded as the best that America’s storytellers have to offer. From “Hill Street Blues” to “The Sopranos” to “Breaking Bad,” these series are all thrillers of one kind or another. To be sure, they use the time-honored conventions of genre fiction to explore many other aspects of American life—but in the end, somebody always gets shot, just as a pop song, no matter how good it may be, is almost always three minutes long.

Once again, it’s not my purpose to demean pop culture. I think that most of the best movies made in America in the 20th century were crime dramas, screwball comedies and westerns. But there’s more to life than getting your head blown off in a drug deal, and more to be said about love than can be crammed into a 32-bar ballad. Novels like Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood,” plays like Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” ballets like Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering,” paintings like Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” musical compositions like Aaron Copland’s Piano Sonata: These are large-scale works of art that aim higher than their popular counterparts. (In fact, that’s not a bad rough-and-ready definition of high art.) Mere ambition, mind you, is not in and of itself a good thing, any more than bigger is by definition better, but we’re cheating ourselves when we direct our attention solely to less ambitious art.

Having said that, I happily admit that I plan to finish rereading “Tishomingo Blues” in bed tonight, and that I’ve probably read it at least as many times as, say, J.F. Powers’s “Morte d’Urban” or John Williams’s “Stoner.” Man cannot and need not live by masterpieces alone—so long as he never forgets what makes them masterpieces. A masterpiece has, as Louis Armstrong said of the trumpet playing of Bobby Hackett, “more ingredients.” Egalitarianism be damned: It really is better.


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