Monday, June 20, 2005

Joe Strauss to Joe Six-Pack - New York Times

"The middlebrow impulse in America dates at least to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the belief that how one spends one's leisure time is intensely important. Time spent with consequential art uplifts character, and time spent with dross debases it.
It's true there was a great mood of take-your-vitamins earnestness about the middlebrow enterprise. But it led to high levels of mass cultural literacy, to Great Books volumes on parlor shelves and to a great deal of accessible but reasonably serious work, like Will and Ariel Durant's 'The Story of Civilization.'
Middlebrow culture was killed in the late 50's and 60's, and the mortal blows came from opposite directions. The intellectuals launched assaults on what they took to be middlebrow institutions, attacks that are so vicious they take your breath away. "

The New York Times is planning to make people pay for the op-ed page starting in September, and I'm really going to miss David Brooks. His recent column is on the reduction in circumstances of middlebrow culture these days. Reading the article, I kept thinking about Matthew Arnold. Arnold was a poet, until at some point he realized he was never going to be a truly great poet. From that point on, he wrote literary criticism. He believed that no truly great poetry could be produced except from a generally high level of understanding of and discussion of poetry in the society at large, and henceforth this would be his role. It seems to me that in a field like fiction writing, something like this has happened: writing has lost its hinterlands of middlebrow readers, so that more and more it seems that the only people who read fiction are other writers of fiction. It's hard to produce great artists that way.

The column hit home in another way. Hey, let's be honest - it takes a hundred blogs like this to create the kind of intellectual ferment out of which emerges a single great mainstream journalist like, say, Geraldo Rivera. Lately, I am aware, I've been letting the side down - it's been a sparse ten days. It's mostly a matter of better time-management. There's been a lot of ranting during that time to the effect that "The modern world just isn't made to let people read a book, much less do some writing!" This is true. The modern world has promised to make my views under consideration and it will try to do better in the future.