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Thursday, September 20, 2007

High Literature vs Popular Literature

In “Popular Literature” class—when I was a student at American Studies Gadjah Mada University majoring ‘American Literature and Culture’—my classmates and I used to have lively discussion on “dichotomy” of popular literature—often considered as low quality literature—versus high-brow literature. Why should this dichotomy exist? Who has privilege to decide which kind of literature is considered pop and which is high? And why should some people feel that they have that privilege?

Some literary critics said that when a work was produced only to follow what public wanted to read—just for fun or entertainment, no “deep meaning” under the surface of the story—then it would be categorized into “pop literature”. In addition to that, people also said the work was only for commercial’s need, because the writer needed money when writing. On the contrary, when a work was produced not only to follow public’s needs, it was written more to fulfill the writer’s ambition to communicate “something important” to readers, so that the work had “deep meaning”, then the work could be categorized into “high-brow literature”.

However, when talking about Jack London’s works, who would say that his works do not have deep meaning whereas London himself said that he wrote them only for money? Literary critics even classified London’s works into high-brow literature.

Besides that, critics said that the parameter of high-brow literature was when one work deserved to be included into canon. The canon here usually refers to “big anthologies” such as Norton Anthology, Heath Anthology, etc. Again, I want to ask, who has privilege to select which works to be included into those anthologies?

The publication of THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF LITERATURE BY WOMEN can be considered one way of women’s struggle to include women’s works into high-brow literature. In the ‘preface’ of its first edition published in 1985, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar wrote:

“… no single anthology has represented the exuberant variety yet strong continuity of the literature that English speaking women have produced between the fourteenth century and the present. In the NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF LITERATURE BY WOMEN, we are attempting to do just that.”

“Complementing and supplementing the standard Norton anthologies of English and American literature, NALW should help readers for the first time to appreciate fully the female literary tradition which, for several centuries, has coexisted with, revised, and influenced male literary models.”

Furthermore, in the sixth edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature appearing in the beginning of the twenty first century, Nina Baym, the general editor, stated in the preface:

“That the “untraditional” authors listed above have now become part of the American literary canon shows that canons are not fixed, but emerge and change.”

It can be included that in the long run dichotomy of pop and high literature will disappear peacefully. It is up to public to value and to choose which works they will read. I am of opinion that in society where people are mature enough to choose which works to read, bad writings will be left behind.

P.S.: This article was written to ‘answer’ my Abang’s challenge, related to the hot topic on the polemic of two sides—the community of TUK versus the community that is against it.
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spew-it-all said...

I thought the generosity of postmodersnism breaks down the distinction between low and high arts. I agree with Williams' notion on culture as ordinary thing.

As for the debate between TUK and Saut and friends, i have no comment on it.

A Feminist Blog said...

Hello ...
I do agree with you that postmodernism really brings about many changes in viewing things.
I am wondering whether you speak (and read) Bahasa so that you know what has happened between TUK and Saut and friends.

david santos said...

Freedom for Birmânia!

albert geiser said...

I've been recovering the work of a woman author in the US in the 20s who published in the New Yorker and the New York Times and Motion Picture Magazine and most likely more publications. The pattern continues as much today as ever of woman authors falling into obscurity because male ideas are taken as authority for what are taken to be male areas of meaning, such as Ken Burns covering "The War" and all of jazz music. I can't think of many people who have done more damage to women than Ken Burns who has been allowed to monopolized wide generalized swaths of thought and close out women from them. The woman author who has dissappeared into obscurity outside of publication archives is Esther Kohen Carples, and I have found for example, that she interviewed Rachmaninoff for the New Yorker in 1928. I can see from her writing that were she around today she would be a better authority on music than Ken Burns, but the only prominent documentarians today are males, the works of women authors continue to dissappear. There needs to be a movement in feminism of recovery of woman authors. I urge anyone who reads this blog, for example, to do a simple search in the New York Times archives for Esther Kohen, 1920. An article will appear called Migrating Immigrants which should interest everyone who reads this blog. But I'm not writing this simply to speak of Esther Kohen, but to urge that "herstory" take a new aggressive direction of recovery of woman authors.

This blog is excellent.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article about why a woman should not talk to men friends about her feelings:

A Feminist Blog said...

To Albert Geiser,
Thanks for the lovely comment. You really support what I wrote in this post. Well, women must not get tired to struggle for themselves to be equal with men in all aspects in life, music, literature, painting, economics, anything. I do hope that one day most people in the world will share the same opinion with me.