Tuesday, March 13, 2007

High Art, Low Art and Critical Thought.

My friend Mat Johnson has really done it this time. By insisting that there is a clear difference between highbrow and lowbrow literature he has stepped on number of corns, mostly the lowbrows who feel they are being stepped on and the highbrows who feel any form of stepping is counter productive. I’ve never been a fan either term anymore than I was of Stephen Koch’s “high,” “middle,” and “low” style even though I understand all three. One could say serious literature vs. casual literature but while that’s closer it’s still a powder keg of a definition guaranteed to start arguments.

For one, who gets to decide what’s highbrow or lowbrow? Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison dismissed Zora Neale Hurston’s writing as deliberately lowbrow but both were wrong. On the other hand, I have just read a book by a black author that begins with a young man trying not to ‘nut’ on himself for the second time before he has sex for the first. It’s too early to say but I’m wagering that until global warming affects the brain, nobody is going to call this book a misjudged masterpiece. But it is hard to draw a line between high and low because too much of the very best writing straddles both. If Sci-fi and Crime are low, where does that put Ursula LeGuin, Phillip K. Dick, Octavia Butler or Walter Moseley and George Pellecanos? If Terry Macmillan is lowbrow where does that leave Mama and Disappearing Acts? If Toni Morrison is highbrow was Tar Baby her slumming phase? What about Iceberg Slim?

But all this defense of so-called lowbrow lit ignores a crucial point. Whether black fiction is classified as high or low there is no question that the standard has fallen. And for that both reader and writer is to be blamed. I remember being told by the owner of a black book store that he was expecting a poor turnout for my reading because his customers don’t read literary fiction. It was only because I was being compared to Toni Morrison why some would show up. Too many black readers set such a low bar for the fiction they read, even those, like a college educated relative of mine (you know who you are) who should know better. These writers, crass as they may be are merely meeting a need that they didn’t even create. This may stem from how we are taught.

At my old high school the teachers recently took a vote to decide if literature should remain a compulsory subject. It was the literature teachers who voted no. The tragedy of this development cannot be understated. With the exception of one other subject that is not taught until the children are past 15, English Literature is the only forum for true critical thinking that a child is exposed to. The only subject guided by lucid interpretation, not cold fact. This is lacking in Jamaica and I will venture a guess that that it’s not too prevalent in black America as well. We do not recognize or appreciate critical thinking nor do we think critically. Not surprisingly, criticism is frequently mistaken for attack and the response is most always dirty, out of line or just plain wrong. Or put another way, nobody attacks the criticism; they attack the critic. This cuts across all levels, from black writers who are livid when they do not get the respect that Ralph Ellison got, to rappers like the Wu Tang Clan who used to hunt down critics that gave them bad reviews in the Source.

I’ve mentioned Jamaica’s Louise Bennet before. Louise Bennet is a legendary performer and folklorist but the woman is not a poet, no matter what revisionist intellectuals say. But even if one were to agree that she was, then her work must be left open to serious, even harsh criticism as with any other poet. This is where several Jamaican literary minds cry foul. Where do you get off criticizing Louise Bennet? Who are you anyway? Who I am is irrelevant but what I have to say is not. We are not accustomed to critique in any form and look at criticism of Bennet as an uncalled for attack on the dead. What the blind praisers do not realize is that they are the ones killing her, not me.

The New York Times has now reviewed three novels from Nigerian Chris Abani. The last, for The Virgin of the Flames could be called positive if you’re an optimist, mixed if you’re a pessimist. Some may even regard that review as some sort of attack. Yet it’s the best thing that could have happened to the author. Those who focus on the possible negatives miss the point. A third review in the New York Times is a monumental thing; it’s the establishment’s way of serving notice that this is a serious writer whose life they intend to follow. From now on Abani’s work will always be noticed and will always be taken seriously. By being hostile to criticism you are letting it be known that you do not consider you work worthy of critical appraisal or put another way, you do not wish that you work be taken seriously. Or maybe you are confusing appraisal with praise. This is why a mixed review in the NY times can mean more than a rave in Jet.

There is still this feeling in black communities (including my own) that criticism is the hurting of one’s own. A betrayal in the face of our enemies whoever that may be. This is why Omar Tyree thinks he deserves to be sitting at the same table as Edwidge Danticat. Nobody has ever told him otherwise, even though not even Stephen King expects to be sitting in the same forum as Milan Kundera and neither bitches about it. There is also this feeling that sales justifies everything, but interspecies pornography sells and nobody is arguing for that medium’s intelligence. Nothing is wrong with writers being in it for the money but don’t bitch and moan because nobody thinks you should be taught in Lit class.

Maybe it’s the term lowbrow that does more harm than good. Personally, I prefer LOW BLOW lit. Low-blow is jacking up rather unoriginal sex because you think all black people like do to do is get freeeeekay. Despite our sexual reputation, blacks can be a curiously puritan people where even today a story about oral sex or multiple partners can be read as provocative. Yes, that means Zane. Low-blow is cheap sentimentality passing itself off as real feeling. It’s about Grandma Beulah who makes that fried chicken and candy yams just the way you like it but you gotta go because there’s nothing for you in this lazy town with nosy relatives and you don’t care about your damn family you just want to succeed in the white man’s world and then Grandma dies calling your name and you realize at the graveside that all you ever really needed to know about life you learnt from grandma back in the old house Nana I miss you! Speak to me Nana! Tell me what to do!

Low-blow is thinking that because you’ve touched on an issue you should be rewarded for consciousness as if rattling off the issues is a sign of emotional intelligence. We still think we should be rewarded, not for doing something well but for doing it at all. Low-blow is thinking that anything avant-garde or (paradoxically) classicist is merely trying to be white. Low-blow Lit thinks that a refusal to invite Tyler Perry to the National Black Theater Festival is a refusal of the Negro race itself. Low-blow lit is thinking that quality never existed in commercial fiction. Low-blow lit is finally, literature for people who don’t read. People for whom a book has as much importance as a passable movie, four songs on an I-pod or unexceptional sex. This is not an audience you can trust. Low-blow lit thinks it gives the readers what they want but perhaps, 1. The audience really doesn’t know what he or she wants and 2. They should also be getting what they need.

I think I know what the opposite of low-blow lit is but I’ll leave the creation of that term to somebody else. What I do hope is that people come to realise that the unabashed, uncritical love given to some writers and filmmakers does nobody any good, neither artist nor reader. In Man Gone Down, Michael Thomas has just written what may be the first great novel by a black writer in the 21st century. Read it. Love it. Hate it. But for God’s sake, have an opinion about it.