The distinctions between “high” and low art no longer exist.
Concert halls that once featured solemn performances of the works of dead European composers also host pop singers. The contemporary wings of art museums show pieces that look like toys (Jeff Koons), junk (Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauchenberg and others), pieces of metal (numerous sculptors, including the Minimalists), construction debris, rotting food, cartoons, boxes, neon signs.
Our most prestigious academies grant doctoral degrees to studies of popular culture, which was once dismissed as ephemeral, disposable trash of now lasting value or significance. This last bit I find amusing, because I adore science fiction and fantasy, and once lent a book of R.A. Lafferty stories to a professor enthralled by the South American magical realists (Borges, Marquez, et. al.). He dismissed the book as inferior literature that should not be mentioned in the same breath as his favorites.
This is no longer true, for many reasons, some of which have to do with the predominance of science fiction in mass culture–the established entertainment industrial complex that has now globalized itself until it has become a standard by which other works are measured. What another professor called “illegitimate” theater (vaudeville, “Las Vegas style” revues that I once had to review when I covered Atlantic City, magic shows, the circus) is now legitimate live entertainment, with marketing campaigns intended to capture specific demographics and “niche” market.
What about the stuff people are doing all by themselves and uploading on the Internet? No human being, no aggregator, no critic can possibly take this in, enjoy it and make an inclusive, qualitative judgement about it.
With so much stuff out there, you’d think the role of a critic, or just some culture vulture pointing the way, would be even more important.
But the American global culture is so vast that getting attention has become an art in itself. Sensationalism used to mean the distorted reporting of a shocking incidents or statements. “Yellow journalism,” named for a comic strip called the “Yellow Kid” that appeared in some tabloids, flourished when cities had numerous competing newspapers. These same newspapers invented other attention getting devices that, they hoped, would get and keep an audience. The New York Times Best Seller list was such an invention.
I used to write for the Times. Long before I got that gig, and, I harbored a fantasy of becoming a “New York Times Best Selling Author.” To earn that distinction, you had to have a book make what was once the most famous sales list in the world that is losing its relevance against other book rankings.
I worked very, very hard on my novels, and still do. Yes, the ones published were genre works because I couldn’t interest agents and editors in anything else. I wrote them with a serious respect for the genre conventions and a faith that it was possible to write really good stuff that either fulfilled or exceeded the expectations of the gatekeepers who only wanted to keep their jobs while publishing books they liked, and the readers who, like me, loved a great story.
Then I found myself working for the New York Times. It started with a phone call. They called me.
I had started doing reviews for the Book Review, a publication I grew up reading. Then the New Jersey section editors asked me to cover Atlantic City, the Jersey shore and New Jersey in general.
My stuff appeared in the New Jersey section. Sometimes it ran in other regionals.Editors and staffers at Philadelphia publications that used to ignore me began to ask me if I could get them jobs at the Times.
If I think about the circulation figures of the newspaper way back then, I can guess that more people had the potential to read my stuff than most books that appeared on the list.
I was paid very little. I was occasionally edited to death. Though I had some very good editors, I had to put up with editors who were paid to know more about what I was writing than I did, which, as all of us know, is the perennial conflict that isolates labor from management, manufacturing from sales, generals from troops in the trenches.
People bought the paper. My stuff “sold.”
Did a dream come true?
Sometimes, you can be grateful for ambiguities.