Valuable Lessons from "Low" Art

Wednesday July 11, 2012

By Guide Biography: Patrick Kennedy

Summer: The season of movies that are heavy on special effects and (supposedly) light on brains. Yet this isn't entirely a bad thing. As I see it, a superhero flick, a couple hours of television, or a week's worth of magazines can offer a much-needed release. And if, like me, you like to tackle a few hefty books every summer, diversions like these can provide a welcome, and oddly invigorating, contrast.

But there's another reason not to dismiss popular forms like action films and mystery novels. "Low" culture like this has inspired some of the greatest names in high literature. Consider crime and detective fiction. Modernist and post-modernist masters like Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and Italo Calvino took the main motifs of detective stories and re-worked them using complex characters, delicate descriptions, and psychological intricacies. They didn't just satirize popular culture. They borrowed and learned from it, with a vengeance.

And we could go back even further. In the 19th century, Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. These are unquestionable classics--and, at the same time, sensational crime novels. The situation is similar with Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Today, it is regarded as a supreme example of literary art. Yet Madame Bovary is also a smart commentary on sensational 19th-century romances, and has some pretty sensational moments itself.

What are the types of pop culture that you most enjoy? And what valuable things can "high" literature, however you define it, learn from less lofty modes of writing?


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