5 min read

#13: Simply considered serious art

Hello one and all, and welcome to a new issue of Extremely Unannoying! This week, I brought some musings on art, an old show to watch, and an old podcast to listen to.

Let's jump in!

1) On the vexing nature of high art

Here's a quick and fun exercise for you: can you—without googling it—define high literature?

I'm sure you know instinctively what kind of books one refers to when saying "high literature," but can you actually put that hunch into words?

If you can't, I don't blame you. I couldn't either, and based on my brief search through the internet, I think even scholars struggle with this one. Here's Wikipedia:

Literary fiction [or] high literature, [...] are labels that [...] refers to market novels that do not fit neatly into an established genre [...]; or, otherwise, refers to novels that are character-driven rather than plot-driven, examine the human condition, use language in an experimental or poetic fashion, or are simply considered serious art.

My favorite definition comes from a Hungarian textbook by Márta C. Szálka who argues that high literature is simply literature that has artistic value and achieves a certain artistic standard.

Determined by whom, you ask? Good question.

If you perhaps feel like people are trying to define literary fiction by invoking other very hard-to-define concepts, again, I don't blame you.

Growing up, my mother—bless her decisive heart—cut through all this noise with a verdict she often repeated to me while standing in libraries and bookstores:

Son, there is no such thing as high and low literature. There is only good and bad writing.

As an adolescent, I took these words to heart, which led to remarkably eclectic and utterly shameless bookshelves where George Orwell, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Sofi Oksanen could peacefully coexist with Tolkien, Iain M. Banks, and Stephen King.

Coming from the Wallacher-Vad household, I could never understand the snobbery of the "I only read the c l a s s i c s" people.

Anyway, looking back at it now, my mom's sidestepping of the definition is actually pretty close to the definition itself, only the shiny scholarly sentences omit the crucial, last part in my opinion. Let me try and fix that:

Literary fiction [or] high literature, [...] refers to market novels that [...] are simply considered serious art [by people who have the power to affect popular opinion about what serious art is].

Or, in slightly different words: a novel is treated as high literature if the publishers, literary critics, booksellers, and award committees consider it high literature.

Therefore, If you ask me, the definition of high literature is whatever the literary establishment enjoys reading.

Is that a bad thing? Nope, I don't think so. Does that mean that literary fiction has no defining characteristics? Again, no, I don't think so. As demonstrated by the Wikipedia paragraph earlier, most of litfic has common patterns like realism, experimental prose, character-drivenness, etc. However, the important distinction is that these shared characteristics come from the shared taste of the intended audience and not because they are inherently "high" qualities.

Look, art is a conversation. For a novel to work, there has to be a writer and there has to be a reader, and arguably, the latter brings almost as much to the table as the former. It's not a surprise then that defining the worth of a piece of art lies more with the audience than the creator.

I think it's important to understand this dynamic because it can liberate us as readers.

It can remind us that art is really very subjective apart from the technical skills at its core. Even if a verdict is made by a large and pretty powerful audience, their take is still subjective. And that shows it's kind of silly to try and impose a universal order of importance and value based on subjective taste.

The bottom line: go ahead and read, watch, or listen to whatever you find enjoyable, tugs at your heartstrings, and makes you think deep thoughts for days. High art for you should be defined by you.

2) The casual genius of Community

I think and read a lot about writing these days because of my Secret Project for 2023. (You might have caught a glimpse of it in an earlier issue of this very newsletter, but we're not here for shameless plugs in parentheses... Oops. Sorry about that.)

Anyway, the topic of writing led me back to one of my favorite people doing it: Dan Harmon.

Harmon is a TV writer and showrunner, and if you know him at all, you probably do from co-creating the sci-fi animated show Rick and Morty. But before writing about a drunk, nihilistic genius and his grandson going on universe-hopping adventures, Harmon had a live-action show in the late aughts with a lot more heart: Community.

Community follows a study group of seven students in the it's-seen-better-days Greendale Community College as they get into wacky hijinks. And if that sentence gave you an idea of what the show is about, I guarantee you, you are wrong.

Most series take a couple of episodes or even seasons to find their voice and deal, then they hold onto that recipe and bleed it dry. (I'm looking at you The Big Bang Theory.)

Community reinvents itself every damn episode.

You get different genres, different storytelling methods, and whole different character arcs in almost every episode—executed perfectly, every time. It's mind-bending, but Harmon and his team make it look easy.

Believe me, it is not.

Harmon did explain once how he constructs his stories using his unique take on the Hero's Journey structure. He calls it the Story Circle and it consists of eight different steps a character takes from start to finish. I'm not going to explain the concept here, but if you're interested, here's an excellent article about it.

After reading about the Story Circle, I decided to rewatch Community, and I'm even more fascinated by it now. Interestingly, seeing the gears turn behind the scenes didn't take away from the experience one bit. If anything, it made me appreciate the whole show and Harmon's expertise even more.

Anyway, if you've never seen Community before, you should check it out. It's fantastic and it's streaming on Netflix. And if you have seen it already, maybe give the Story Circle method a quick read, then revisit your favorite episodes. I think you'd see them in a different light.

3) My absolute favorite podcast ever

Speaking of high art and re-inventing yourself in every episode, a few days back, one of my friends asked me to recommend him some podcasts. I sent him a pretty long list, but I want to share my absolute favorite with you too:

Heavyweight by Jonathan Goldstein and Gimlet Media.

The show's premise is simple: people call the host, Jonathan, and tell him about a moment in their past they wish they could change. Jonathan then tries to change it for them.

What comes next are hilarious escapades, heartfelt moments, bittersweet nostalgia, often some tears, and always some laughs. It's a show like none other, and I wholeheartedly, gladly recommend it to you.

Start at the beginning, here, and give my love to Jackie.

That's it for today; I hope you enjoyed this week's Extremely Unannoying! See you in two weeks, and until then, don't forget to apply sunscreen. 🏖️

Bye! 👋