Thursday, July 19, 2007

Harry Potter and Classist Nonsense

I admit to being late (again) in responding to Isaac's post about a plea from Matthew Yglesias that a "literary critic" with the "requisite chops" might find a great opportunity to write intelligently about the Harry Potter books in a way "that said something about the Potter books as literature, something smart and insightful that made me think "hey, this guy has smart things to say about books!" Something that would situate the books in some kind of context vis-a-vis the much larger cultural sweep of the novel." Yglesias' heart is in the right place -- he likes the Potter books, and wants them to attract more readers -- but I knew some variation on the following sentence was coming, and he doesn't disappoint: "Something that might get an intelligence person who enjoyed the Potter books interested in some larger, more highbrow segment of the literary enterprise."

What is it about people in the arts that they see everything in terms of missionary work? Like somehow the great unwashed need to be "saved" from popular art in order to be inducted into the vastly superior world of Harold Pinter, Howard Barker, and William Gaddis? They get these ideas from higher education, which teaches the students that certain characteristics are "better" than others, and that these things are "universal" values. Ideological, classist hogwash.

John McGrath, in A Good Night Out, outs one of these so-called universal values (and yes, I've quoted this repeatedly, and it deserves to the repeated): "mystery."
For example, mystery - or mysteriousness as it so often becomes. How often has this 'all-pervading air of 'mystery' been praised by critic and academic alike, from Yeat's Purgatory down through Beckett to our own cut-price product, Harold Pinter? Mystery, the ingredient that leavens the loaf - or should I say makes the dough rise? But many audiences don't like mystery, in that sense of playing games with knowledge, and words, and facts. They become impatient, they want to know what the story is meant to be about, what is supposed to have hap­pened. They wish a different order of mystery. But because we have universalized the critical response to 'mystery' that proclaims it as a truly wonderful thing, we now have to dismiss those audiences as philistine, as outside true theatre culture, as - and this is the Arnold Wesker refinement - in need of education. My belief, and the basis of my practice as a writer in the theatre for the last ten years, has been that there are indeed different kinds of audiences, with different theatrical values and expectations, and that we have to be very careful before consigning one audience and its values to the critical dustbin.
J. K. Rowling has no need of a highbrow literary critic to explain her work, because her work speaks for itself, powerfully and vividly. That's why people like to read her novels. She mixes excitement, spectacle, and fantasy with a clear moral message: evil is always out there, it always is trying to take over, it requires constant vigilance by good people to keep it at bay, and sometimes people who don't see themselves as heroic are pressed into service and must shoulder the responsibility and carry the pain that it entails. (Yes, it IS Hamlet's problem -- so damn what?) And she gets this message across through action, not through obscure cogitation and "mystery." Maybe if more Democrats had read Rowling, they might not have let George W. Voldemort turn the US into the Dark Kingdom. Or maybe we might not have. I'll bet our kids wouldn't have, if we let them actually participate in anything resembling life.

I was at a conference where some NEA flak gave a presentation about how horrible it was that Americans were consuming less and less art, music, drama, literature, amd museums than in the pass. The outlook was especially dire for young people. As I said, it was a conference on the arts, and I suspect that this putz thought this was a slam dunk audience of people who would rise as one and chant huzzah at his call for more arts in America. Boy, was he surprised, because while it was a conference on the arts, it was a conference devoted to the arts for social change, and every one of the people in the audience immediately grasped the elitist definition of the "arts" that the NEA was using. If it was music, it was symphonic or jazz -- certainly nothing like rock, rap, or country western. Novels and short stories only counted if they were read on paper -- anything read or experienced on the internet, for instance, wasn't counted. Movies, TV? Forget it. Look at how the NEA is spending its money -- on national tours of Shakespeare, for Christ sake. Let's make sure that the theatre isn't seen as being anything immediate and pertinent -- it is "culture," after all.

We shouldn't be writing about Harry Potter as a way to get people to read more highbrow stuff -- according to Harold Bloom, Potter is valuable only if it leads young people to reading Kipling's racist 19th-century Jungle Book or Just So Stories. Anyway, we shouldn't be writing about Potter as a gateway to high art, but what we ought to bedoing is combing every word of Rowling's books to figure out where the magic is -- how does it work? And then we ought to be figuring out how to create similar magic on our stages.

I come from a working class family. I read like a fiend when I was growing up, everything from The Executioner series (sort of James Bond for the Average Joe) to Taylor Caldwell to Thomas Tryon to whatever I could get my hands on. And then I went to college, where I was taught about high art, important art, and given all the tools and the words to value those things, and my brain was scrambled and rearranged. And now I can't get back. Now I can't open a mystery novel without getting turned off by the two-dimensional characters. Now I can't get swept away in an inspiring film like Pay It Forward without some part of my educated brain going "Kind of maudlin, ain't it? And isn't it significant that the good kid had to die at the end?" We ruin kids with our insistence on things being difficult, and obscure, and morally ambiguous, and narratively complex. We take away the pleasure of art, and substitute some pale imitation called "intellectual stimulation." And it is damaging. And now over at Parabasis poor Isaac is feeling puzzled and maybe a little bit guilty because he is too tired to get into Don DeLillo's latest novel. He wonders whether he has failed DeLillo, or vice versa, because he experiences "a certain resistence when reading for pleasure to really embrace difficulty in prose styling."

And I want to cry out: "It's not too late, Isaac! Turn back! Your resistance to the work involved with deciphering DeLillo's "prose styling" is a sign that you haven't yet lost your heart, your ability to appreciate a good, rip-roaring tale well told! You don't want to end up like me when you're in your 40s -- unable to read a novel just for the buzz of it without insisting on some sort of message, some sort of puzzle! Run down to your grocery store or wherever they only stock the top 20 bestsellers and buy the latest mystery and read it as fast as you can for plot only -- hell, skip the description parts, just read the dialogue. But as Jacob Marley said to Scrooge on his deathbed, 'Save...yourself!' It's not too late."

And please, please don't any chop-heavy literary critics explicate the significance of the Harry Potter series -- I actually experienced some of the old excitement when I read the first two volumes, and if somebody writes about it's deeper meaning, I'll have to read it, and then the lights will go out forever. My heart hangs by a thread!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Locating the Tribe

It has been very interesting following the discussion of Daniel Quinn's idea of the tribe as it might pertain to the theatre. One thing that keeps coming up is what might be called the Hobbesian View of Human Nature (or Siren Song of Individual Success). Don got this ball rolling:

My experience has been that when you happen to find that tribe of people willing to sacrifice their personal ambition for the overall good of the tribe of theater, two things can be labeled as truth. First, those most willing to forgo personal success have found they simply don't have the skill, ability or talent to justify a lot of personal ambition and the second, if they have that talent, they will soon abandon the tribal group once a good offer for serious employment comes along or they find that they are not getting out of the group artistically what they put into it time-wise.

And while he fervently wished for more tribal thinking, he was at the same time concerned because people "at their core, are selfish and self-involved."

Mike, in my comments box, agreed with Don: "it's a attractive concept, but I don't really see it surviving collision with reality. The issues of talent versus loyal work always raise their head in any collective, along with a host of other issues. Every system has issues, but the idea that the answer is simply "tribes" seems like academic hogwash."

Nick at Rat Sass followed this line of thought himself, writing:
American theatre, more than theatre in other countries, swims in the shared water of the big pool of dominant culture. So the theatre tribe may resemble an Entourage or Posse as much as they do a religious parish or political sect. I doubt Don, Ian, or Slay would turn down fame if Celebrity Culture offered it to them. Few American theatre groups I know are shunning “stardom” or “moving up” to a more “prestigious” venue.

All of this thoughtful commentary has led me to further thinking. What has me particularly intrigued is that almost everyone who has posted on this topic has simultaneously expressed a longing that it should work, combined with a sense that it is unlikely if not impossible because the theatrical American Dream of fame and fortune will sooner or later corrupt the idealism.

Which leads me to wonder whether this model would operate better in a place where the likelihood of fame is less in the forefront of artists' imaginations. Perhaps NYC and Chicago, where there is a hierarchy of theatres and where a strong personal review can lead to the possibility of individual fame, holds too many temptations. In fact, perhaps these environmental facts actually attract the type of people who would fit into such a system, and thus NOT fit into a tribe. I'm not saying that NYC and Chicago theatre people are more "selfish and self-involved" than others, but rather that the unspoken hope that, like Cinderella, you might be plucked from obscurity and courted by the Prince would be less prevalent in a city a bit further from the spotlight where fairy godmothers rarely go. Perhaps the every-man-for-himself, dog-eat-dog mentality is encouraged in big cities that receive mass media attention, and the values of cooperation and ensemble would best be developed in a different atmosphere.

And if the thought of doing theatre outside of the megalopolis makes you queasy, makes you think it is a symbol of "giving up" or not being "good enough," then you are probably not a good candidate for a tribe. Tribes are about the work, not about the individual. It's about being happy having an opportunity to do work that is fulfilling, and regarding that fulfillment as an end in itself. It isn't about money (although tribes should provide enough to get by), and it isn't about fame. It is about theatre, and contribution to the life of a community.