High Culture, Low Culture


….the recent talk of books and football brings us on to the next point several of you raised yesterday, viz, that you can read Proust and also read Viz. But conformity is pushed onto us in the world of books too.

There’s a distinctly middle-class feel to many literary festivals (Cheltenham is probably the most obvious example) that promotes gentle unthreatening reading, and while there’s nothing at all wrong with that I wonder why there isn’t an edgier festival too. The SF, fantasy and horror genres have all been deeply damaged by being co-opted into the mainstream. The experimental novel has, as far as I can see, vanished altogether.

I can’t remember who said it, so I’ll have to paraphrase; ‘Take the thing your critics hate most about your first book and build your entire career on it.’ How else will we create something original and idiosyncratic?

My Kindle reading list is not much different from my iPhone music mix; it features seasoned performers and undisciplined first-timers. Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy gives us an intelligent, thoughtful mainstream author at the top of his game, Kate Atkinson does the same although she can be a little remote, Jane Harper is a terrific new crime writer. But pick up recommendations for a handful of self-published debuts and you sometimes find a flawed diamond (only flawed because they haven’t been through the editorial process).

With the limited success of Amazon’s reading programme in the UK it may be that the omnivorous corporation will stop trying to remove the author from the reader/publisher equation (they’ve been trying to destroy the traditional author-publisher relationship for years now), but they’ve made it hard to find new authors. What’s important now is the little strap-line attached to the title and the ‘Look Inside!’ sample pages.

I get depressed when I go to certain bookstores and see them performing the equivalent of fan service, proving exactly what you’d expect to see in a bookstore. Of course stock the popular, but add some surprises into the mix too. I can’t be angry with WH Smith because they simply supply casual travellers with something to do on a train journey, but I remember funny thing;

Back in the seventies WH Smith asked me to create an ad campaign for them featuring writers who were famous in another medium (this is the oldest trick of book festivals too – ‘Get Alan Titchmarsh!’ – ‘Get Mary Beard!’). The only person to turn them down flat was Joyce Grenfell, who told me that in her opinion Smiths could have raised the reading levels of millions but chose to dumb them down.

But when you think about it, many UK authors who seem mainstream really aren’t at all. Edward St Aubyn, shamelessly and unapologetically upper-middle class and intelligent, is capable of the most surreal flights of fancy, despite having a hit BBC show, and Kate Atkinson’s obsession with alternative timelines can make her novels far from straightforward.

My next independent novel will be ‘a fantasia on British themes’, according to my agent. My problem is that I haven’t yet found a mainstream hook that will bring in unsuspecting readers.

The bottom line on high culture/ low culture? If it’s written interestingly, I’ll read it. I once read a Pulitzer prize-winning article on repairing racing cars that enthralled me even though I have zero affinity with the subject. It’s all in the words you use.


32 comments on “High Culture, Low Culture”

  1. Richard Burton says:

    Hi admin, what was the Pulitzer Prize book you mention? I’m an old car fetishist and I’d like to read it. Many thanks.

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    Would it be Dan Neil’s car reviews? They’ve been recommended to me, but I’ve never got around to reading any.

  3. Brooke says:

    May not be what Mr. Fowler has in mind, but Dan wrote for LA Times–car country– and I think he is now with WSJ. Rare that a critic wins a Pulitzer.

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    …. especially car critic. Why are cars ‘low culture’?

  5. admin says:

    I think Peter and Brooke may be right – I only read it in context to the prize so I don’t remember where it appeared.

  6. Richard Burton says:

    Thanks all, I shall do some digging around Dan Neil. Car review stuff is generally good fun, as it strongly reflects its era. British 1950s reviews are very tweedy and have upper lips of granite, and late 60s American car magazines can get very gonzo.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    What pulls us about cars? I don’t pay attention to cars much, but I often read the Driving section in our Friday paper, especially if it has an article about personal experiences. Is it old cars? I just reread a Dorothy Sayers and googled 1932 Morgans because she’d said they paid a lower tax (they’re tricycle styled and nothing like the later Morgans.) That’s an example of a proper use of a brand name, by the way. If you specify a brand it had better be because there is something unique about it so that you don’t have to go into detail to make the reader understand the situation. (Oh, sorry, that was part of a discussion I had with someone else.)

  8. Peter Tromans says:

    Richard, that’s an interesting observation. In those days, I loved Sports Car Illustrated, written by the sector of California hippies who drove Austin-Healeys rather than VW campers. I could be amused by, but often disliked, Motor Sport, aimed more for the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Sadly SCI is long disappeared.

  9. Jonathan Oliver says:

    Totally with you on Amazon. I had to learn to play nice with them when I commissioned fiction, but it was mostly through gritted teeth.

  10. Peter Tromans says:

    Too many decades, too much heat ‘Illustrated’ should have been ‘Graphic’.

  11. Brooke says:

    Cars can be fascinating. First, there are multiple engineering problems to solve–design, fuel, electrical, materials and so on. Car are where a lot of innovation gets to market. Second, the fit and finish design to appeal to particular segments. Third, marketing the plate. And the mix of conflicting economic, sociological and public policy factors that shape the industry are fascinating.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Good analysis, Brooke.

  13. Wayne Mook says:

    On the cover there is no ice in the drink so the blonde is not on the rocks, sorry but I had to mention this.

    Peter, this is a bit of a generalisation but High culture – cerebral, exclusive and linked to the upper classes; Low culture – physical, popular and linked to the lower classes.

    Cars are physical to drive (especially motor sport), fix (you’ll get your hands dirty) and to make; popular think of the number of number fans and the amount of writing on them including advertising; and lower class, if you were upper class with money a chauffeur did the driving, only poorer people and sporty-types drove themselves, and most motor mechanics are… can you guess? And remember advertising and selling is not the done thing, you have people for that.

    Now where would you put Eastern European horror stories? High or Low?


  14. Peter Tromans says:

    Nice analysis, Wayne. It explains a few inconsistencies. For example, B.B. King must rate above Andrè Rieu in spite of violins sitting above blues guitars.

    The unfortunate aspect is that quality doesn’t carry much weight in the equation. I wrote a blog post on motoring art. It should be at the top end of 20th century painting, but it’s dragged down by its subject.

  15. Brooke says:

    I question the correlation of cars with class. Every man I have been involved with has been a car-lover/ owner of one or more of the following: Rolls, Bentley (vintage –before RR), Morgan, Aston-M, Bugatti, Lotus (purchased because Mrs. Peele drove one!), custom built Porsche, Ferrari, Masserati, McLaren (more recent), Merc, BMW, Jaguar, and some vintage plates that I have forgotten. They drive and fix their cars–no one else barring specialized mechanics, can touch their cars and then only after long involved conversations between owner and mechanic. Highly educated “professional” men, not working class backgrounds but not “rich.”

    Cars are physical and intellectual challenges. On weekend mornings, I would find these men in their multi-car garages surrounded by parts of some poor disemboweled machine. As one said, “I’m not happy unless I can mess up something and fix it (try to!). And I can’t do that with my business.”

  16. Peter Tromans says:

    Brooke, my admiration for you grows! Perhaps, the greatest features are exclusivity and rarity. Thus, Bugatti and W.O. Bentleys find a respect from which Morris Minors and Ford Anglias, even Jaguars and BMWs, are excluded.

    Class remains a factor. Note the decline of R-Rs, Bentleys and others following their association with football and certain professional celebrities.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Remember the Beatles’ Rolls? Bright yellow and floral.

  18. Brooke says:

    Exclusivity and rarity yes. But Bugatti, Bentley. etc. made very beautiful machines. The light bulb finally went on for me while I was looking at one of the racers; the Italian design and molding were astonishing–more art than machine.
    Yes, there is a decline–not just class; the cars are no longer beautiful –just expensive. I hitched a ride home a couple of weeks ago with a McLaren owner– it’s a Nike trainer.

  19. Peter Tromans says:

    Some of my ideas are in: https://petersjaguarpages.wordpress.com/category/art/
    I apologise for mentioning it, but it saves filling Chris’s blog with the same words.

  20. Helen Martin says:

    I agree, Brooke. They’ve traded beauty for speed. Something that looks fast even when standing still is “a beautiful machine.” Did you watch the Alfa Romeo ads? First of all, the cars were all red. (Red cars are fast, you know.) They all had low slung front ends that gave the impression of sharks circling and then everything swoops into airstream shapes. When you look at their sides there’s a great deal of agreement from one brand to another.

    Can’t wait any longer and Admin is still in his Italian hideaway. That was an impressive gave this morning but the best team won, I’m afraid. Croatia had the strength and persistence to carry themselves through. Croatians across Canada are almost hysterical. Let them enjoy it while it lasts because the Brits are just warming up. I will cheer for Croatia on Sunday and the game is early enough I’ll still make it to church.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    Blast! “Impressive game this morning.”

  22. Denise Treadwell says:

    Mr Chris, I am very interested in anything you have to say.Just waiting for more!

  23. Peter Tromans says:

    Culture here reached a low last night. England lost and were not their best. (I guess the consolation is that it stops either side of Brexit taking credit for a World Cup win.) I started a comment pointing to the art section of PetersJaguarPages. wordpress. com to continue the cars and culture. As I was breaking the Web address so it wouldn’t be seen as a link, I dropped my phone. It stopped completely. Thanks to re-charging and multiple button pushing, the phone has recovered, but following a couple of other minor disasters I haven’t.

  24. Jan says:

    Hiya. Not been following this car discussion but agree Peter it didn’t end very well for us this tournament.

    Never mind we’ll be doing ok in Qatar where I expect there will be lots of night matches. (+ It might just rain you never know.)

    At least if you take a look at the front pages today Harry Kane looks even more Christ like when he’s sad. Sorry Brooke I didn’t go the library I went to Winchester Cathedral instead (Wasn’t there a song about that once?) And I did a tour of the Crypt. Where there are two WELLS believe it or not. One probably dating from the Roman era. It frequently floods the crypt down there, not cos of the wells but because the water table is so high in Winchester. Was originally built on peat the cathedral. Very early in 20C some X naval diver worked down there + did a tremendous job saving the foundations of the building and reinforcing them. There’s a lovely little statue to him in the place I will send it to C.F if I can.

    Ah well that’s some memorable summer dreams done then. Still it was lovely weather and everybody (nearly everybody maybe) had a spring in their step for a few weeks. Memories for a lot of youngsters were made in summer 2018.

    “Come on England” try hard for the bronze tournament medal.( If they still run that match.)

  25. Brooke says:

    Mr. Fowler is en vacances; we can take over.
    Helen, you have to applaud a team ranked 20th at the start coming up the ranks to 4th.
    Red cars– perhaps that why I thought of Nike trainers. Red Alfa Romero SUV.. I googled the ads. The SUV part seems wrong somehow.

    Peter, I checked out Jaguar Pages…nice site. But I had to laugh at the post “The Future’s Electric:” In US, Jaguars had a reputation for horrible electrical systems. Wasn’t Jaguar a victim of Lucas “Prince of Darkness?” Sorry Jaguar lovers.

    High culture/low culture– I’m reading “Taste” by Stephen Bayley. Discussing the current president’s NYC home, he writes: “new money rarely chooses subtlety as its means of expression.”

  26. Peter Tromans says:

    Let’s not get into ‘the future’s electric’, it’s too much politics. I’ll also let the prince of darkness pass as I’ve had more problems with Bosch.

    Isn’t the finest piece of sculpture of the 20th century the E-type Jaguar, especially in its racing guise without bumpers and chrome?
    Plus you can drive around in it and do other fun things for which Hepworth or Moore are totally useless. But don’t ask an art critic.

  27. Helen Martin says:

    Peter, I don’t know about the finest sculpture, but the XKE is certainly a beautiful thing. I like the roadster better than the coupe – there’s something about that curve up to the roof that is not satisfying. I’m afraid my mental vision always includes a beautiful woman with head scarf streaming in the breeze. She’s always laughing, too, but why wouldn’t she be. If I assume it’s a British E I can even imagine she’s driving!
    Denise, if you make the request on Facebook I’ll dare to friend you. I can’t seem to find the proper way to do it on my end. (Nobody comment, I know I’m an ignoramus.)

  28. Helen Martin says:

    Jan, I hope you do send the photo to Admin & that he posts it, especially as we’re rather into admiring navy divers just now.That diver must have done a lot to warrant a whole statue and I’m assuming he did it before SCUBA gear.
    Yes, I did admire a team that could come that far up the standings. Roll on Qatar! (If that’s where it does actually end up. There’s still a lot of controversy.)

  29. Peter Tromans says:

    The original E coupe was good, but they stretched the car and raised and bent the roof to allow a back seat (for micro people), taller drivers and an automatic transmission…. Progress, but it lost the balance of the lovely curves.

    Footie – well it’s a knock out competition, which makes things interesting since the result of one game depends on luck as well as ability. And FIFA does seem to want to help the less mainstream teams…. Well you have to find some consolation.

  30. Helen Martin says:

    It’s always satisfying to discover that a person’s faint dislike is founded on real sources. Thank you, Peter. I haven’t gone back to compare one design year with the next and I will gladly accept your analysis.
    Footie. Peter, as has been noted, England was well down in the standings at the outset. I know it doesn’t help but third place is not shabby under those conditions. And they’ll get third tomorrow, they will.

  31. Helen Martin says:

    No, third is not shabby, but it’s Belgium’s not England. Sad.

  32. Wayne Mook says:

    Sorry a bit slow on the reply, as soon as high and low culture come into it, class will always be there.

    To be honest there are some handsome cars. F1 has amazing technological design, the engineering is cutting edge, it has one of the most sort after and romantic marques at it’s head, Ferrari, but it can still be written of with a remark like, ‘boys with their toys.’ Cars are popular right across the board, but as soon as it has physical labour, you have the proletariat and with that added popular. Popular culture is low brow, sad but that’s the general gist. F1 for all the history and some beautiful cars it’s still popular, physical and a gentleman should never get their hands dirty.

    Bentley’s were racing cars, Bugatti was, only Rolls-Royce really wasn’t involved in racing and Royce originally was involved with cranes.

    The bottom line is if you enjoy something, to hell with what anyone else says or the label they put on it. But I guess most of us know that anyway.


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