Thursday, March 30, 2006

Critical Theory and TV

Some prominent literary and critical figures, such as Kingsley Amis (who was involved in James Bond fiction) and Leslie Fiedler (whose theories on homosexual undertones in American literature should be examined closer after Brokeback Mountain made explicit what Fiedler showed to be implicit; Virginia Heffernan brings up Fiedler in her analysis of internet parodies of Brokeback Mountain) suggest that popular literature and culture is serious stuff, and needs to be respected in critical examination.

And the canon wars are all about examining what literature we take seriously and study and teach, and what literature we lay by the wayside, ignoring to the point it becomes insignificant. The canon wars are about examining the reasons why certain works are included or excluded in the canon. In some ways, the canon wars are about examining and potentially tearing down the dichotomy between "high" and "low" art. A lot of critics tend to look down on the popular literature as being beneath the consideration given to the greats.

Genre fiction usually gets dismissed. What is the difference between "literature" and a spy novel? Something, perhaps, but it's harder to put into words than you think. So Stephen King, who I consider to be one of the truly brilliant writers ever (insightful, inventive, experimental, masterful controller of form), gets dismissed as a "horror writer." He is a horror writer, but he's also writing serious stuff and doing incredible things with form. But the horror genre itself is a dismissed, disparaged genre.

This may be in part because so much of horror is rather terrible (who cares that much of most things is terrible--the really brilliant horror, the Dracula, the Frankenstein, King at his best, is on the level of anything else). But many horror movies are terrible in part because they are cheap, easy ways to guarantee profit.

And where else does "genre" get disparaged more than in film? How many comedies get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars? Science Fiction films? Horror? The academy likes its serious dramas, and genre is considered lesser quality film.

But that's nothing. Film is considered my many to be "art." To be a film student, to be a film geek, to be a film expert, to be a film aficionado, is something respected. People use the same critical skills they use to understand literature on film. There is a "canon" of all-time great films.

But what about TV? To assert expertise in TV does not bring with it the prestige of asserting expertise in film. But why? There's a lot of bad TV...but is anybody denying that there's a lot of bad film out there too? And I'd put the best of TV (Seinfeld, Arrested Development, The Simpsons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The X-Files, Nip/Tuck, Six Feet Under) against any film. TV as a medium can be just as great as film in every way--in form, in insight, in philosophy, in quality.

The same skills we use to examine The Odyssey can be used to examine Nip/Tuck. The comedy of Arrested Development is worthy the comedy of Don Quixote.

TV can aspire to the quality of art. I can't see any legitimate argument against it.

So to triumph film as "art" while smugly disparaging television is nothing more than pretentious snobbery.

And so, in this blog devoted to contrapunctal discussions of literature and literary theory...the medium of television is fair game for discussion.

But only the best of television: we can remain snobs, too.

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