Daring to be Different

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Over at Popular, wwolfe writes:

“…in a nutshell, these artistes demand to be taken seriously and are, which means they’ll always get more exposure than Pure Pop acts who may be capable of at least as much emotional depth. Ergo, it’s good salesmanship as much as anything.”

This is the best capsule summary of “Sting: Why I Dislike Him and All His Works” that I’ve ever read.

And this is what I replied:

Ah, Sting! He who can come and do my washing up any time he likes! Sexy beast.

I winced along with everybody else when he made his foray into John Dowland country but there’s still a bit of me that says, kudos to him for trying. It didn’t work but what the hell? I doubt whether he did it for the money and I can well understand why he might want to try something new even if it doesn’t come off and doesn’t bear repetition; his problem of course is that whatever he does, and he is the kind of person who wants to explore different things, he will be under scrutiny and subject to the sneers of his many critics. However, Mr Sumner is bunny-fodder in the not-too-distant future and I look forward to some colourful exchanges when we get there.

Meanwhile, I have never claimed expert musical knowledge in these pages; my interest was originally in the pop I grew up with (Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Beach Boys, Motown in all its glory; to be young was very heaven), and latterly in the sociological aspects of pop (and isn’t it all hanging out now!). I know more about writing because that’s what I aspire to, and despite the claims that music, and especially pop music, is sui generis amongst the arts, I think there are very strong parallels in that world.

A friend of mine, a very talented writer and critic of the writing of others, churns out Mills & Boon Modern Extras (the spicier end of the Romantic Fiction niche) by the yard. Although she enjoys producing these, she finds them very limiting because they are essentially written to a strict formula, and they also take up all of her time because having cracked that very difficult market her publishers demand that the product keeps coming, and her readership have very precise expectations and would be up in arms if she strayed from the path and gave them something a little bit unexpected, never mind challenging or thought-provoking. I’m guilty myself in a way – I consume large quantities of crime fiction and sometimes have been annoyed when a favourite crime writer – Reg Hill, say – gets too clever by half. But I don’t get too annoyed because as a would-be crime writer myself I know exactly the yearning to set oneself apart from the crowd, and how difficult it is to experiment when others have such precise expectations of you.

I suppose a literary equivalent of ‘prog’ might be the Booker Prize and its contenders. It’s not a good parallel because those who win the the Booker aren’t generally blockbusting superstars of the literary world, and part of the idea of the Booker is to provide some kind of remuneration for the talented in a world where none but a few can afford to give up the day job. Nevertheless, every autumn when the shortlist is announced, there’s an outcry; it’s elitist, it’s not representing the kind of books that ‘ordinary people’ (whoever they are); inevitably that the Booker winner is ‘unreadable’. I have to say that I haven’t read all the Booker winners by any means but those that I have, haven’t disappointed me. Years ago I stayed up all night to finish Midnight’s Children. Schindler’s Ark wasn’t a pleasant read but it is unforgettable. Possession, Last Orders, The God of Small Things, Amsterdam; all stonking good reads. How Late It Was, How Late evokes the grittiness of Glasgow better than any noir crime story. And so on.

The problem with the anti-elitist line is that it starts from a false premise; that anything different or challenging is remote from the masses. Well, how condescending and elitist can you get than that! Nothing is out of the reach of anybody who wants to break free of their mind-forg’d manacles (what would William Blake have made of Popular, I wonder?). It’s easier to risk failure from obscurity, however, than to fail under the spotlight of popular scrutiny. I have nothing but admiration for those who would take that risk.

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