High or Low Brow

Consider where you're pitching your work before you start to write.

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When we start to write we first need decide whom our likely audience might be. No point my pitching articles to the Guardian when they’re better suited to Take a Break. Before even considering your first draft, study the in-house style, then think whether you can recreate it. If not, who instead might read and enjoy your work? Or with a novel, where are you pitching it? Who’s your ideal reader? The woman who reads one book a year on holiday, and wants a shiny gold cover to match her new beach bag? If so, you probably need to write about a career woman who’s unlucky in love but it all comes right in the end by some improbable twist of fate – no, no, don’t think about it too closely, ooh look, cocktails! If you can write like that, convincingly devoting pages to eyebrow blading and love balls and stilettos, there may well be a career awaiting you.

This is literature that fills a particular function – “beach reads” is a category on Kindle – and it doesn’t make any real attempt to be distinctive. There may be a twist on a theme – maybe the protagonist is a widow, or bicurious, or keen on archaeology – but nonetheless you can expect certain tropes: a supportive friendship network, a middle class career path, an interest in material goods, relationship issues that come good eventually. If any of those elements were missing, the reader would probably feel cheated. Some or all of them may be missing at the start, but gradually, as the narrative progresses, you’ll find they swim into focus.

Popular art is deliberately less complex and distinct, the better to broaden its appeal. And I guess if you only read one book a year you want to be reasonably confident you’ll enjoy it. Conversely, art that makes an attempt to be unusual or different in some way inevitably narrows its likely audience. People like what they know, usually. Not always, but often. Nothing wrong with that. I pick up an Agatha Christie once a month at least. It’s comforting: easy to read when you’re tired or stressed.

But it’s tempting to make a value judgement between high and low art, literature for the masses and for the cultured elite. Beauty is truth, that poet fella said, and some believe that high art has some moral benefit, some edifying, quasi-spiritual function, to elevate the masses and help them better understand themselves and their feelings, broaden their minds and outlook. Stuff that. Read what you like. Write what you like too. I will always struggle to write for the mainstream – I’m rubbish at plot, for one thing – and if you go for a niche audience instead, the best you can probably hope for is that you’ll win an award or two and people will pretend they’ve read you so they look cultured and cool. More likely your mum will sigh and shake her head when she talks about your pretend writing career, and you must hope your genius will be acknowledged after your absinthe-addled demise.

But of course these are generalisations. Some brilliant writers are exceptionally popular. I’d give my right arm to write as compellingly and truthfully as Stephen King, even if he’d never sold a word. If you can write like that and be popular too, well done, and also, I hate you.

John Stuart Mill makes a distinction between high pleasures and low pleasures. High pleasures include helping people, learning and engaging with complex art, while low pleasures tend to be those a pig might enjoy – lazing in the sun, eating tasty treats. He argues that given equal access to all pleasures one will never choose a lower pleasure once having become fully acquainted with a higher. That’s patently nonsense. I like reading Kierkegaard and also watching Judge Rinder. If I had to pick one to enjoy the rest of my life it probably would be the Kierkegaard, but I would regret the loss of Judge Rinder all my days. Fortunately I need never choose. Having access to a range of pleasures and enjoying access to them all according to season is a uniquely human joy: something else that sets us apart from a pig.

However, when creating art yourself it’s important to decide whether you are aiming for a high or low art vibe, because otherwise you won’t know when you’ve succeeded. If you’re writing something unique and expecting to get rich and famous on its back, you’re almost certainly doomed to disappointment. If you go high, you’ll have accomplished your aims when you’ve said what you hoped to say and pleased yourself.

Sorry mum.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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