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Sunday, January 30, 2005

From Jon Breen

Here’s something to stir things up. Take any artistic endeavor in which two very successful contemporaries work or have worked in the same general field. If one of them is slightly or somewhat more commercially successful, the other one will probably be somewhat more artistically successful.

For example, take John Grisham and Scott Turow, both associated with legal thrillers, both bestsellers, both good writers. Everyone would have to agree that Grisham has been the greater commercial phenomenon, but I think most would agree that Turow is the finer novelist.

Second example: the two major composers of musical theatre in the past few decades have been Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim. Both have had their hits, but Lloyd Webber has clearly been the more commercial. Sondheim, I venture to say, is regarded by students of the field as the greater artist.

More examples: among contemporary film directors, Stephen Spielberg more commercially successful, Martin Scorsese more artistically successful; in espionage fiction, Ian Fleming more commercially successful, John Le Carré more artistically successful. This one’s a closer call but defensible: in Golden Age British detective fiction, Agatha Christie more commercially successful, Dorothy L. Sayers more artistically successful.

Not sure about this one, but someone I know who reads everything both these writers comes out with would say Stephen King is the greater commercial phenomenon but Peter Straub the better novelist. I definitely don’t agree with this one, but many would say that between the late-night talkers Jay Leno with the higher ratings is more commercially successful but the hipper David Letterman more artistically successful.

So there’s the game. Is it worth playing or is it wheel-spinning nonsense?

Jon Breen


Blogger Bill said...

Hammett and Chandler?

January 31, 2005 at 6:41 AM  
Blogger Jon L. Breen said...

Hammett and Chandler is a tough call. To begin with, I don't know that you could say which of them was the more commercially successful. If you can tell me, I'll tell you if I think the other is more artistically successful. (Or I may waffle.)

January 31, 2005 at 4:53 PM  
Blogger jchess said...

Not to get too philosophical but doesn't it depend on your definition of 'Art' and 'commercial'? I hold that when you create it is Art, and when you put your effort Out There it is commercial. Given this as parameters don't such things become relative to the work at hand?

February 1, 2005 at 4:31 AM  

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