So, we have two rough categories for placing tight genre product: first, exemplary genres, where the best work represents the ideal summation of what all the genre product aims at, and second, exceptional genres, where the best work stands out because of its departure from the genre’s standards. Ray Davis suggests that the ideals of 1930s comedy are simply better ideals: what’s not to like about them? I agree in part, but I don’t think this explains the disproportionate amount of good product relative to nearly every other era of filmed comedy.
One correlation to be drawn is that in the exemplary case, the best work does not emerge from particular talents but across the board, while in the exceptional case, it is the peculiarities of individual creators that give the best work its shape and form. Indeed, it’s the issues of shape and form themselves that seem to determine whether genres can succeed on their own merits, or whether they require the intervention of a particular individual to bring their own idiosyncrasies to mediocre requirements.
So then, some genres I can think of on either side of the fence. Predictably, I was able to think of far more exceptional cases than exemplary ones. One thing I’m fairly confident of is that as with many mass phenomena, exemplary genres only roll around rarely, through chance.
Grub St. Writers: Exceptional. The sheer hackwork being done by most of these novelists rivals any commercial genre extant today. The few giants of the era tower over their competitors beyond belief.
90s Techno/House/Gabba/etc. Music: Exemplary. The sheer homogeneity of the genre and the rate at which evolutions in beat percolated throughout the communities made individual authorship subservient to all sorts of emergent properties. I’m no Simon Reynolds, so I can’t give the details, but here’s one case in which no one particular artist has ever jumped out at me as being especially ahead of the pack. Meanwhile, the big names have never especially impressed me, seeming to be commercially watered-down rather than especially personality-laden. I do love DJ Scud, but admittedly he’s less interested in working within the genre than eviscerating it.
Chivalric Novels: Exceptional. If the works quoted in Don Quixote are any measure, it took masters like Cervantes and Ariosto to prove that this genre wasn’t completely unredeemable.
EC Comics: Exemplary, sort of. The confluence of talent in
EC is hard to explain, but the randomness that besets the quality of
individual creators’ work, and the ability of the writers and artists to cancel out each others’ flaws (and sometimes their strengths) is one of the few cases in comics where a huddle-room mentality worked. Still, I have to admit that people like Wally Wood certainly have their own stamp, and because the genre never overtook individual quirks, this is a conditional judgment.
Disney/Marvel/DC Comics: Exceptional. I could add many other genres here from the Golden and Silver ages, to say nothing of newspaper comics. Barks, Kirby, Cole, Eisner: without the handful of great names in these genres and their commitment to very personal visions, comic books would truly have the shameful, worthless history that many assume of it.
Stax/Volt/Motown Records: Exemplary. There’s a reason why punters focus on the multi-artist greatest hits discs.
60s Beat Groups: Exceptional. Despite the attempts at a Hitsville USA type factory approach, very little of quality came out of endless beat groups covering a narrow repertoire of house songs, until the best of them gave up and started writing for themselves. Interesting how early some of them (Hollies, Beau Brummels) started to do that.
Dub/reggae: Exemplary. Despite the persistence of some huge names, gems pop up all over the place from people who are never heard from again. Massive amounts of appropriation, plagiarism, and retooling also make picking out individuals extremely difficult to begin with.
Baroque Kantatenwerk: Exceptional. Bach’s sheer weirdness and inspiration blew away whatever qualities his competition had.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Anonymous apotheoses versus individual quirkiness. The first conclusion to draw from these examples is that by banking talent together and forcing tons of cross-pollenation, a bottom-up approach emerges whose impact is only seen in retrospect. In comparison, the top-down dictates of a publisher or a church official make for a more static environment in which it is easier for individuals to insidiously invest themselves in their work.
And that brings me to my next question: whither blogs?
To be continued…