Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Elite, Popular, Folk

In my American Folklore class, we talked about these terms as types of aesthetic categorization, and I found it rather intriguing. This type of categorization can be applied to everything from music to medicine, but I, of course, am going to look at it from a literary standpoint. First, lets define terms:

Elite. Best, highest quality, most prestigious. The kind of art you generally study in academia. Examples: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Herman Melville.

Popular. Mainstream, part of the culture, mass produced. Examples: J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King.

Folk. Informal, societally based, more down to earth, tales, legends. Examples: Greek mythology, Norse mythology, fairy tales, campfire stories, jokes.

Now, if you were paying attention, you'll notice something about the examples. None of them quite fit exactly in one category. Jane Austen was also popular. Rowling draws on all kinds of mythology and folklore.

Take Shakespeare, for example. Obviously he is considered elite; he has written some of the greatest works in the English language that we have been studying in our universities for years. He was also popular; he wrote plays to pay the bills and feed his family. The average people of his day knew who he was and enjoyed his work. He also draws on folk stories and mythologies, sometimes indirectly, and sometimes, such as in Midsummer Nights Dream, very directly. Mark Twain is another writer who we consider great and study in our schools, who was popular and well-received in his own day, and who drew heavily on folk stories and language in his work.

So why does this make a difference in our own writing? Well, by drawing on elite, popular and folk literature, we can expand our own mental cannon. By accessing many types of literature we can reach many types of people. So study your school reading, keep updated on the New York Times bestseller list, and make sure you know a little ancient mythology. No matter what style or genre your writing, being intelligently versed in all three categories will greatly expand your mental resources when you sit down to write. You may be surprised at what happens.

So how do you think each of these categories can help your own writing? What is beneficial to you about each of them?

Sarah Allen

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