The series Spotlight on Good Writing highlights techniques used in public-facing writing that are widely applicable to writing of all kinds, including research papers and expository essays written by students.
This post focuses on how writers can successfully integrate critical works into their writing.
One of the challenges of academic writing is integrating critical works. This post focuses on the way Adam Wilson incorporates into his recent piece for Harper’s Magazine, “Good Bad Bad Good: What Was the Golden Age of TV?,” Dwight Macdonald’s classic essay “Masscult and Midcult,” published in 1960.
Wilson’s piece investigates the quality of television programs in the era that saw the release of The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, among other “prestige” shows. Wilson questions television critics’ characterization of this period as revolutionary, arguing instead that despite a few good series, most shows were mediocre. The “Golden Age” was mostly a marketing exercise, typified by the slogan “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO,” aimed at convincing elites that it is OK to watch television instead of consuming more high-minded fare like novels and plays. To bolster his argument, he builds on Macdonald’s critical essay.
A Critical Work Should Be Gracefully Integrated
When incorporating an earlier writer’s work into their essays, good writers introduce it gracefully. Wilson begins his essay by discussing how he and his roommate used to rate television shows as “Good-Good,” “Bad-Good,” or “Good-Bad.” A few paragraphs into the essay, he acknowledges that “Bad-Good” is his version of Macdonald’s term “Midcult”: “I want to discuss Bad-Good, an admittedly inelegant term for what the critic Dwight Macdonald called Midcult, which is not particularly elegant either.” By linking his term to Macdonald’s and noting that both terms are clunky, he introduces the work of the earlier critic and also shows how all critics share in the difficulty of inventing vocabulary to describe new concepts.
A Succinct Summary Should Be Provided
Another challenge in incorporating a critical work is providing a succinct summary that accurately captures the work’s main idea. Wilson summarizes Macdonald’s work as follows:
In his seminal 1960 essay “Masscult and Midcult,” Macdonald coined the word Masscult to describe popular forms—romance novels, Victorian Gothic architecture, the illustrations of Norman Rockwell—which he refused to dignify by classifying as culture. Macdonald’s chief concern was protecting high culture from the degradation of the marketplace, and to this end, he considered Masscult benign, too forthright in its motives to be mistaken for anything but commerce. He found a larger threat in Midcult, which was similar to Masscult except that it “pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.” Midcult was Masscult masquerading as art.
In this summary, Wilson provides sufficient examples from Macdonald’s essay (“romance novels, Victorian Gothic architecture, the illustrations of Norman Rockwell”) to explain what Macdonald meant by “Masscult.” And instead of going on for pages about Macdonald’s argument, he zeroes in on Macdonald’s “chief concern,” which he sums up in his own words: “protecting high culture from degradation of the marketplace. . . .” He then quotes Macdonald briefly, giving the reader a taste for Macdonald’s writing style and also providing a definition for the term “Midcult.” After that, he explains the quotation to make its meaning clearer to the reader: “Midcult was Masscult masquerading as art.”
A Critical Work Should Have Demonstrable Relevance
After summarizing Macdonald’s argument, Wilson demonstrates how it applies to his own topic: television. He follows the synopsis of “Masscult and Midcult” with a brief history of television in the twentieth century, integrating one of Macdonald’s terms: “Television began as a strictly Masscult medium, and for most of its history remained indisputably so.” Wilson then explains how we’ve arrived at an era where certain television shows have become what Macdonald would term “Midcult,” products that attempt to pass themselves off as high culture while making compromises to attract a mass viewership. He provides several examples of compromises that the creators of television series have made to get or keep their shows on the air, including one where the Sopranos creator David Chase appeased an HBO executive by adjusting a script to justify the murder of a possibly innocent man by Tony Soprano. Such examples demonstrate the relevancy of Macdonald’s argument to Wilson’s subject matter.
Writers Should Question and Extend the Critical Work
After discussing the various compromises, Wilson returns to Macdonald: “We know what Macdonald would say: these appeasements to the market categorically debase the product.” But then Wilson adds, “Perhaps this is true.” Although Wilson has seemed to agree with Macdonald’s argument until this point, here he begins to call it into question. While agreeing that concessions must be made to keep a television series running and acknowledging that “it’s understandably rare for a series to feel aesthetically cohesive from start to finish,” he concludes that “this is the trade-off for what makes TV such a popular and potentially relevant medium: its living perpetuity. A TV series can continue to evolve over time in a way that novels and films—finite documents—can’t.” Whereas Macdonald saw nothing redeemable about “Midcult,” Wilson argues that this type of culture might offer something valuable that high-brow offerings cannot: continual evolution.
Good writers enter into a critical conversation by incorporating and summarizing others’ works and showing those works’ relevancy to other topics. By thinking critically about those works, great writers deepen the conversation and contribute new ideas to it.
Wilson, Adam. “Good Bad Bad Good: What Was the Golden Age of TV?” Harper’s Magazine, Oct. 2019, harpers.org/archive/2019/10/good-bad-bad-good-golden-age-of-television/.