October 14, 2016

If someone had told me while I was sitting at the breakfast table Thursday morning that I would be spending much of that day defending the decision to award Bob Dylan this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, I suspect I would have done a spit take and blew Raisin Bran all over the room…

Every year when the Nobels are announced, there is always at least one recipient who becomes the subject of some form of controversy. This year that recipient was Mr. Dylan; a lot of people agreed with the choice and a lot of others did not, and one individual in particular - a gentleman whose opinions I greatly respect (and, more often than not, agree with wholeheartedly) - seemed especially offended by the Nobel Committee’s decision. His argument, as I understood it, was not that Dylan wasn’t worthy of recognition for his contributions to popular culture; rather, it centered around his own heartfelt belief that song lyrics do not constitute poetry, and therefore do not qualify as literature.

The two of us had posted individual - and contradictory - posts on Facebook about the Dylan Nobel. Mine was congratulatory in nature, while his was anything but. And the next thing I knew we were neck-deep in the kind of debate one might expect regarding Trump vs. Clinton.

My friend argued that giving Dylan the Nobel “is an insult to true literary poets,” and that “Dylan's song lyrics would not stand up as legitimate poetry without the music.” I countered that we studied some of Dylan's lyrics - along with some of Lennon & McCartney's, Paul Simon's and Johnny Cash's - in my college poetry classes, and that well-written lyrics do indeed have a legitimate place in literature, just as well-written poetry does. 

Well, it was one of those situations where neither of us were going to come anywhere close to finding any kind of middle ground (although I think it bears noting that more of those who also weighed in on the discussion seemed to side with my point of view), and so we eventually agreed to disagree and let it go at that. (Well, I did, anyway; for all I know he may still be sitting in front of his laptop muttering about me under his breath...)

But the debate put me in mind of a column I wrote for my college newspaper years ago, which centered around the question of “What is art?” So when I got home from work that night I looked up that old column and found that my feelings on the matter have not changed in the years that have passed since I wrote it. 

So in the interest of trying to further explain just where I was coming from during the Great Dylan Debate of October 13, 2016 - though I fully realize that it will be no more successful in swaying my friendly opponent than anything I had to say yesterday - I respectfully present the aforementioned column from 1989. (And please keep in mind that I do not consider my friend with whom I was debating yesterday to be the sort of “artistic snob” that I was referring to all those years ago; this is in no way intended to be an attack on him or his point of view on that particular subject, but rather an editorial comment in general regarding a specific sub-species of human beings who have come to the mistaken conclusion that they are better than the rest of us… something I certainly do not think is true of my friend.)

And so anyway, without further ado:

*      *      *


Somebody told me not too long ago that I could never be a true art lover because I don’t have any culture.

The conversation started as a result of my having said that I didn’t care for a particular painting that my wife and I came across in one of Chicago’s many art galleries. To be honest, it didn’t seem like much of a painting to me; it looked as if someone had used a spare canvas to clean his paintbrushes on, and then stuck it in a frame to amuse himself.

When I mentioned this to my wife, however, I suddenly found myself being chastised by a rather distinguished looking older fellow who stood a few feet away.

“Some people just don’t have any appreciation for art,” he muttered just loud enough so I could hear.

I turned in his direction and asked, “You mean you really like this horror?”

“It is MAG-NIF-I-CENT,” he replied, enunciating each syllable in that endearing way all zealots do. “Of course, one must understand it before he can appreciate it – and one must be properly educated before he can understand it.”

The he proceeded to show everyone in the gallery just how educated he really was. He spoke about how the thing’s inert mass was so obvious (but in a subtle manner), and told us that the spatial concept and cosmic flow of the piece were just so grandiose that it took his breath away.

Then he spun around and looked me square in the eye. “But the most important thing is the MESSAGE. What does it say?”

“It doesn’t say anything,” I responded. “It just sorta hangs there, giving me retina burn.”

That’s when he lost control. Though I’d said nothing about him as an individual because of his taste, the man called me “uncouth” and an “artistic illiterate” and said that I have no culture. He also suggested that I’ll never amount to anything in my life unless I bring myself up to his level of sophistication. 

To which I’d like to make the following rebuttal, even though I know he isn’t reading this:

Back in 1864, a fair-to-middling English poet named Matthew Arnold described “culture” as being the qualities of an open-minded intelligence, a capacity to enjoy the best works of art, literature, history and philosophy that have been handed down through the ages.

The dictionary sitting here on my desk, on the other hand, defines “culture” as “knowledge and enlightenment with regards to artistic endeavors acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training.”

Now I have only one real problem with either of these definitions – neither takes into account the tastes of the individual. Somewhere down the road, the word “culture” has come to suggest a certain sense of snobbishness among those who feel that they have it and the rest of us don’t.

And, boy, I REALLY hate that.

I don’t mean to suggest that all art lovers are snobs, because they aren’t. I’ve known some very down-to-earth, uncouth, socially unacceptable art lovers in my day.  And I don’t mean to give the impression that I don’t like art, because I do. There are quite a few pieces that I really enjoy.

But art is different things to different people. Everybody has his or her own idea of what art really is - even young hoods who paint the sides of train cars. Art is one of those intangibles that there can be no one set definition for.

And anybody who says or implies that another person is “not cultured” simply because they happen to disagree on what is and is not good art does not have an open mind.

And according to Arnold’s definition, you’ve got to have an open mind in order to possess culture.

I happen to think that Frank Frazetta, famed painter of great science fiction paperback book covers, is every bit as talented as any of the so-called “Masters.” Given the choice between listening to the musical compositions of movie maestro John Williams or those of Mozart, I’ll take Williams every time. And I’d much rather read Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip José Farmer or Louis L’Amour than William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Truman Capote any day. 

I can almost feel the collective shudder of every art, music and literature professor as I say that. But as much as I love the classics (most of them, anyway), I have to be honest and say that I enjoy the other works I cited much better.

And so that’s what I choose to surround myself with. Not because I think that Frazetta, Williams or Burroughs are better than de Vinci, Mozart or Faulkner, but simply because I enjoy them more. And what is the point of art - great or otherwise - if we don’t enjoy it?

When you get right down to it, that’s what has always bothered me the most about those who claim to have more culture than I do. I haven’t met one yet who looked like he or she knew how to have a good time. They’re all so somber and dried-up looking, and what fun is that?

If being “cultured” means I can’t take part in the things I enjoy, then I’d just as soon remain the uncultured slob, thank you very much. While all the critics and the literati are busy trying to impress one another other with their crustiness and their “spatial inertness” and their pretentious gobbledygook, I’ll be off in my own little corner of the room having a good time.

So don’t talk to me about how I don’t have any culture, brother, because I don’t care. I know what I like. 

And “culture” is just a bowl of yogurt…

(Copyright © 2016 by John Allen Small)



August 24, 2016

Believe me, nobody will be more happy than I will to see this current campaign season - with all its circus atmosphere and a cast of characters that makes me wonder sometimes if both major party candidates are being funded by Mad magazine -  finally come to an end.   

People complain about “election fatigue” in pretty much every campaign cycle, but I can’t remember a time when my own sense of fatigue has been so pronounced and, at times, downright painful to bear. More than once in rec...

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August 18, 2016

Okay, so here’s the thing…

Not too very long ago I was talking with a writer friend of mine who told me that he was taking a stab at writing a romance story. When I commented that this was a genre I was not particularly comfortable with, he basically called me a coward and challenged me to give it a try. So just to shut him up I told him I’d think about it and we turned toward a different subject.

Fast forward to this past Tuesday night, after I got home from the newspaper. I was sitt...

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August 10, 2016
Above: Yours Truly (bottom left) and my FarmerCon friends at the Hyatt Regency in Columbus, Ohio, during the 2016 PulpFest convention July 21-24)

Apologies if I’ve looked or acted a little out of it over the past week or so, but it hasn’t been without reason. My mind and body have been in recovery mode, trying to get re-acclimated to the usual day-to-day routine after the whirlwind extravapalooza that was (drumroll, please) Small Family Vacation 2016.

We set out bright and early on the mo...

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July 13, 2016

There is a lyric in the Harry Chapin song “Story Of A Life” that I’ve always found somewhat appropriate for those of us who toil in my particular line of work: 

“Sometimes words can serve me well,

Sometimes words can go to hell

For all that they do...”

As a newspaper columnist, I understand and appreciate the sentiment Chapin was attempting to convey in those lines. Because there are times when, as much as I hate to admit it, words fail me.

I was oh so proud back in 1991 to earn ...

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July 4, 2016

It occurred to me recently that it had been a while since the last time I devoted this space to reviewing a new movie. This seems like as good a time as any to rectify this - and frankly I could not have picked a better movie with which to do so.

Full disclosure: The Legend Of Tarzan was one of those movies I was looking forward to with both great anticipation and, at the same time, a certain degree of dread. Anticipation because, as I have written about many times in the past, Tarzan is a c...

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June 23, 2016
(Note: This is a slightly revised version of something I recently wrote and posted on Facebook, and then published as my weekly column in the June 23, 2016, edition of the Johnston County Capital-Democrat.)

I recently had a… well, I don't know that it actually rises to the level of being an honest-to-Jed Bartlett "epiphany," but it is darn sure something that bears being shared the rest of the world.  (And if it does qualify as an epiphany then I'm just tickled to death, because I don't know...

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May 13, 2016

(NOTE: The following is a longer version of one of my recent newspaper columns.)

Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to become reacquainted with an old friend. A fellow I first met when I was a young boy and who became one of my most faithful companions as I was growing up. A gentleman who taught me about the importance of being observant, and of not allowing emotions to overpower logic - a skill I readily admit I have yet to master, though I continue to strive in that direction...

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January 15, 2016


In case you happened to miss it (you’d be surprised, it seems like there is always a few who somehow manage to not receive the memo), this past Tuesday marked an important milestone in the history of American popular culture. 

Well, it was important to some of us, anyway...

January 12 marked the 50th anniversary of the night that the television series Batman, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, premiered on the ABC television network (WLS-TV, Channel 7 in Chicago if y...

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HO, HO, HO...

December 23, 2015
(Above: Thomas Nast's depiction of Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly in the late 1800s; and my son Joshua playing Santa Claus in the 2014 Johnston County Chamber of Commerce Christmas Parade, Tishomingo, Oklahoma.)

(Note: The following article was originally published in the Johnston County Capital-Democrat, Dec. 24, 1992. We re-published it in this week's issue as a Christmas gift to our readers, and I felt it was appropriate to share it here as well.)

He is one of the most recognized figures...

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About Me

John Allen Small John A. Small is an award-winning newspaper journalist, columnist and broadcaster whose work has been honored by the Oklahoma Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Press, the National Newspaper Association, and the Oklahoma Education Association. He and his wife Melissa were married in 1986; they have two sons, Joshua Orrin (born 1991) and William Ian (born 1996). Mr. Small is the News Editor and columnist for the Johnston County Capital-Democrat, a weekly newspaper headquartered in Tishomingo, OK. He obtained his nickname, "Bard of the Lesser Boulevards," from a journalism colleague - the late Phil Byrum - in recognition of the success of his popular newspaper column, "Small Talk." (In addition to the many awards the column itself has received over the years, a radio version of "Small Talk" earned an award for "Best Small Market Commentary" from the Society of Professional Journalists in 1998.) John was born in Oklahoma City in 1963; lived in the Bradley-Bourbonnais-Kankakee area of Illinois for most of the next 28 years (with brief sojourns in Texas and Athens, Greece, thrown in to break up the monotony); then returned to his native state in 1991, where he currently resides in the Tishomingo/Ravia area. He graduated from Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in 1981, and received his bachelor's degree in journalism from Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais in 1991. The years between high school and college were a period frought with numerous exploits and misadventures, some of which have become the stuff of legend; nobody was hurt along the way, however, which should count for something. In addition to his professional career as a journalist he has published two short story collections: "Days Gone By: Legends And Tales Of Sipokni West" (2007), a collection of western stories; and "Something In The Air" (2011), a more eclectic collection. He was also a contributor to the 2005 Locus Award-nominated science fiction anthology "Myths For The Modern Age: Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton Universe," edited by Win Scott Eckert. In additon he has written a stage play and a self-published cookbook; served as project editor for a book about the JFK assassination entitled "The Men On The Sixth Floor"; and has either published or posted on the Internet a number of essays, stories and poems. He has also won writing awards from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the National Library of Poetry. He is a past president of the Johnston County Chamber of Commerce in Tishomingo; was a charter member and past president of the Johnston County Reading Council, the local literacy advocacy and "friends of the library" organization; served as Johnston County's first-ever Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator in 1994-95; served two terms as chairman of the Johnston County (OK) Democratic Party; and has taught journalism classes for local Boy Scout Merit Badge Fairs. He is a member of the New Wold Newton Meteorics Society.
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