Thursday, February 28, 2008
Is Literature Art?
I'm not sure what started me on this line of thought: perhaps a mixture of envy at other art forms that seem to embody so much more innate talent than writing; music, painting, film and photography even. I can just about take a photograph, but any "eye" I had lost its sight a dozen years ago; and I can bash out a few chords or a bassline on a keyboard, but nothing more sophisticated than that; as for painting and drawing, I wasn't good enough to do an Art CSE back when I was thirteen, and I'd be even less able now. I've watched myself on film, and though I've never tried acting, I stand up in front of an audience enough to know that I don't ever really take the room with me - and that's being myself, never mind trying to be someone else. Enough flagellation though, for the one thing I can do is put one word after the other, and make something new from those raw materials. Yet, so, it seems can everyone else. Is literature art then? Taking another tack, I read the literary pages a little depressed at either the adulation of genuis (this week: the "rediscovery" of Richard Yates or the curiousity about Nabakov's unseen last work), or the hyperbole of the popular (most prize lists, the bestseller lists, J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman.) And then there's the argument going on elsewhere on the blog pages about whether literary bloggers are just envious fanboys (and girls), and shouldn't be confused with the great minds of the literary pages. Is literature art then? I'm intrigued and appalled by the various mediastorms around Martin Amis's ideas as opposed to his literary worth - the nothingness, I guess, of so much current literary discourse. And we're here again, in that whereas writing about music or art might add a side-dish to the meal, writing about writing might well be considered a reheating of the food we've just ate. So, is literature art? Whether the Arts Council's decisions over, say, the London Magazine or Dedalus press, are a sign of discomfort around the artform, or simply a concern over literature's audience, is a moot point. There's little enough money in literature, in that sense, yet there's plenty of books pouring out, even if its Delia Smith's coffee table latest that sells like the proverbial hotcakes. And, however many paperbacks are made with paper from "sustainable" trees, there's a sense that an object that is so poorly bound, or so carelessly edited, isn't receiving the same care as even the blandest of CD covers or the whitest of exhibition catalogues. Is literature art or have we done it the biggest of disservice's by badging it with that label? Were the storytellers, the troubadours, the poets artists or were they something else - fashionable men of their day, secular priest perhaps? I'm sitting here unable to draw or sing or act or play an instrument and calling myself an artist, and yes, there's artistry in what I do, a little craft, too, but far more - I think - in terms of the intellect than the heart. Perhaps the heart's just for poets - though I'd like to think that Fitzgerald, a bad poet, was the most poetic of men - though was it Gatsby or Carraway who was the artist? I don't think Scott had much time for artists. He was a good looking, well-dressed man, and his possibly stopped there. What he was doing for something less - and something more? So is literature art? Is it possible that we've mistaken it, wrapped it up wrong, given it a mistaken rule-book, a dubious assessment criteria, a self-deluded critical apparatus; and made it mean less as a result. It's an entertainment, a story, a fabrication. It tells the truth, yet no truth at all. (It sounds like one of those riddles, already.) Jeanette Winterson might think what she's doing is art. But Junot Diaz? Or come to that, Richard Yates? The best literatures are legislative, purposeful, moral, I guess (or with moral purpose), but is literature art? I only ask.
Posted by Adrian Slatcher at 10:14 AM