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October 5, 2002

Don't know about art...

Posted by Mike on October 5, 2002 2:12 PM

Maybe a culture more comfortable with the idea that any person can be a creative agent without being a "good artist" wouldn't spawn so much unhappiness.

The Atlantic Online has an interview with the author of A Reader's Manifesto:

"Myers argues that the typical "literary masterpiece" of today is usually in fact a mediocre work dolled up with trendy writerly gimmicks designed to lend an impression of artsy profundity and to obscure the author's lack of talent. An affected, deliberately unnatural prose style, banal pronouncements intoned magisterially as if they were great pearls of wisdom, relentless overuse of wordplay, and the gratuitous inclusion of foreign words are just a few of the affronts to good writing of which Myers finds several well-known authors guilty.

Though readers don't tend to get much pleasure from the books that are selected for literary stardom, they usually wrongly attribute the problem to themselves, Myers explains, assuming that if a critically celebrated work fails to speak to them, it must point to their own lack of taste or limited understanding. Compounding the problem, he argues, is the fact that today's critics—most of whom are novelists themselves—try to foster the idea that good writing is recognizable to sophisticated literary connoisseurs but is beyond the ken of ordinary folk."

Don't know if the sweeping generalizations of the first 'graf are accurate (I don't read "modern literary masterpieces"), but the second is the good part: it would be good if we had a population both educated and confident enough of its own judgement to know when it's being had.

Seems worse to me, too, when I think about how popular it is to bait the middle class for living in a state of perpetual paranoia over demonstrating appropriate "taste." Worse yet when I factor in the reasonable enough charge that most middle class taste is banal and "safe," with a general (only occasionally varied) love of things that are pretty or precious (the cultural oil-slick of brittle irony notwithstanding): they like that goopy stuff because it's non-objectionable. So we wade around in a sea of Deck the Walls inventory and hotel art because "real" art requires a demonstration of judgement. Best to stick to what's pretty because the real, good stuff is too tough to figure out:

" Here's my theory. Many people want to set themselves off from the Grisham-reading herd, but they don't want to read a classic because they're afraid someone will say "Bleak House? God, I did that back in college." And they know they'll get even less cachet from reading an old novel like Caleb Williams that no one's heard of. So they buy the latest prize-winner, which is easily recognized in the office and subway as the "better" kind of book, and then they read it, secure in the knowledge that thousands of the "better" people across the country are reading it at about the same time. I'm sure they genuinely enjoy this sense of intellectual community, even if they don't enjoy the actual book. But remember: they don't have to enjoy it. They're allowed to say that it isn't their cup of tea, or that they found it heavy going. What they mustn't do is differ with the "better" consensus and dismiss the book as bad. Only philistines like me do that."

Maybe a culture more comfortable with the idea that any person can be a creative agent without being a "good artist" wouldn't spawn as much of this unhappiness.