Friday, April 20, 2007

Literature: important or impotent?

Following up on the Yann Martel thing below, there's been some confusion as to whether or not I think literature is important. Every time I've said it isn't, I've tried to qualify that statement to make clear that even though I think it is, I also recognize that the vast majority of people don't. I don't exactly welcome that reality, but I do accept that it's true, and think it is an important truth for writers to keep in mind when they start demanding real-world entitlements.

In the grand, writerly tradition of recycling work whenever possible, here is part of the reply I made to this post on Steven Beattie's site:

First of all, I was talking about writers, not so much writing. I never suggested for a second that literature doesn't actually matter, in the sense that Sartre and Bloom and a million others have argued, only that the manner and realm in which literature matters has absolutely nothing to do with, say, how appreciated a bunch of artists feel when they visit the House of Commons. I would argue that literature's importance is almost antithetical to the idea of being applauded by a bunch of parliamentarians.

Great literature is as much an indictment of reality as it is a celebration of it, so we shouldn't act so shocked and appalled when reality isn't all that grateful for the attention. The imaginative privileges writers grant themselves should be enough; demanding cultural and economic privileges on top of those is a little rich.

Ist klar?

Finally, there are a lot of things wrong with Martel's piece, but probably the most damning is this: You can't argue for the importance of great writing with an essay that is sloppy, clichéd, condescending, pretentious, illogical, and arrogant in the extreme. Sort of defeats the purpose.


Steven W. Beattie said...

Okay, granted, writers, not writing. But, since you can't have the latter without the former, and if we all agree that the latter is important, then, ipso facto ...

I happen to think -- as I know you do, too -- that writers are tremendously important and perform an essential function in our society, but I'm also painfully aware of the fact that the majority of people out there don't share that view. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that loves artistic products, but can't seem to abide the pesky artists who actually create them.

nathan said...

Can we agree on this?: If the goal is to get the majority of people to respect artists, then stomping our feet and holding our breath and calling a philistine everyone who disagrees with our narrow definition of "importance" is not the best way to go about it.

If writers - or any artists - are being singled out for abuse, harassment, or punishment, as they are in many countries, then vocal opposition and more is a must. In Canada, however, when it comes to aggrieved or endangered groups, writers stand near the back of a very long line.

There's no question that support for the arts is not a priority of this government. If Martel's muddled screed is the best opposition we can muster, then I don't see that fact changing any time soon.

I personally think we have a better chance of getting others to take us seriously by taking ourselves seriously. That means not acting like precious emotional hemophiliacs who bleed at the tiniest prick, or priggish snobs who are prone to lecturing the unwashed masses, or deadbeat children who demand allowances while smirking at the very idea of being just another "drone."

Steven W. Beattie said...


Anonymous said...

If all the soi-disant artists went on strike tomorrow, and all the garbage collectors joined them, whose absence would we notice first?

I rest my case.