Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Books Inhabit the World"

Portland author Sallie Tisdale, on her experience judging this year's National Book Awards (via The Oregonian):

"All this reading could be on a gray screen; I could be clicking buttons instead of turning pages. In the bookless future a few of these books predict, there would be no boxes, no piles...

I would, of course, have gone mad, thrown the little plastic thing out the window long ago. The real glory of all these books is simply that they exist. They will endure in the world as solid things. I love the piles -- the teetering, heavy, uneven piles, the cumbersome crowding of books thick and thin. These are piles of piled-up things, sculptured objects taking up room. No gray screen can honor the way font shape and space are designed to convey thought. Books inhabit the world in a way not unlike the way you and I do."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Prime Passages: Cyril Connolly & C.S. Lewis Discuss Some Threats to Literary Appreciation

Connolly was writing seven decades ago, Lewis five, but amid a publishing culture geared almost exclusively toward so-called "upmarket fiction" their views are remarkably relevant.

"Writing is a more impure art than music or painting. It is an art, but it is also the medium in which many millions of inartistic people express themselves, describe their work, sell their goods, justify their conduct, propagate their ideas. It is the vehicle of all business and propaganda. Since it is hard to paint or compose without a certain affection for painting or music, the commercial element—advertisers, illustrators, are recognizable, and in a minority, nor do music and painting appeal to the scientific temperament.

But writing does. It is an art in which the few who practice it for its own sake are being always resented and jostled through its many galleries by the majority who do not. And the deadliest of these are the scientific investigators, clever young men who have themselves failed as artists and who bring only a passionate sterility and a dark, wide-focusing resentment to their examination of creative art. The aim of much of this destructive criticism, though not yet as publicly avowed, is entirely to eliminate the individual style, to banish imaginative beauty and formal art from writing. Prose will not only be as unassuming as good clothes, but as uniform as bad ones." (p.76)
Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (1938)

What is more surprising and disquieting is the fact that those who might be expected ex officio to have a profound and permanent appreciation of literature may in reality have nothing of the sort. They are mere professionals. Perhaps they once had the full response, but the ‘hammer, hammer, hammer on the hard, high road’ has long since dinned it out of them. … For such people reading often becomes mere work. The text before them comes to exist not in its own right but simply as raw material; clay out of which they can complete their tale of bricks. Accordingly we often find that in their leisure hours they read, if at all, as the many read. I well remember the snub I once got from a man to whom, as we came away from an examiners’ meeting, I tactlessly mentioned a great poet on whom several candidates had written answers. His attitude (I’ve forgotten the words) might be expressed in the form, ‘Good God, man, do you want to go on after hours?’…For those who are reduced to this condition by economic necessity and overwork I have nothing but sympathy. Unfortunately, ambition and combativeness can also produce it. And, however it is produced, it destroys appreciation." (p.6-7)
C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (1961)
and Connolly again (same book as above):

"One further question is raised by Maugham. ‘I have never had much patience,’ he states, ‘with the writers who claim from the reader an effort to understand their meaning.’ This is an abject surrender, for it is part of the tragedy of modern literature that the author, anxious to avoid mystifying the reader, is afraid to demand of him any exertions. ‘Don’t be afraid of me,’ he exclaims, ‘I write exactly as I talk—no, better still—exactly as you talk.’ Imagine Cezanne painting or Beethoven composing ‘exactly as he talked’! The only way to write is to consider the reader to be the author’s equal; to treat him otherwise is to set a value on illiteracy, and so all that results from Maugham’s condescension to a reader from whom he expects no effort is a latent hostility." (p.79-80)

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Artist's Work

From my essay "The Artist As Worker," out now in the summer 2010 "Work" issue of Oregon Humanities Magazine:

... In America it has always been the spiritual task of the artist to defend his art to a private self who wished it to be more notable or remunerative; today’s task increasingly means defending one’s art to a culture that expects it to be those things and more.

Whether you come to the desk as a writer in secondhand clothes or a CEO in clover, your prescribed oracle is now the same: the dollar. You have before you, like everybody else, the great playing field of the competitive marketplace. You must put your shoulder to the fray and reap a respectable yearly income—or, failing that, at least amass conspicuous honors, appointments, grants, awards—else admit that what you do is not really work. A hobby, maybe, this words-on-paper business. A spinsterish diversion that is quaint and slightly embarrassing in its Victorian echoes. Not work. Artists of late, enthusiastically subscribing to the “career track,” offer collusion with and reinforcement of the new pragmatism. As Eric Larsen notes in his fulminating treatise A Nation Gone Blind: America in an Age of Simplification and Deceit, “Inner and outer, public and private, artwork and ad, conscience and collaboration” have never been so interchangeable. What is your mission statement? What are your credentials? Art-making, we’re all led to understand, is not a way of life, a calling, a sacrificial act—we’ve grown up since the age of Rilke’s Europe, of mollycoddling “the imagination”; we’ve learned self-respect. Red-eyed, brain-sore, hunchbacked novelist, ask thy bank account whether you’re wasting your time; ask thy “reputation;” heed their replies. Doth they whisper: “Earn thy MFA!” “Get thee a teaching job!” “Network more!” Then jump to it or jump ship.

Says critic Lee Siegel in his book Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination, “The general anxiety now is that if you don’t have a gallery, a movie about to be released, or a six-figure advance for a book soon after college, you have bungled opportunities previously unknown to humankind…. Instead of the artist patiently surrendering his ego to the work, he uses his ego to rapidly direct the work … toward the success that seems to be diffused all around him like sunshine.” Siegel’s bright-eyed hankerer, to continue an admittedly hyperbolic tone, is a capitalist stand-in for the spirited artist of old—a kind of new literary forty-niner, brain ablaze with Fifth Avenue rumors of the latest Big Deal, the who’s who of agents, bestseller lists and film options, eager to demonstrate the skills of self-promotion, of being interesting—or even better, incendiary—in interviews. I find it hard to imagine the injunction of John Keats, one of literary history’s great unprivileged, having any relevance in such a racket: “The genius of Poetry [read: art] must work out its own salvation in a man; it cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself—that which is creative must create itself.” ...