Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Novels: the expression of the human condition

Campbell's Soup I (1968), low-res snapshot so it can (hopefully) be considered Fair Use, via Wikipedia

A couple of weeks ago I read the cover article of the Nov/Dec issue of Intelligent Life, "A One-Man Market," by Bryan Appleyard. (It was excerpted in the Economist.) It's about Andy Warhol and the market for his art.

Warhol is now the god of contemporary art… In 2010 his work sold for $313m and accounted for 17% of all contemporary auction sales.

That shocked me. Seventeen percent of all contemporary auction sales. For one man who made it very clear that he regarded art as a commodity.

But that's just a by-the-bye. What really struck me was part of the last paragraph:

... Prompted by Warhol, conceptualism--art driven by ideas rather than sensuous and emotional engagement--has ruled for more than 20 years. It is a machine aesthetic, a desire to make art that is beyond human, and Andy always wanted to be a machine. But, though all art is in constant, self-questioning flux, one thing never changes--the longing to define, synthesise and express the human condition. In the absence of religion, it is art's job to do this...

Read the last two sentences again. This is one of the bases of my philosophy. Art--more particularly, literature--exists not only to entertain* or to soothe**, but to help us understand ourselves, our world, and our place in it.

Literature is what distinguishes us from every species that has gone before. It's what makes it possible for seven billion of us to breathe the same air. Literature is the great sum and sea of human experience, out there heaving serenely in the moonlight, ready for individuals, when it's their time, to paddle out on their voyage of discovery. Sometimes a whole boatload goes at once (a class, a book club). Sometimes the lone traveller comes back and tells her family and friends tall tales (the child retailing horror stories around the campfire). Sometimes he simply hugs the knowledge to himself (the gay teen exploring forbidden territory). But every voyager returns with added experience, a new perspective, a different lens through which to examine the world.

Literature is what keeps us learning about violence without having to kill, about hunger without having to starve, about fear without having to be hunted. Through books we learn strategies for situations we haven't yet encountered. We try on lives we may never get the opportunity to live. We can learn to walk in another's shoes without depriving him of them.

Literature isn't risk-free because books change us. But it can save us from physical harm in the quest for experience. It can save us time. Books provide valuable rehearsal so that when the big moments and grave decisions come we don't screw up as badly as we might otherwise. And we come back from our voyage, we recognise fellow travellers. I've talked about that in this essay I wrote with Kelley: without books, I'm not sure we would be together. I've talked about it in my paean to reading, "Doing it for Pleasure." And I've talked about it in my promise to run my software on your hardware.

I talk about it all the time. Because I believe it. I believe writers are the shamans who map unknown territory so that you don't have to. I believe writers help create the world, not just report it. I don't always do it well, but I'm getting better. And, oh, there are so very many journeys ahead.

* I'm with Pauline Kael on this. "If art isn't entertainment then what is it? Punishment?"
** A familiar novel can be very soothing. For more on this see "Doing it for Pleasure," linked above.



  1. Andy Warhol's Campbell soup can is definitely not in the same class as The Scream by Eduard Munch or Picasso,s Guernica. I think people pay an obscene amount of money for his work because they're afraid of being laughed at for not being sophisticated. If we really judge our art by how much we pay for it then that's just sad.

    PS: I agree completely about literature.

  2. barbara, I think a lot of Warhol buyers trade his work as a commodity. I'm guessing the majority don't even think of it as art.

  3. Nicola,

    I wonder how does this actually go together, the view that art is a commodity and that it is created because of the "longing to define, synthesise and express the human condition"?

    to see or create art as a commodity has some interesting implications in terms of what valuation systems are at play: it means that valuation is done through a market mechanism; it's an offer-demand-logic that drives the price.

    but what does the price really reflect? what kind of "value" does it indicate? is it a good proxy for how well an artist managed to "define, synthesise and express the human condition"? or could it be that it is nothing more that the outcome of status consumption, where people gravitate to pieces of art in order to achieve some kind of identity enhancement rather than to gain insights about the human condition?

    to me these seem to be two fairly different things and I wonder: do artists (writers, painters, musicians etc.) ever find themselves at the crossroads where they have to choose between satisfying our need to feel good and comfy and making us think about some ugly truth about the world and ourselves?

    what strikes me is that much art once deemed subversive, forbidden and fought against - but utterly true and insightful and honest - eventually becomes canonical; and then it lends itself to status consumption. and when it does it's cherished and consumed and valued by the same mould of people who once fought it. and that's then what drives its price and the valuation of it.

    how do you choose between writing a bestseller and something that is, say, a less easy read but a better description of the human condition? or do you think there's no need of choosing?


  4. Kate, the whole Intelligent Life/Economist article was about this. I recommend you seek it out.

    But when I write I never sit down and think, "Should I write a bestseller, or a more literary exploration of the human condition?" I write what I want to write then wait and see how it's received. I'm honestly not sure if I could write a bestseller. My concerns as an artist aren't particularly mainstream.

    I'm not deliberately obtuse. Just the opposite. I do my utmost to make what I do very, very clear; as I writer I behave as a welcoming host to my reader. Nonetheless, there are many, many readers for whom my work is uninteresting and/or inaccessible. I won't change: I'm writing what I want to write. What I need to write. What I believe readers need to read.

    Like most artists, I don my psychotic self-belief and venture on, determined in the face of any evidence to the contrary...

  5. oh, I actually think you could write I bestseller (in the sense of: writing for a mass audience)but you probably don't want to.

    take any of aud torvingen books: replace her by a cranky, white, middle aged ex-cop (add some whiskey to that)or even better: make her straight and with large breasts, take all the really meaningful stuff out(like, she couldn't be rich but emotionally dried-out, couldn't be raw but sophisticated, and, she wouldn't carve wood, of course; any of that.); just use the plot, add some layers of suspense to it, like music in a thriller movie - slow, menacing, swelling. and then use a bit more marketing. ok, use MUCH more marketing. that's probably it.

    a while ago I bought a book at some airport: nice cover, big shiny letters; "new york times bestseller", it said there, and: "breathtakingly suspenseful". it was a not a bad read. and it was suspenseful. but the moment I turned the last page, I forgot about it.

    the difference is, it doesn't change lives. I've read books that twisted my brain so hard it changed who I am. torvingen just runs differently on our hardwares. or, maybe, one just needs a better hardware to process it;-)


  6. Kate, I write for expert readers, not occasional readers. Mega-bestsellers like Dan Brown become so because what they write works for those who don't read very often. Bestsellers are designed for those system requirements. That's not what floats my boat.

  7. you think it's about practice? maybe you're right.

    p.s. re "behaving as a welcoming host to the reader"; I know you do. the ugly-truth-about-the-world-and-ourselves-story is about my "psychotic self-belief". :)


  8. Kate, yes, good readers read a lot. We're made, not born.