Why do I listen to NPR? Lately, it seems as though it’s been overrun by heathens, although maybe I’m just mistaken as to its past. In any case, last week, an interviewee, an author, claimed that “literature is boring,” and the interviewer didn’t challenge her, didn’t so much as say a word. As much as I might want to credit this author with a biting, trenchant analysis of those awful new books often shelved as “literature,” she was placing the category of literature in opposition to her own, commercial fiction: Her shitty books about angels or vampires or dinosaurs or dinosaur angel vampires or whatever are, at least, not boring, like, I don’t know, Shakespeare? Jane Eyre? Jane Bowles? Reader, I wish I were joking. Anyway, while torturing myself in the car on an earlier occasion, I heard a different author who also ought to have remained silent—we’ll call him Author X and put the bag over his head for him—complain that publication at his Big Five house was taking so long that the “political” novel he’d written about [fill in the blank with current event] now won’t make sense because things are different all of a sudden, and, in the country where it all takes place, things will probably be even differenter when the book finally sees print. Gosh! Can you imagine? How will he ever earn back his advance? Our hero then went on to say that he had rewritten the book to better accord with how things are now in Country Y, and that version, the updated one, will be the one hitting the shelves this fall. (Actually, I’m not entirely sure of this last bit—as soon as he mentioned revising his book in light of the events transpiring in the country he’d written about, my mind leapt far away from what he was saying, as one does when a gun goes off under one’s window. Let’s call it self-preservation.)
This author’s to-me-moronic concerns made me think about politics and novels, so, depending on your view of what you are now reading, the conversation wasn’t a total loss. I don’t intend to cover ground I’ve already covered—that one would mistake the “subject” of a novel for its value to the reader is a mistake most people make, and I’ve already written here about aboutness. And my poli-sci is as shaky as my aesthetic biases are sure (as I’m certain the rest of this post will demonstrate). But if the subject of a novel has nothing to do with what that novel is, then what might a truly political novel look like?
To point out the perfectly obvious, as a contrast to Author X’s novel, it might not take politics as its subject (except that that seems almost impossible, but that’s another topic of discussion). “Everything matters in art except the subject,” said Oscar Wilde. Where Joshua Landy might cite the Gospel of Mark or bring in some Plato—both of whom were writing in some way not always about but often at governance—I would advance William Gaddis’s JR as a good example of a political novel. If it is the case that we can best appreciate a fiction as a course of study, then what JR retrains us to do is most definitely useful to the political mind. If I write “But where shall wisdom be found?” I am quoting Job, and Job and I (but not Mr. Gaddis) are writing “about” the same thing, but neither of us is making political art. Gaddis, with JR, is, did.
But wait! Perhaps I ought to qualify my earlier comments before proceeding: I am sure that Author X’s novel is “political,” just not in an especially considered or critical way. I would wager that his novel does nothing to get its readers to think about the political situation it tries to describe in the way that I understand the verb “to think.” It is instead a kind of propaganda, on the subject of which I want to finally come to the point of this post and ask: do the aesthetic values most often touted in reviews, critical works, editorial meetings, writing workshops, etc. (there is no monolith, but there are currents, there is received wisdom; you can ask Flaubert if you don’t believe me) necessarily lend support to the political structures then in power? I have begun to think the answer is yes.
In order to explain that answer, I feel I need to mention something that has come to seem crucial to my understanding of art, something that may be obvious to some of you and may be less so to others: that “art” may not lie in the object usually graced with that name, but that art may instead be something actually ungraspable, an experience brought into being by an art object (or not). We see a painting on canvas and this painted canvas exists and we call it art. But let’s imagine a watercolor landscape or a velvet painting of a clown on the wall of a motel room. Asking ourselves, when we look at these painted surfaces, if what we are confronted with is art isn’t an assertion of aesthetic values, or doesn’t have to be. In fact, something else must have occurred for us to even formulate this question, to register the painting as (intended as) art but not the bed it hangs above as (intended as) art, the room it hangs in as (intended as) art. The wall behind it will have been painted, too, and the bed below it will take a particular shape, but we wouldn’t normally ask ourselves if the wall is art or if the bed is sculpture, or if it is necessary to the painting’s status as art that the wall or the bed be present. We ought then to recognize that the experience of the thing is part of what makes art art; I mean that, when we leave this theoretical motel room, we take the art with us, but the painting, the wall, and the bed remain where they are. So, OK. So far, so good.
If experience is at least part of what art is, then we may ask ourselves what portion of an artwork is actually transferable from artist to audience, and from audience to audience. In siting “art” in the artifact, we may be succumbing to a prejudice born out of need, but we might also be succumbing to a prejudice born out of politics. By defining or redefining “art” as the object—the painting, the sculpture, the book—we are also asserting that art is a commodity, a thing that can be bought, can above all be owned. Such a situation would nicely serve the purposes of, say, a capitalistic society, wouldn’t it? If I were an art historian, I might be able to tell you when exactly in the history of enclosure art began to be regarded as a commodity (or when in the history of art-as-commodity, enclosure came into being), but I am not an art historian and I’m not being paid to write this blog post in this capitalist society I’m living in, so, as Dr. Ian Malcolm would say, “Ah, well, ah, there you go.”
I do exist now, however, and I can ask: in favoring the about book and the discourse that surrounds it, aren’t we also burnishing the foundation upon which our politics is set? By locating our ideas of literature where we have, aren’t we reflecting capitalist values in our art? Making (editorial, aesthetic, critical) decisions based upon what a fiction is about is ignoring how that book is, which is another way of reducing that book to a commodity, a plastic good. Isn’t it? In asking our books to adopt a mostly innocuous style—to tell a story simply and directly—aren’t we also asking them to be less experiential and thus more disposable, easily read and readily (necessarily) replaceable? In giving attention to novels written “about” current events, aren’t we also enabling an ephemeral (and thus insatiable) notion of art? In advertising the books we advertise, in reviewing the books we review, in writing and reading the books we write and read, aren’t we propping up the (to me, deeply flawed) system that governs us?
I suppose I can’t answer that question satisfactorily. (Really, I feel unable to answer any questions satisfactorily, but that is a personal problem, nothing that need concern you.) But if I were to try to answer it, or maybe just help you to answer it for yourself, I might point to Mr. Plinkett’s review of Titanic, or anyway the aside that comes at about 00:55:45 and lasts until 00:58:30.
I can join Plinkett/Stoklasa in saying that there is nothing inherently “wrong” with accepting the prevailing aesthetic norms and working with them, either knowingly or unknowingly. But I cannot resist adding this caveat: there is nothing wrong . . . if you are happy with the way things are. If you, like me, are instead unhappy with the way things are, you might reconsider the way you read, the way you write. I have heard it said that the problem with political art is that it is mostly politics, not especially art, and I have a great deal of sympathy with that opinion, but it seems to me that perhaps there is no way of escaping the political dimension of the artwork, and perhaps there is then cause to at least consider its part in our discourse.