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Old 19th Jul 2004, 22:35   #1
John Self
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Default 1. Art & Life

Is it possible, or even desirable, to read and enjoy a book properly without knowing anything about the author? Or putting it the other way around: shouldn’t any book worth its salt be capable of being ripped from its covers, passed to you under the counter (like the old Blair Witch Project utopia: being handed an unmarked videotape of the film with no context), and read with no prior knowledge, without it suffering?

In both cases my gut reaction is yes. Habit tells us otherwise though, not least in that everpresent Nabokovian concept of “literary homosexuality,” where boys read boys, girls read girls, and idiots read Archer. Or so I thought until I came across this argument by Kurt Vonnegut in his superb last (and, according to him at the time, his last novel Timequake. In it he responds to a brother of his who has become an artist by hanging meaningless doodles in a gallery and asking critics who have no prior knowledge of him, “Is this art or not?” Vonnegut replies:

Dear Brother: there are many good people who are stimulated by some, but not all, manmade arrangements of colors and shapes on a flat surface, essentially nonsense.

You yourself are gratified by some music, arrangements of noises, and again essentially nonsense. If I were to kick a bucket down the cellar stairs, and then say to you that the racket I had made was philosophically on a par with The Magic Flute, this would not be the beginning of a long and upsetting debate. An utterly satisfactory and complete response on your part would be, ‘I like what Mozart did, and I hate what the bucket did.’

Contemplating a purported work of art is a social activity. Either you have a rewarding time, or you don’t. You don’t have to say why afterward. You don’t have to say anything.

People capable of liking some paintings or prints or whatever can rarely do so without knowing something about the artist. Again, the situation is social rather than scientific. Any work of art is half of a conversation between two human beings, and it helps a lot to know who is talking to you. Does he or she have a reputation for seriousness, for religiosity, for suffering, for concupiscence, for rebellion, for sincerity, for jokes?

There are virtually no respected paintings made by persons about whom we know zilch. We can even surmise quite a bit about the lives of whoever did the paintings in the caverns underneath Lascaux, France.

I dare to suggest that no one picture can attract serious attention without a particular sort of human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind.

Pictures are famous for their humanness, and not for their pictureness.
Vonnegut’s suggestion that a work of art is half of a conversation between two people is spot on, and never more so than with books. This is why genre schlock like thrillers-by-numbers never keep me entertained (despite the fact that that’s all they’re aimed at doing): these books are not a conversation, they’re a monologue. What’s to keep you interested when everything is set out for you on the page and you don’t need to bring anything to the book yourself? The reader is so essential to the purpose of a book (apart from in the obvious sense) that one writer, introducing a reissue of one of his old books, reflected that he had wanted to revise the thing on the new publication, but then realized that he had no more right to do so, thirty years on, than anyone else did. The book belonged to its readers.

The other aspect of this that struck me was this: if it is possible to be friends with someone whose opinions you don’t share, is it possible to like a book which you disagree with? I was put in mind of this by reading some of the negative reviews of Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass on the American Amazon site. These are an education, and - if you can retain the right degree of detachment (these people are thousands of miles away after all and can’t do anything to hurt you) - a cracking laugh.

I’m not talking about just mocking subliterate southern-state halfwits (although: of course, of course), or reeling at the reader who actually burned their copy (“because this sort of filth should be destroyed”), or reflecting that the children who most need to read Pullman are probably those in the “faith-based families” that one reader particularly warns against the book. Nor even the reader who railed venomously against the first book in the trilogy and then added, as a postscript, “The second book is just as bad.” No: what amused me was the readers who said they had liked the first two books in the trilogy but now realised, on reading the third, that they had been evil too. Such revisionism would make Stalin blush.

You see the thing about The Amber Spyglass - in case you hadn’t guessed - is that it’s pretty disrespectful of the Abrahamic religions, and dares to view God as a bully and a coward. So why is it that people can’t admire the book, its style, its storytelling, its imagination, while disagreeing with it? Are they so intellectually inflexible?

Well then I sat down and tried to think of books that I had liked but disagreed with. And of course I couldn’t think of any. Then I came up with Gyles Brandreth’s Breaking the Code (his account of his 5 years as an MP) - a pretty weak example: politically anathema to me but I enjoyed reading about the Tories’ downfall from within, as it were. Then I thought of John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, which argues that the early 20th century modernists – Woolf, Eliot, Pound et al – wrote their obscure works not (as some might say) to try to forge something new from a fairly stagnant art form, but deliberately to exclude the common reader, that vulgar new boy who had never existed before the Education Acts. I thought it was balls – but well argued balls. And this made me feel slightly more dignified: a sort of Voltairean I disagree with your conclusions but I liked the way you put it. Overall, though, it was pretty slim pickings. And I couldn’t think of any fiction. Even John Irving’s masterpiece A Prayer for Owen Meany, which I used to think was a subtle affirmation of religious belief but I – in my godless state - liked it anyway, turns out (I read in an interview with him) to be a sly denunciation of faith in the end. D’oh! (But then, as pointed out above, Irving doesn’t have a monopoly on the meaning of Meany just because he wrote it.)

Maybe we lower animals just weren’t meant to hold contradictory ideas, to practise such separation of heart and head. And maybe that in itself is a good thing. I can’t help fearing it’s a weakness though. Are there any examples? I take heart that even Philip Pullman himself is pretty dismissive of those whose arguments he disagrees with, whatever the “pure” fictional qualities of their books:

I dislike them for different reasons. The Lord of the Rings, for all its scope, weight and structural integrity, is not a serious book because it doesn’t say anything interesting or new or truthful about human beings. It tells an essentially trivial story. The goodies are always good and the baddies are always bad. CS Lewis comes from a different tradition: in the Narnia books he struggles with big ideas. I dislike the conclusions he comes to because he seems to recommend the worship of a god who is a fascist and a bully; who dislikes people of different colours; and who thinks of women as being less valuable in every way.

And it is a god who hates life because he denies children life. In the final Narnia book he gives the children the end-of-term treat of being killed in a railway accident so they can go to heaven. It’s a filthy thing to do. Susan is shut out from salvation because she is doing what every other child who has ever been born has done - she is beginning to sense the developing changes in her body and its effect on the opposite sex. For all those reasons I profoundly disagree with Lewis and with the conclusions he reaches.
Nonetheless, despite Pullman’s fighting weight, this seems woefully limiting to someone who read the Narnia chronicles two or three times as a child (sighing with a weariness beyond his years whenever the time came round again to wade through The Horse and His Boy: what was he thinking?), and enjoyed them immensely without ever realizing that Aslan was, like, Jesus, right, or being swayed from non-belief for a second.

But back to the idea of whether you have to know about the author to appreciate the work. On an important and grounded level, yes. It’s true to say that if the respective authors had not had a strong body of work behind them, probably no-one would have touched Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, Jeanette Winterson’s Art & Lies, or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves* with a barge pole. And we would be the worse off for it.

Because you see knowing the name of the author is a valuable shortcut and time-saver. It helps to see the words Jeffrey Archer embossed on a book cover and know you needn’t bother opening it. And it helps to know that even if you didn’t like it that much the first time, that new Martin Amis is worth another crack because you enjoyed his other stuff. This is the other reason why the coverless volume passed from hand to hand, referred to with rheumy-eyed romanticism at the start of this article, would never work. And thank God for that.


*A pedant writes: Nobody did touch that with a barge pole, you idiot - she was published by her husband.

(Wavid: here is the last draft of the column I would like to do for Palimpsest - please give it more consideration, and don't ask amner who has had it in for me from the start. I haven't heard from you in response to my last six emails so I am sending this to your home, work, PDA, mobile internet and also your parents' email addresses just to be on the safe side. The fact that I have your parents' email addresses and also know a good bit about the real reason you had to get out of Cambridge and go to Lynn, might concentrate your mind in deciding whether or not to let me do this column. No pressure though!

PS, I could probably turn it around quite quickly and would not require a fee.)
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Old 20th Jul 2004, 12:57   #2
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Default Re: 1. Art & Life

Originally Posted by John Self
Then I thought of John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, which argues that the early 20th century modernists – Woolf, Eliot, Pound et al – wrote their obscure works not (as some might say) to try to forge something new from a fairly stagnant art form, but deliberately to exclude the common reader, that vulgar new boy who had never existed before the Education Acts.[/i][/color][/size]
Great column John.

I've not read John Carey's book, but I'm presuming you're not saying the book is balls, simply his argument that Woolf, Eliot and Pound were elitists.

Meself, I'd go along with Carey. I loathe Woolf. Doesn't he include EM Forster for a whipping? Because there' s never been a novel that so doggedly sets out the project to denounce the working-class's love of art as bogus as Howard's End. But the fact that Eliot was an even grander snob - and that snobbery was indeed part of his project - doesn't stop me from liking his stuff because I find it so beguiling. Your perception of the author is just one factor in whether you like a book or not. Doris Lessing is a Woolf fan who simultaneously denounces her anti-semitism and her sometimes poisonous snobbery.

But to take your argument off at a tangent doesn't all art now exist as part of a consumer society? An author is a brand. It's impossible to remove that from our perspective. (Hence, like you say, The Unconsoled, which I loved, but which would never have made it out of the slush pile had not Ishiguro been a very hot brand when he wrote it).

And I suspect literature works in the same way as any other branded product. We all consume art as much for what it says to us, as what it says about us. So the context is all important.

This is particularly naked in how we consume music. I was just playing the Shins' Kissing The Lipless on my way to the office. Even if no-one else heard me do it, let's not pretend that part of my motive for putting it on is not to reassure myself that I'm not the middle-aged git that my mirror tells me I am. OK, it's quite a nice hate song too. But.

And that's just as true of books. If not more so, because literature is a "nice" form that's supposedly therefore more "elevating" than pop music.

And it's even truer of orchestral music, a form which struggles under the monstrous weight of the idea that it's supposedly high art and therefore shouldn't ever be fun, and that modern work must have an intellectual justification. And I say that not as someone who hates orchestral music but who's a sucker for it. I've sat through concerts where it takes you longer to read the programme notes than it does to hear the piece.

Have I gone off on one there?

Apologies. Anyway, great column. Ta.
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Old 20th Jul 2004, 15:41   #3
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No. I'm sorry. I cannot agree.

I shall elucidate by example question.

Example 1: A painting emerges from an attic. It is unsigned, but clearly from a famous school of painting. No-one can identify the artist as either the Great Master or his Undistinguished Pupil. If there is genuinely no way of telling by inspection or analysis, the painting always eventually finishes up, for financial reasons, attributed to the Master. Many such paintings are regularly admired in art galleries around the world. If it's really nice, and it's about right in provenance, what difference does it make which Italian scallywag or group thereof put the paint on the canvas?

Example 2: A famous concert pianist has a wonderful career. Towards his forties, it emerges that he's been a bit of a paedophile. Now, it is arguably valid not to enrich him by buying any more of his CDs, but are the recordings you already own any less beautiful because they were performed by a dirtbag? Is knowledge of his vice going to make you reappraise that sentimental cadenza?

Example 3: I'm a big fan of Iain Banks. Arguably, not everything he writes is terrific. I had read about half of the books he has so far written by the time I learned anything at all about him, though I'd guessed he was Scottish and a bit lefty from a bit of context. Up to that point, I had used the label "Iain Banks" as the signal that this was potentially a worthwhile book. Since then, I have found out his musical taste from Desert Island Discs, and read Raw Spirit, which gave me more autobiographical details than I wanted. I hope this knowledge is not going to affect my reading pleasure. Should it, when I already knew I liked his writing?

My answers to all the above are "I jolly well hope not. I do not need to judge the artist to appreciate the art."

I have ignored, however, the LABEL concept.

In buying books, there are author names I go for, not because I commune with them, but because I like the books they write, and I'm less likely to be disappointed than if I bought one labelled with another author name (such as Umberto Eco). This is a good example, because I know Eco is well regarded, but his art is not to my taste.

Similarly, in buying music, I will consider composer and performer, but I don't need to know what makes them tick.

It's like buying a car... you buy the VW rather than the Skoda (even if the guts are the same), because you trust the make.
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Old 18th Mar 2005, 15:31   #4
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It's interesting that you chose Iain Banks as an example - he's a master of branding in that he uses two different names - one for the books I'd consider reading, and another for his sci-fi. The subtle difference of adding the intial 'M' to his name is a very handy quick-reference for people to decide whether they want to read the book or not (for me, that would go: 'Hmm, Iain Banks - I'll have that. But what's this next to it? Oh, that's Iain M. Banks, I'll leave that on the shelf'). So for me it is handy to know a little about the author in this case.

I think it's useful to know just enough about an artist and/or their work to give you an idea of whether it's worth dedicating time to them, whether that be in reading their book, going to a gallery to see their art, or going to the theatre, cinema, opera house etc. But I don't think it's essential to have a full autobiography or an analysis of all their works to hand to help you understand.

The reader is so essential to the purpose of a book (apart from in the obvious sense) that one writer, introducing a reissue of one of his old books, reflected that he had wanted to revise the thing on the new publication, but then realized that he had no more right to do so, thirty years on, than anyone else did. The book belonged to its readers.
Not all artists share this view. When I was complaining about an awful version of a Bob Dylan song, my dad told me that the man was once asked why he was always playing his songs differently. His abrupt reply was to the effect that they were his songs, so it was his choice to do what he wanted with them.
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Old 18th Mar 2005, 15:44   #5
John Self
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Indeed. The other extreme, as amner has mentioned elsewhere, is Conan Doyle, who when asked by an American theatre producer if he could marry Sherlock Holmes for the purposes of his play, replied, "You can marry him, murder him, do what you like with him."
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Old 23rd Apr 2005, 1:58   #6
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Great essay, John. Just the stuff I love to read. Happen to agree with Gil on this one, if indeed, you meant knowing about the biography of the artist, rather than his/her catalogue. I prefer to know no biological details of most artists whose work I consume (ugh!). I'm not sure why that is; maybe it's because I'm an artist myself, by trade. If you mean,one needs to know an artists catalogue to appreciate his work, in other words, his reputation, that may be another matter. When I was young, teens and early twenties, I was promiscuous in my reading; anything I laid my hands on, from Agatha Christie and Cathrine Cookson, Taylor Caldwell to Ayn Rand, Virginia Woolf and Dickens. These days, a book needs to come with a very high recommendation in order for me to read it. Is this because when I was young, I thought I would live forever and thought there would be time to read everything and now I know my days are numbered and value my time more? Perhaps.

As for disagreeing with the writer but still enjoying the books...Hmmm. Can't think of too much in the way of fiction that would fit here, so I think I agree with you on that one.

And Wshaw, are we the only two on the planet who despise Virginia Woolf? I recently put down Mrs. Dalloway. I was going to write a review, but realised my last review was negative and thought two in a row would be unseemly.

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Old 23rd Apr 2005, 10:37   #7
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An interesting addition to this question concerns gil's point (above) whether the disreputable (and worse) life of the artist should invalidate his/her work. I have recently been following the following discourse about William Mayne, the prize-winning children's author.

Rowan Williams backs reading Mayne's books

and a brief discussion on Achuka:

Good for the Archbishop! Y'all must be very proud to have someone so brave and honest in such an important post.

And :P to the Times for a sensationalist headline.

Posted by Peni at April 17, 2005 08:12 PM

The Archbishop of Canterbury's defence of paedophile author William Mayne (Sunday Times 17th April) shows that the Anglican church is as ignorant about child sexual abuse as it's Catholic brothers.

Mayne's crimes cannot be separated from his books because he used the latter expressly to attract and groom his victims. He used his status as a respected author to access primary schools, Sunday schools, book clubs and a wide base of fans. His intellect was used to charm naive parents and fascinate children while intimidating anyone suspicious of his activities. The income he derived permitted him to travel the country to turn up unexpectedly on a young fan's doorstep and lavish gifts and holidays. Not having a day job allowed him to be always available after school and during holidays while busy parents worked, unaware that the gingerbread cottage he baited with books and games was a trap for their children. Above all he groomed and flattered his young victims by including them as characters in his books. No-one should ever be able to read them again without thinking of the decades of suffering he has inflicted.

Mayne is not a repentant sinner. He has shown no remorse or understanding and has tried to deny his admissions of guilt in order to maintain his reputation. The Archbishop will have caused anguish to his many victims by defending a pervert where he should have given clear moral leadership.

Posted by tl at April 18, 2005 03:39 PM

If TL would cite the sources indicating that Mayne wrote specifically to seduce children, as opposed to being led into temptation by the circumstances of his life and career and succumbing, I would be grateful.

But let us assume for the moment that TL is correct on this point and that Mayne’s confession is authentic and his recantation is not. Is it really true that his work has no independent existence, and that those who, like the Archbishop, had derived legitimate enjoyment and enlightenment from reading that work, are ethically obliged to retroactively erase these benefits from their lives?

Expanding the question, is Charles Dodgson’s literary work poisoned by his photographs of nude little girls? How much do you need to know about the context of those photographs before making a decision one way or another? If you condemn Dodgson’s work, how does that affect your judgment of the many, many writers (arguably including the entire modern tradition of children’s literature in English) who were influenced by him?

What about the classical literary traditions of the Greeks - for whom male/male pederasty was institutionalized - and the Romans - who made mass murder into mass entertainment? Is this tainted, too, and if so, does it corrupt all the poetry, drama, philosophy, etc., derived from it?

What if Mayne repented, publicly and spectacularly - would his existing work remain tainted or somehow be purified by the act? What are the implications for the audience of an artist’s behavior changes over time? Once you learn that Louis Armstrong beat some of the women he had relationships with, are you obliged to study his oeuvre and approve only those which stem from periods that show no evidence of domestic violence? If so, how do you judge recordings from acceptable periods of works composed during unacceptable periods? Are we obliged to obtain complete biographical information before making literary judgments, and if so, how are live authors to make a living?

This sort of argument ad absurdum would not be fair, except that I live surrounded by a sternly literal-minded would-be moralist strain, big on snap judgements and low on reflection and generosity, which regards all art and literature as inherently corrupt and all intellectual activity as dangerous. I will not assert that anyone who rejects Mayne’s work on the basis of his life will go down this road, but I will maintain that it is important for that person to be aware that the road exists.

Moral and literary questions deserve to be considered in detail, in a broad context; not in general, in a narrow context.

P.S. I promise I put paragraphs breaks into this screed; but I couldn’t make them appear in the preview. I apologize if it all comes out run together.

Posted by Peni at April 19, 2005 04:56 PM
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