Three recent debates in literature seem to me to be aspects of the same debate.
They are: (1) the bemoaning of the death of the novel and the end of serious reading, as exemplified by widely read essays by novelists Will Self and Tim Parks; (2) a call by a British journalist for more “accessible” poetry that got poets all over the English-speaking world up in arms; and (3) the indignation of Young Adult fans when criticized for reading childlike fiction (a little tempest I covered in a column a couple of weeks ago).
All are, at root, a disagreement over the value of the difficult in art.
Lets start with Tim Parks, a novelist and essayist who has been writing sharply pointed blog entries about the irrelevance of contemporary fiction.
His most recent, Reading: The Struggle, on the New York Review of Books website, argues that the conditions of constant distraction under which we try to read these days – constant interruption by communication and tantalizing information and images – make concentration on abstruse or abstract writing difficult, even impossible.
As a result, he claims, literary fiction has moved toward a simpler language – even Philip Roth adopted, in his later work, a “coercive, almost bludgeoning style.”
We no longer have the silence, solitude and concentration necessary to digest long sentences, such as Faulkner’s or Dickens’s or Henry Green’s.
He quotes some beautiful and near-impenetrable gems from all of these.
The effect is dazzling, and convincing: They do read like cryptic missives from another plane of consciousness, one that we are unlikely to meet even in the most intellectual of popular novelists today.
In this, he echoed British novelist Will Self, who published a similar essay about the death of the serious in an age of distraction a few weeks before.
Parks’s tone is mournful of late: He is like an aged prophet who has taken off to a cave, whence he broadcasts his dirge-like disapproval of the corrupt world he has left behind.
He has his opponents. The combative British journalist Jeremy Paxman drew the attention of poets around the world last month, when he said, after judging a major British poetry competition, that poetry should actually stop being difficult, that poets have “connived at their own irrelevance” and have a duty to “engage with ordinary people.”
He was repeating there a criticism commonly thrown at the arts that tend to flourish in academic environments: that these artists are only talking to each other. This idea was roundly dismissed by poets and intellectuals, who are naturally going to object to any proposition that poetry should be anything at all, because it is lots of things.
They also point out that there is an advanced level of everything, including physics, and the existence of that advanced level, obscure as it may be, is necessary for a sophisticated culture at large. It’s where the discoveries are made. And that if you’re going to tell poets to be populist, then you better tell the conceptual artists and the sound composers to stop being so weird, too – you’re going to have to take on the educated end of art itself, and you’re going to be questioning the value of avant-gardism like someone from 1880.
And all this reminds me of the consternation that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, over whether “YA” is good for grownups. Young Adult, you will recall, is the bizarre marketing label that exists only to tell prospective readers of any age that a book is going to be entertaining and story-driven.
It is exactly what Tim Parks says we will be reading almost exclusively in the grim, monoculture future that he foresees from his cave.
When YA readers are criticized, they howl that there is nothing wrong with entertainment. The idea that those who crave artistic experimentation are “elitist” is never far from the surface.
It’s confusing that, in a lot of these polemics, democracy is allied with accessible art. We in the arts have somehow allowed the battle lines to be drawn such that difficulty – the poetic, the impressionistic, the cryptic, the referential, the abstract – is supposed to be conservative.
People such as Tim Parks and Will Self – middle-aged males lamenting that the world does not share their classical erudition – tend to unwittingly reinforce that impression. The entertaining and populist, on the other hand, is supposed to be democratic.
The obvious conclusion one could draw is that populist art is progressive. But everyone who works in the arts knows that the opposite is actually true. It’s Jeremy Paxman – avowed Tory and monarchist – who is the conservative.
It is in the resolutely complicated and the frustratingly subtle that interesting alternatives to a mindless consumerist life are often found; it is in those thickets of fragment and allusion and deliberate confusion that a form of political questioning often arises.
And we all know that the political allegiances of the avant-garde skew very heavily leftward.
Calls for the simplification of abstract or allusive art have always come from governments suspicious of artists themselves. This is why totalitarian regimes have always legislated some form of realism.
This is why I’m pro-difficulty: it’s the anti-establishment choice.
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