Easel Painting or Classical Music
Reading in the Subway, John Sloan, 1926. Via
From The Guardian:
In a society where almost everyone is subject to the appropriation of their time, and a vast majority of that time is spent undertaking work that has little human or spiritual value, the ideal form of the writing life appears gilded with a sort of wonderment. The savage irony is that even as these aspirants sign up for the promise of such a golden career, so the possibility of their actually pursuing it steadily diminishes; a still more savage irony is that the very form their instruction takes militates against the culture of the texts they desire to produce. WB Yeats attributed to his father the remark that “Poetry is the social act of the solitary man”; with the creative-writing programmes and the Facebook links embedded in digitised texts encouraging readers to “share” their insights, writing and reading have become the solitary acts of social beings. And we all know how social beings tend to regard solitary acts – as perversities, if not outright perversions.
As I said at the outset: I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse. The current resistance of a lot of the literate public to difficulty in the form is only a subconscious response to having a moribund message pushed at them. As a practising novelist, do I feel depressed about this? No, not particularly, except on those occasions when I breathe in too deeply and choke on my own decadence. I’ve no intention of writing fictions in the form of tweets or text messages – nor do I see my future in computer-games design. My apprenticeship as a novelist has lasted a long time now, and I still cherish hopes of eventually qualifying. Besides, as the possessor of a Gutenberg mind, it is quite impossible for me to foretell what the new dominant narrative art form will be – if, that is, there is to be one at all.
What I can do is observe my canary: he doesn’t read much in the way of what I’d call serious novels, but there’s no doubting that he’s alive, breathing deep of a rich and varied culture, and shows every sign of being a very intelligent and thoughtful songbird. On that basis, I think it’s safe for us both to go on mining.