I have been attending a local literary festival of late and it had me thinking about the issue of commerciality and art. I’m not exactly alone in this – the debate has been going on for years – but being the opinionated type and something of a megalomaniac, I thought I’d bore you to death with my thoughts about it anyway.
There has long been the belief that literature is far superior to genre-fiction, simply because it is written for a higher purpose; for the writer to express their feelings, enlighten us to certain aspects of the human-condition, and so on. The flaw in this argument of course is that some genre-writers, like Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson for example, later go on to be taken seriously, usually after their death (isn’t that always the way?). Of course a lot of the books we now regard as classics were derided in their day but now have value placed on them, owing to the insight they shed on Victorian England for instance (Austen, Dickens, etc); it seems to me that if a text has longevity it can become regarded as literature. Who’s to say that won’t happen to Marian Keyes’s books? You never know.
One of the other measures of value in art is originality, but it’s debateable how original anything can be in the modern era; this is why we have movements called post-modernism, of course. When society was more repressive it was much easier to cause offence, shock the art-world and generally create controversy. Referring back to music (which is my own area of interest), I doubt Marilyn Manson’s devil-worshipping act would have created any ripples in the UK – we seen all that before and we’re not as big on Christianity here. Certainly, hip hop has caused offence in some circles, but much of that is more down to ignorance, incipient racism, and to be honest, manipulative hype. Some readers may refer me to modernist classical, but most people hear a lot more of that than they’re aware of (on film soundtracks), so the general public are far more blasé to it than one might suppose. In the art world, there was probably very little left for an artist left to do after Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in an art-gallery and signed it – small wonder that the Tate Modern’s exhibits only really annoy the tabloids. Therefore if we return to literature, when Joyce, Beckett, et al subverted the form of the novel, what else is there left to do? Pretty much everything has been done with poetry; verse is about as free as it’s ever going to be…
Consequently, originality, like most of other criteria, is in the eye (or ears) of the beholder. So the age-old question arises; what is art? In Europe, film has been considered art for a lot longer than in the UK or the USA, henceforth film-buffs often superciliously consider it ‘better’. The irony there is that the Cahiers du Cinèma in France, which was part of and a big influence on French New Wave has nothing but praise for the work of Howard Hawks, John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk and many other directors who were considered little more than ‘hacks’ in their own country – and these were the bigger named directors. Therefore, their films have been re-evaluated by the intelligentsia and are now regarded very highly.
Who’s to say that writing in a genre is any easier than writing ‘literary fiction’? Do ‘literary novels’ have any greater value, and why? Certainly the competition in genre fiction is very high, which would suggest it isn’t all that easy to make one’s name in that area – I’m sure that is also true in literary fiction too, by the way. Personally I would just like to find out who makes the rules when evaluating such things, because it’s irritating.
Would I be right in supposing that incredibly middle-class people who made up the rules? That must be why the rest of us read literature then; to appear more intelligent, better brought up and respectable members of society.