Thursday, September 03, 2015

Why Jonathan Jones is a Whey-Faced Coxcomb (Redux)

1: He thinks that choosing books is a zero-sum game.

The good is not the enemy of the great. Suppose that Jane Austen has a quality called “greatness” which Terry Pratchett lacks. (I think this must mean something like "the ability to stand up to multiple re-readings" and "the capacity to mean different things to different readers.") It does not follow that any time you are reading Pratchett you are somehow depriving yourself of a reading of Austen. I suppose some people might live on that elevated a plain. A holy man who wants to read the Bible ten thousand times in his life may have sworn to read nothing else. A concert pianist might conceivably listen to nothing but great piano concerts. F.R Leavis famously reduced the canon of English literature to four authors: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and D.H Lawrence. (Modern English literature courses have reduced it further, to To Kill a Mocking Bird.) Leavis' idea Middlemarch has such depth that you will see things on the tenth or twentieth reading that you can’t see on the first. That being the case, there is no excuse to waste time re-reading Oliver Twist or reading the Mayor of Casterbridge at all. 

Leavis is not much respected in English literature departments today. 

Most of us use different books — and music and art and food — in different ways. We read Mort for one reason and Malone Dies for another. Parsifal certainly has a quality called “greatness” which the Birdy Song lacks. But it doesn’t follow that you want the dance band to play the overture at your wedding. 

2: He thinks that there is a thing called “literature”.

That is, he thinks there is some essential quality that makes some things “literature” and some things "not literature".

But surely, the only workable definition of “literature” is “what they study in English Literature departments.” 

It comes down, as everything always seems to, to  canon. Hamlet is definitely literature because it has been around for a long time; because lots of people have read it and seen it and appeared in it and even denounced it. It’s important. You’ll probably enjoy it, actually, but you need to read it even if you don’t, because it matters. Same goes for Pride and Prejudice. But Pride and Prejudice wasn’t "literature" when it was published. It was just a very witty book that ladies liked. 

At one end of the list is the Bible (so important you have to read it even if you don't enjoy it even a little bit). At the other end of the list is The Soldier's Rebel Lover (so unimportant that there is no point reading it unless you enjoy it.) Everything else comes somewhere in between.

Pratchett may become literature. Or he may not. The reasons that some things become literature and some things don’t is one of the things they study in English literature departments. 

3: He thinks that there is a thing called “style” which is distinct from plot, characters, setting or ideas — that determines whether or not a book is “literature”.

People who don't understand Art sometimes ask “why on earth should I be interested in that particular bowl of fruit?” They think that a painting is about telling you information — that it’s a rather old-fashioned form of photography. But the true art lover hardly perceives the work of art as a bowl of fruit at all. It's all about colours and form and composition and negative space. 

Un-artistic people sometimes think that some painter is a genius because he can paint kittens so accurately that you'd think that they were photographs. The art-lover hardly regards those kinds of paintings as Art at all. They don’t tell you anything about the artist. The art-lover would prefer six sketchy lines that capture the pussy cat in an unexpected way. 

Jones is an art critic, so he may think that books are like that as well. But it's obvious bullshit. A book might talk about something quite ordinary in elegant prose. But it might use the most ordinary, cut down prose in the world to talk about something amazing. It might be a great book because of the clever story. Or the convincing characters. The list of great writers who were not particularly great stylists is legion. Daniel Defoe wouldn't past the Jones test ("I flicked through a few pages in the bookshop to see what all the fuss was about, but the prose seemed very ordinary") for one moment. We read him because of his imagination and narrative ability: because we want to hear about prostitutes being shipwrecked by pirates during the plague year. 

4: He thinks that this thing called "style" can be spotted by glancing at a few pages of a book

Maybe an art critic can tell if a painting is “art” or “just drawing pictures” at a single glance. I guess an opera critic does not need to hear more than three lines to be able to say “this fellow can’t sing” --in the sense of "can’t produce the right notes in the right key". In pop music or folk music that might not be the last word on an artist, but in opera or classical music, there’s nothing more to be said. But books contain effects that build up over pages, over hundreds of pages, in Pratchett’s case, over multiple volumes. Isn’t the point of Granny Weatherwax that she starts out as a one-note joke and grows into a rounded out character? 

It might be that a single glance can tell you that a writer is so bad he’s not worth bothering with. Some people say that you can tell the Da Vinci code is going to be a bad book on the basis of the first word. But a humane person would draw the conclusion “Gosh! If the prose is that bad and it still got published, the story must be an absolute humdinger.” 

5: He is responding to an argument that no-one ever made.

A.S Byatt wrote a long, intelligent essay on The Shepherd’s Crown explaining what she thought Pratchett’s strengths were, and why this book wasn’t his best. I have long suspected Byatt of over-praising Pratchett — of imagining the book that she would have written based on his ideas, and giving a glowing review to that. But she doesn’t particularly claim that it is Great Literature. 

I don’t even particularly like Pratchett. I’ve read half a dozen of his books. I don’t think he is a master of the comic sentence, like Wodehouse; and I don’t think he is anywhere near as good as coming up with comic ideas as Douglas Adams. I do think he can produce a fine one-liner and no-one can not respect the way he dealt with his illness. (No-one except J.C Wright, who compared him with Hitler.) I don’t specially like Jane Austen, either. Give me a manly tale of oakies trekking to California or mad puritans hunting white whales any day of the week. But what I really don't like is inane, illogical journalism. One wonders how Mr Jones would feel if someone said that, while they themselves had never been to a modern art exhibition, they knew perfectly well that modern art was not really “art”.

Oh, but actually people say that sort of thing all the time, don’t they? 

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