Thursday, November 15, 2007

Some thoughts on art and experience

I was recently reading a discussion again of the romance genre's literary merit, which comes up about once a week on romance publishing blogs. This time the discussion was on Teach me Tonight an academic romance blog, which is linked in the sidebar under the name Hot for Teacher. Anyway, I wrote a long comment and I thought it was worth copying here. Any thoughts are welcome, as always. For the record, I enjoy both literary and genre fiction, though as you will see I think literary often is just a genre, too. Here we go:

rfp's comments, perhaps in particular this part, "But that doesn't mean every reading experience must be planned as an opportunity for moral improvement and reinforcement of Fowler's approved ideals. (Talk about repetitious reading!)," reminds me of an error I see over and over again in art criticism, as well as in the public in general. People (I am not saying rfp does this) conflate the quality of the experience with the completeness of the experience. The best way to explain this is with an example, and since I came to aesthetics through music, I will start there.

Let's say that somehow miraculously we were actually able to judge the aesthetic worth of some piece of art. I have no idea what the criteria would be, but let's say we all agreed upon it. And it turns out that Beethoven's 9th symphony is in fact the greatest piece of music ever. It is THE BEST. It gets 162 aestheme points.

Remember that for the sake of the example we are all agreeing that this is the case.

This does not mean, however, that even the best piece of music ever gives listeners every single possible musical experience they could ever have. Beethoven's 9th does whatever it does better than anything else, but it doesn't do everything. Louie Louie by the Troggs which might only have 12 aestheme points generates a different experience than Beethoven. So no matter how objective aesthetic goodness is, and we are granting 100% objectiveness in this example, goodness is not completeness. If people wish a certain type of musical experience they may need to listen to the Troggs even if the Troggs is objectively, demonstrably worse than Beethoven.

So, even if one could determine that certain literary works are indeed better works than other non-literary ones, it in no way follows that non-literary works lack value. Indeed, if you want a certain type of experience, the literary ones are unable to provide it.

Even if Mother Theresa was a better person than "the man on the Clapham omnibus" we don't toss the Clapham gentleman in the garbage heap.

As a brief addendum, literary fiction is as easy to lampoon as any genre. You take some sort of odd characters, abuse them or have them be dreadfully bored, and then write long, flowing sentences about them that go nowhere, but are dreadfully important. Oh, it's completely unfair, but literary works often have their own cliches that are easily parodied.

To make the point, I am going to copy in an old blog post of mine which parodies various genres. My literary parody is fake plot number 2. The question is whether the literary plot is any less formulaic in its way than the thriller or erotic romance ones. Here you go:

So another bit of blog participation over at Evil Editor's House is the Guess the Plot game. In this one, authors have submitted their query letters with a title. EE posts the titles only and the EE minions make up stupid plots to go with the title. Then, when EE is ready to critique the letter, he publishes 4 or 5 of the bogus plots along with the real one, and the readers are supposed to guess which is real. I don't usually participate in this activity, but I got on a tear today, so below we have 5 idiotic plots for some novel I know nothing about other than it is titled "FireHouse". So here you go:


Matthew's band FireHouse is going nowhere until J-Pop sensation Hiroko Girls hire them for a tour of East Asia. But does lead singer Yuko rock Singapore as much as she rocks Matthew's world?

It's been 9 years since one-armed albino meth-addict Josh saw his dad who with one hand ran a cactus nursery in the heart of New Orleans and with the other hand beat Josh and his mother every afternoon over tea. Now, Josh is bringing a gasoline can to the reunion. Firehouse: a heart warming Lit-fic Cozy.

14 year old Katie is the good natured joke of the DC fire department until she single-handedly carries the President out of a burning White House on her back.

Hunky firefighters seemed like a great idea for Jessica's new network reality show until the pent-up manheat becomes hotter than the blazes they fight. Will she lose her job to smarmy Randall or her innocence to studly Jared... and Stan... and Michael... and Stan and Michael. (I haven't ever read one of these, but I think this plot would fit right in at women's romantica publisher Ellora's Cave.)

When right-wing petroleum tycoons from the Amazon threaten to incinerate all of New Jersey with their "Firehouse" bio weapon, only fashion designer Alara Bouzenbottom stands in their way.


Anonymous said...

so u do have something for today,

pacatrue said...

Dang. I just realized the Troggs sang "Wild Thing" not Louie Louie, which was in fact the Kingsmen, right? I could look these things up before posting, but where is the fun in that?

Ello said...

I think I understood your comment and I agree. But I think it is funny to argue literary merit on anything because taste is so subjective. Anything worth reading has merit, irregardless of subject, genre, etc. I always get turned off by the literary snobbery of the elitists.

And loved your plotlines, especially the hunky firemen!

pacatrue said...

Thanks, ello. I too get turned off by literary snobbery, though I have also noticed the reverse trend in which anything literary is reflexively put down as well in a sort of reverse snobbery.

The short version of my post is, even if you think that certain works of art are in fact better than others (and I do), there is still value in other art. I honestly think that Beethoven's 9th is a better work of art than AC/DC, but AC/DC provides a musical experience that Beethoven's 9th does not.

pacatrue said...

And, yeah, the firefighter one is fun. I sometimes think it would be fun to write that one up.

Robin S. said...

Hi paca,

I really enjoyed reading your genre-fied GTPs.

I agree that lit fic, at its, for lack of a better phrase, most base, can be formulaic. At its best - it's the written equiv of Beethoven. The deal is - most writers in this genre are striving for 'greatness', but very few actually own and have it.

I like different types of fiction for different reasons. There's a reason, for example, such formulaic stuff is found in airports and read on airplanes, and there's nothing wrong with that. I agree with you - quality and completeness-or need fulfilled- are two different topics altogether.