Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On (Literary) Art

Art is not merely a splash of pretty colors or a collection of graceful shapes. It should be more: it should captivate the audience. The audience looks at art, and then looks back at it, not necessarily for any one thing, but because of the entirety of the composition. The techniques are important, of course, but art is more than just techniques; it is an instinct honed by the artist.

I believe that literary art is no different. Good writing is not just a multisyllabic vocabulary or the collection of rules in a book of grammar. It is not memorizing a turn of phrase or knowing all the different transition words (even though that helps). Good writing is writing that the reader reads, keeps reading, and re-reads, and this is not possible unless the writing connects to the audience on a deeper level than just "pretty" or "descriptive" or "interesting". It tells the audience something about the truth of life.

A lot of people condemn popular fiction as something beneath them. These people are snobs. Yet, others are turned off of fictions because it is considered "high art literature". These people are narrow-minded. Fiction is fiction. It is not more or less real because of its content or its portrayal; instead, it is made more real to the reader when the reader can relate to it. When the author's world-view and the reader's world-view are similar enough, they will expect the same reactions out of certain types of people, and the story will seem more real. Otherwise, the story is merely boring and contrived.

So, why do I like popular fiction? Popular fiction is simple: the same plots used and reused and the same characters with different names. Each character has history and emotion, but often simplified and narrowed down to just one big event and one strong emotion. But I don't think that that is a simplification. I think that that is the way it is. People like to think of themselves as complex, difficult to understand. They want to be deep, and accuse others of judging them when they do something wrong. But we are not that complicated or conflicted--most of us anyways. I know I can list my driving personality traits and goals on one hand. I can tell you in under a page my life experiences that has actually affected me as a person.

So maybe I'm not a very deep person. But what I'm trying to say is that most people are not. Most people know what they want--or they know that they don't know what they want. They want money, sex, love, security, or fame. Most people only need one thing to be able to identify with a character. Life is like that... one thing at a time, one emotion at a time, even if it's just confusion.

I think "high art" literature has its place. Experimental writing is interesting. Sometimes, an author has to use non-traditional methods to express a thought. But I think experimental writing for the sake of experimental writing is pretentious and unnecessary. If something can be expressed with traditional methods, there is no point in re-inventing the wheel. Experimental novels make me think of children learning to speak, before they have something worthwhile to say, or pianists banging on the piano and creating discordant sounds, because they have not yet learned the harmonies which have been around for thousands of years. True, there is jazz, which does not rely on harmonious chords, but every beginner's cacophony is not jazz. Even jazz has rules which must be followed.

Some people like moral ambiguities in characters; they identify with them. I say those are the people who have not seen real evil. Maybe there is a difference between the good decision and the better decision, and usually there is agony and regret and 20/20 hindsight, but these are not signs of moral ambiguity. A person who knows what is wrong might not necessarily know what is right, but he knows what is not wrong. And he will choose the path that is not wrong. It might be round-about and have less than desirable results, but that is where the story comes from. The story does not come from a morally ambiguous character. Or if it does, and the reader identifies with this character, I would say that the reader has weak moral convictions, and perhaps the reader is amoral, and therefore can easily identify with immoral characters. If so, I am glad that most people are not like that, and most people do not enjoy reading "high art" literature.

As to the lack of meaning in popular literature. Have you read Aesop's fables? Grimm's fairy tales? I grew up on Chinese, page-long cartoon stories. Short, concise stories of few words and fewer characters, but they taught me almost everything I know about the world. Yes, some ideas are more easily swallowed when packaged in a story, but there is no need to hide it in glaringly bright overtones or the unreachable, shadowed blabble of texts. (Unless, of course, you are trying to promote communism with heroic, kamikaze stories of ten-year-old children.)

And what is the use of analyzing "high art" literature? When you do understand the author, you are only understanding the idea of one person, and it is one person with whom not many agree. You can see the world out of one person's eyes at one moment in time. Can you change the world with that? No, not if the book itself has not changed the world. Can you gather some grand truth about the world with that? No, because the ideas in the book has not been confirmed by the people. I am not writing of Einstein's theory of relativity, of which few people understand; I am writing of the interaction between people, and everybody has those, and can feel instinctively the truth--or lies--within the novels.

So, perhaps popular fiction is simplified, but perhaps "high art" literature makes more of people's conflicts than there exists. I think "high art" literature has its place of introducing new ideas, but I don't think that its existence should debase popular fiction and render popular fiction readers as simple-minded people who are too stupid to understand the meanings of "high art" literature. They just don't think that the world is as ambiguous or people as difficult to understand.