In Which I Ask if Literary Art is Only to be Found in Literary Fiction

August 2020

Can literary art only come from literary fiction published by traditional publishers? In her latest newsletter, Elle Griffin sets out to challenge the notion that self published books are not real art. I’m with her on this. The question of whether something is art is entirely orthogonal to the question of how it was published. Griffin goes on to ask if real art cannot be a commercial success, as some people seem to believe. Again I agree with her that commercially successful works can be art. Many great writers of the past have known commercial success. But when she says, “Perhaps it’s all art,” I take a different view. It is not all art. Nor should we ask it to be.

The eternal question “Is it art?” demands an answer to the eternal question, “What is art?” But before I go there, I want to consider another question that is often implicit in the “Is it art?” question, and that is, “Is it of value?” In other words, is being art the only thing that makes “the arts” valuable?

I’d say no. There are lots of other things in “the arts” that are of value besides art. For example, there is virtuosity. Griffin gives the example of Lindsey Stirling, who is raking in big money and building a huge following by dancing and playing the violin at the same time. Is this art? Neither the music critics nor the dance critics seem to think so, according to Griffin, who admits “the dancing limits the music and the music limits the dancing”. But the ability to combine the two is surely virtuosic. It is also innovative. Stirling may be the first virtuoso of a new art form of her own invention.

Innovation and virtuosity are valuable things in their own right. People are fascinated by virtuosity. We pay people millions to deliver virtuoso performances, and not just in the arts. We pay people millions for being virtuosos at throwing a ball through a hoop suspended from a pole, or at driving a car in a circle very fast, or at propelling balls into pockets at the corners of a table by hitting them with another ball that they hit with the end of a stick. Winston Churchill described golf as “a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.” The whole thing is set up to call forth virtuosity by creating artificial difficulties. Put the basketball hoop three feet off the ground. Move the tee next to the green and make the hole three feet wide. These changes would make golf and basketball much easier.

But we don’t want them to be easier. We want them to be difficult, because only difficulty calls forth virtuosity. Dancing and playing the violin at the same time is difficult. It would obviously be easier to have one person play while another person dances. Lindsey Stirling is making things difficult for herself. But that’s the point of her performances. It is why people stop and gorp at them. It is why she is raking in the fans and the money. The difficulty is contrived to allow her to display her virtuosity, and that is a fine thing because we enjoy watching virtuosity for its own sake.

We have very good reasons to be enthralled by virtuosity. Virtuosity encourages us to stretch ourselves. It shows us what we are capable of when we combine our natural gifts with dedication and hard work. These are lessons very much worth learning. As I type this there are people all over the world glued to their TV sets watching obscure sports that they never watch at any other time just because they happen to be part of the Olympics. What can these inexperienced viewers possibly appreciate about the performances they are watching? The Olympics are quite explicit about the answer. It is all about excellence. For the most part it is about excellence in activities of no practical value conducted in ways that make them artificially difficult, just for the sake of showcasing the virtuosity of the athletes. The pointlessness of the activity actually serves to throw the whole of the spotlight on excellence for the sake of excellence alone.

Virtuosity, in other words, does not have to be art in order to attract or to deserve our attention.

Some sports are about something else that is valuable in itself: courage. Courage is a large part of why people watch motorsports or boxing, for instance. Playing snooker at the professional level requires great virtuosity but no courage. No one was ever killed or maimed or even badly bruised playing snooker. But the boxer and the race car driver are risking life and limb. They are persevering through pain and exhaustion. They are displaying great courage. This is what Hemingway was getting at, I suspect, when he said that there are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering. The rest are only games. Hemingway’s true sports all required supreme courage (especially so in his day, when people died regularly). As with virtuosity, we have every reason to be enthralled by courage. Like virtuosity, it calls us to better ourselves.

Virtuosity and courage are both things we will gladly pay to see demonstrated. Neither of them is art. Nor should we ask them to be. Neither is less valuable for not being art. They may, of course, be combined with art. An activity may require art and virtuosity and courage. But these are separate properties that must be judged separately. Art is not greater art for requiring either virtuosity or courage, only for being greater art. Nor is courage more courageous for being artful.

Alright then, what is art? It is a question from the ages, and I am not going to conduct a tedious literature review. I’m just going to give you my definition: Art is about vision. It is about how we see. Art shows us things we had not seen and thus makes us see in new ways. Yes, that definition is a bit fuzzy around the edges. I’m sorry, it’s the best I can do. And yes, I am using “see” here to represent all the senses. Great music changes how we hear. Great painting and sculpture change how we see. Great food and wine change how we taste things. Great literature changes how we see and understand our fellow human beings and the world which we inhabit. Art makes us see more, both in art and in life.

One consequence of this definition is that art is really hard. It is not a matter of technique alone. You can’t show people things they have not seen unless you have seen something they have not seen. Vision is the first requirement, and you can’t summon up vision on demand. I’m not prepared to say if vision is an innate property, a gift of the Holy Spirit, or something that can be developed and matured by study. But it is not a common thing. And vision alone is not enough for art. To create art you have to communicate that vision. Not only do you have to see, you have to make others see as well. That requires craft, perhaps an exceptionally high level of craft. Sufficient craft and vision in combination is not easy to come by.

Still, Griffin’s suggestion that “Perhaps it’s all art,” is a popular sentiment. Sick of being looked down on by cultural elites merely for being popular, people who create popular works are entitled to feel that the elites don’t know what they are talking about and that their judgements are merely the product of snobbery. But just because the elites are not fit judges of art (and in most cases they are not fit judges of art) it does not follow that it is all art. If that were so, the word would not be useful. According to my definition at least, most of it is not art because it does not change how we see. But any of it could be art. A vampire novel, a romance, a western, a fantasy, a dancing violinist. They all could be art, if they change how we see. Literary fiction? Like anything else, it could be art. But most of literary fiction isn’t art either.

One of the traps that literary fiction can fall into in its quest to be art is mimicking the secondary attributes of art. If art is about vision, and about changing how we see, the effect of reading a work of true art will often be shock. It is shocking to suddenly see things in a new way. Other emotions, such as delight, my predominate, but shock is part of the response to art. The author who wants to be thought an artist may say to themselves, “Art is shocking, therefore I will set out to shock.”

But while art is shocking, not all that shocks is art. Indeed, nothing that sets out deliberately to shock is art. And setting out to shock becomes self-defeating. At first it is easy enough, but in this jaded world it gets harder and harder to shock people. (Think about how blithely we watch gory medical procedures on TV these days. Twenty years ago we would have been gasping and turning from the screen in shock.) Shock wears off, and the would-be artist must descend into ever more disturbing material in order to continue to shock. And in so doing they move further and further from both true art and popular appeal.  

Another temptation for the would-be literary artist is obscurity. Sometimes the vision that a great writer is trying to convey requires very precise expression or a very fine orchestration of events in the story. Things may move slowly and require great organization in order to bring forth the artist’s vision. This too creates a pattern for false art. The would-be artist observes these delicacies of story and language in true art and concludes that by mimicking these things, even at the expense of obscurity and tedium, they will produce art. But all that elaborate language and painstaking choreography of action is for nothing if there is no gift of vision at the heart of it. As with the pursuit of shock, all this really does is reduce the size of the audience. False art appeals to few because it is tiresome and drives readers away.

In the grip of these temptations to false art, literary fiction may actually have less chance of producing real art than popular fiction. A writer of popular fiction who is not trying to be literary but who is actually possessed of a vision and has the skill to convey it may produce art without ever having the intention or ambition to do so. After all, most of the works we consider literature today are not works of “literary fiction”. They were popular fiction in their day. Some of them were even self published.

There are many other things in music, literature, and the arts generally besides “art” in the sense in which I have defined it here. Art, so defined, is important. It changes how we see things (hear things, touch things, taste things). We live through our senses, so anything that increases the discernment of those senses helps us to see the truth of life and to appreciate the wonders of the world. This is not a small thing. But it is not everything. If art informs our senses, it is only so that other things can more fully excite them.

There are millions of works out there with no greater ambition than to satisfy existing appetites. There is nothing wrong with that, and it may require both craft and virtuosity. Worthy appetites deserve to be satisfied. Some appetites are base, and there is something very wrong with trying to satisfy those. But if the appetite is licit, it is virtuous to satisfy it. Works need no justification beyond this.

Works that succeed in satisfying widely felt appetites will make their creators rich, and they will have earned their money and their fame. This applies not just to entertainment but to every part of the economy. This is what an economy is: a mechanism for satisfying appetites. Books, entertainment, the arts (however you want to describe it) satisfy a variety of needs in us. The need for art, in the sense I have defined it, is one of those needs, but only one. If the virtue of art is that it sharpens our vision, that is only a virtue if there are other things worth seeing. Art is one of the jewels of human achievement, and we should never diminish its importance to us. But nor should we use it to diminish all the other things that “the arts” can contribute to our lives, or to belittle those creators and performers whose genius is to provide those other things in a superlative degree.

I mentioned above that there are some appetites that are base and that therefore do not deserve to be satisfied. Among those is the appetite for the kind of pretentious pseudo-art that I described above. It may not be art, but it has its fans. It feeds the appetite to be thought an art-lover, to be thought a person of sophisticated taste, to feel that one moves and thinks with a superior class of persons. (In a word, snobbery.) It is this appetite that causes some critics to pour scorn on forms of culture and entertainment that are not “art” by their false standards. They may be right, in many cases, simply because art is rare. The things they condemn may not actually be art. But they make two errors, first in their judgement of what does and what does not constitute art, and second in supposing that there are no values in “the arts” other than art.

Does this mean I agree with Griffin that what Lindsey Stirling is doing deserves to be called art. Actually no. I suspect it is not art. I can’t be certain because I am dance-blind, which makes me a poor judge of these things. But I suspect the violinists are right to say she is not a first-rate violinist and the dancers to say that she is not a first-rate dancer. But that is surely not the point. She is creating a spectacle and from what I have seen, she is very good at it. Spectacles don’t have to be art to be praiseworthy as spectacles. A spectacle can also be art, but it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be a good spectacle.

Finally, I will state my conviction that there is in all of us, an appetite for genuine art. We value seeing and enjoy having our ability to see enhanced. But precisely because art is about opening our eyes, there often needs to be a progression in the arts. The art that takes our perception to a 9 may depend on our perception being at an 8. Give such art to someone whose perception is currently a 5 and they will be lost. That does not mean that they would not appreciate art that took their perception from a 5 to a 6, or even from a 5 to a 9. But the artists who can facilitate such great leaps are very rare. Generally we need to work our way up. (My perception of dance seems permanently stuck on 0.) Art will remain opaque to many because they are not offered a proper progression in the arts. Or, all too likely, they are offered pretension aping art, and as a result they may close their eyes to anything called art forever. The art snobs do worse harm than merely denigrating worthy spectacle and virtuosity. They block real art.

Can self published books be art? Of course they can. The issue of art is entirely orthogonal. It is certainly true that, compared to a traditionally published book, any given self-published book is less likely to possess any of the traits that make books valuable, including art. That will be true of any medium without a gatekeeper.

But it is not like the traditional publishers are laser focussed on the discovery and promotion of art. For the most part, they are laser focussed on filling channels of appetite-satisfying books in various genre, without giving much thought to whether those appetites are licit or not. They are certainly looking for a high degree of craft, because craft is necessary to reliably satisfying appetites. (Lack of craft is why most self-published books fail.) If art does manage to slip in along with the craft, that is likely not something the publishers were hoping for. Often it seems to take them by surprise. In some cases they may be resistant to art, since art has a way of disrupting existing appetites, and their business model depends on the highly refined servicing of existing appetites.

Thus while traditional publication is a guarantee of a reasonable degree of craft, it is no guarantee of art. And while self-publication does not guarantee craft, or even deliver it very often, it is not hostile to craft, nor to art. In some respects it may give art more room to breathe. It won’t happen often. Art does not happen often. But there is nothing in the world to stop it from happening in self published works, or anywhere else. All that is required is vision and a suitable degree of craft.