Literary Critics

In his blog on October 2nd, Patrick Kurp quotes the writer Dawn Powell,

“The new writers disdain human curiosity; they wish only to explore and describe their own psyches; they are too egotistical and snobbish to interest themselves in neighbors. The urge to write now is no longer the love of story-telling or even the love of applause for a neat turn or dramatic twist. It is the urge to show off, the author as hero is a big sex success and leaves them gasping. The book’s drive is only the desire to strip the writer’s remembered woes and wrongs and show his superiority to the reader – not to communicate with him or to entertain.”

And then Kurp comments:

Her words are a prophecy fulfilled. How often do we learn something from a contemporary novel or poem? When does fiction or poetry extend our knowledge of the world? When is a work of literature more than another act of solipsism?”

At the very least, I find both comments unkind generalizations. I mention them here because they reflect the views of several other literary critics that I read. They also imply a certain ridicule or contempt of the appreciation of arts by individuals with less background or knowledge of literary history and contemporary standards of judgment than they have

Contrary to Kurp’s view, I continue to learn a great deal from reading literature. I also do not share his views on the solipsistic nature of literary works—here I presume he means most modern novels. Similarly, I take issue with Powell’s views on the lack of human curiosity of “new writers.” Who is she talking about or who is Kurp talking about when they bemoan the quality of contemporary fiction or poetry?

I did not find Pascal Mercier’s novel Night Train to Lisbon, perhaps the most stimulating novel I’ve read in a while, lacking in curiosity. Quite the opposite, in fact. The questions posed throughout the novel, the characters and situations described are scarcely the work of a writer who “distains curiosity.” In my view, the works of Ian McEwan and Alice Munro, to name just two, fall into the same category. So do the novels of Michael Ondaatje or the short stories of William Trevor.

Are we not all entitled to our particular literary and artistic pleasures? Are there standards of literary excellence that meet with uniform approval, standards against which we can use to judge the value of the works we read? Some critics extend lavish praise on Proust, others find him impossible to read. I believe the same is true for almost every writer or poet most often mentioned among the finest.

Recently Michelle Obama delivered a lecture on the arts to an international audience at the Pittsburgh Creative Arts and Performance School. Her words on the importance of the arts speak eloquently of an appreciation of the richness of artistic expression and give pause to anyone who thinks it is no longer a source of knowledge or story telling pleasure. Here are a few excerpts from her remarks:

“We believe strongly that the arts aren't somehow an 'extra’ part of our national life, but instead we feel that the arts are at the heart of our national life. It is through our music, our literature, our art, drama and dance that we tell the story of our past and we express our hopes for the future. Our artists challenge our assumptions in ways that many cannot and do not. They expand our understandings, and push us to view our world in new and very unexpected ways…..

"It's through this constant exchange -- this process of taking and giving, this process of borrowing and creating -- that we learn from each other and we inspire each other. It is a form of diplomacy in which we can all take part….

"We want to show these young people that they have a place in our world, in our museums, our theaters, our concert halls.... We want them to experience the richness of our nation's cultural heritage, one on one, up close and personal, not on TV. We want to show them that they can have a future in the arts community -- whether it's a hobby, or a profession, or simply as an appreciative observer….

"In the end, those efforts, and the performances we're enjoying today, and the work these artists do every day here in America and around the world -- all of that reminds us of a simple truth: that both individually and collectively, we all have a stake in the arts, every single one of us.

"And you don't need to be rich or powerful to lift your voice in song or get out of your seat and shake your groove thing. [Laughter.] You don't need to be a Van Gogh to paint a picture, or a Maya Angelou to write a poem. You don't need a Grammy or an Oscar or an Emmy to make your work on the cultural life of your community or your country a valuable one.

"That is the power of the arts -- to remind us of what we each have to offer, and what we all have in common; to help us understand our history and imagine our future; to give us hope in the moments of struggle; and to bring us together when nothing else will.”