What Great Art Does

A few weeks ago Kevin Hartnett on The Millions asked a question that looms large in my thinking. Quite simply he wonders “…just what is it that great art does.” He prefaces the question by acknowledging that it is one thing to judge the formal properties of a work of literature and quite another to assess its effects.

The question is not unlike the one Sven Birkerts posed in his American Scholar essay on Reading in the Digital Age. For Birkerts the principle criterion of a literary work’s impact is what we recall from reading it. And the best Birkerts can say is that we retain is “a distinct tonal memory…” In contrast, Hartnett confronts the question far more concretely.

One way to think about what a work of art does is to imagine the counterfactual—how would my life have been different had I not spent the last three months reading War and Peace? The answers, I think, tend to group into three categories: The social experiences I had because of the book; the ideas the book incorporated into my life; and the aesthetic moments that were opened to me because of what I was reading.

In his essay Hartnett proceeds to amplify on each of these categories in discussing the various ways Tolstoy’s War and Peace affected him. In terms of the social consequences of reading the book, he starts talking to others who have read it. He learns that his father-in-law read the book in two feverish weeks, that his friend read it while he was serving as a Peace Corp volunteer, and he describes episodes of book to his friends. He claims he almost never tells anyone about the stories from the books he reads yet the vividness and range of experiences described by Tolstoy almost compelled him to describe them to others.

Then there are the intellectual effects of reading this great novel. Hartnett writes, “I have read other novels where the controlling idea of the story came to serve as a lens through which I viewed my days, but never has this happened quite as thoroughly as it did with War and Peace.” What better measure of the effects of fiction than a “lens” for making sense of the increasing complexity of ordinary life? Think of how a lifetime of reading great books can multiply and strengthen the ways we view the world. Those who doubt the impact of literary fiction on one’s life have to confront this widely voiced observation of dedicated readers.

In the end, Harnett admits he doesn’t read novels so he can talk about them with others or for their ideas, but rather for the “pure aesthetic moment that comes from seeing life perfectly distilled into words.” You are reading a novel and you come across a chapter or a page that moves you deeply, that gives you pause, and prompts you to read it again. The memory lingers and no doubt germinates over time and takes root like any other experience that exerts a powerful effect on your life.

I admired Harnett’s attempt to pinpoint the various ways literature can affect us. Rather that making vague claims about whether it does or doesn’t, he has given us three important markers to measure the consequences of reading. This is the issue that first drew me to literature and it continues to preoccupy me. If I didn’t think reading novels influenced my life and didn’t offer me more than a distraction for a while, I would give up worrying about its effects and might even stop reading altogether.