Explaining Art to Hares and Defending Good Literature.

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Old Woman Reading. Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn.

I don’t understand something, so it must be wrong.

It sounds funny when you read that, doesn’t it? Imagine a world where everything you don’t understand has no value and is disregarded. You can’t figure out how your computer works? Better get that pen and paper out. You don’t have the slightest idea about plumbing and running water? Better start digging that well. I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point. Not everything we don’t understand is bad or wrong. Being a skeptic is a healthy attitude most of the time, but we can’t blindly go around the world saying this and that is wrong just because we can’t figure it out.  The same analogy goes for taste: just because YOU think it’s bad, doesn’t mean it really is. It only means it’s not for you. Which is fine.

I could name tens or even hundreds of authors that were promised they will never get published, or artists that were told that they will never make it, all now renowned in their chosen field. In contrast, not everything you like is of real importance to the humanity (after all, ´´guilty pleasure´´ books didn’t get their nick name from nothing).

I once had a friend who, because he could not figure out how computers worked, thought it was a technology brought to Earth by aliens. Think I am kidding? Think again.

Just a couple of years ago I heard about The Flat Earth Society. I thought it was a pamphlet, a funny site, a joke, a critique to the society, etc. Well no, there is a group of people who really think the Earth is as flat as a pancake and won’t listen to any scientific explanation. On and on they go to prove that our lovely planet is flat, violently defying common sense and the law of gravity. Why do they do it? Because they don’t understand how to analyze and compute the evidence against it. (If you still think I am kidding, here is their site: http://theflatearthsociety.org  )

Sometimes we read a book and we hate it. It’s just a feeling and so we put it aside. Some of us live with it, some of us go on and write bad reviews, or meet our friends and tell them what a piece of “#¤ it was. In either case, in my humble opinion, we should know WHY we didn’t like it and be able to articulate a good argument. Many a time I have been trying to tell my friend why I didn’t like a book, only to find myself mumbling arguments so weak I only sounded like I was constantly nagging. And so, even if the book turned out to be classified as bad by the most prestigious critics, my mumbling and inability to formulate a decent phrase about the things I didn’t like made me look like a fool, and my ´´opponent´´ won. Grrrr…and we all hate to be wrong.

It’s not about black and white, wrong or right, good or bad. It doesn’t matter if the book is good or not, the point here is that we need to be able to back up our claims. Trashing an author’s work because you don’t like their political views is not a good idea. Saying you think the book is bad because the main character reminds you too much of your mother is equally funny as it is infantile. Don’t put yourself in a position where the opponent of the discussion can easily prove you were being biased. Instead, focus on the content and the main issues you had with the book like lack of verisimilitude, poor characterisation, wrong historical facts, etc.

It was only today that I was trying to prove to someone that one book was, in my opinion, a very good piece of literature. I’m sure I made a strong point, pulling out all the arsenal I had in the defense of the author, everything I learned in school and from literary analysis books. But how do you make a point to someone who doesn’t speak the same ´´language´´ as you? How do you explain what quality is when the other person doesn’t share the same values as you? I’m not talking about ignorance here, or am I saying I am the only one that is right. I’m sure if I were to find myself at a quantum physics lecture, I would not stand up and say ´´I believe that theory is false, because it doesn’t sound right to me!´´. How would I argument that statement? How could I back up my claim? I can’t, so I won’t put myself in that situation. But when it comes to literature everyone feels that they have the right to put a stamp of good or bad on a book because…well…we can all read it, right? Yes we can all read it, but we don’t always read it in the same way. Seminar after seminar of analyzing literature proved to me that no two people spot the same things in a short story, and no two people analyze them in the same way. We were 10 students in our classroom when we analyzed American Psycho and we ended up with 10 strong, different points. How do we explain this to someone who just reads for pleasure and doesn’t think twice about the title, metaphors, and hidden meanings? It’s simple: you can, but not over coffee in half an hour.

Beuys-Feldman-Gallery
Joseph Beuys.

In 1965, Joseph Beuys tried to explain art to a dead hare.  I’m not here to explain why that didn’t work, but it was something that he said in his performance that was very powerful: ´´ the idea of explaining to an animal conveys a sense of the secrecy of the world and of existence that appeals to the imagination. Then, as I said, even a dead animal preserves more powers of intuition than some human beings with their stubborn rationality.´´ Some people can never be convinced of something because they just don’t want to be. They already made up their mind, thinking their reality is the only one that can ever be true. I don’t think art needs to be rationalized, but felt. If it makes you hate it, if it disgust you, and if it pleases you, then its good because it created an emotion, something so tangible and powerful, if not rare.

In my opinion reviews based on arguments such as ´´ the book is too sad´´, ´´ the story is linear´´, or ´´ the book has a great plot twist´´ say nothing. Nothing, as it turns out, can be hidden in 1000 words.

Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite books. I can understand how it can’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Brontë’s prose is, by today’s standards, very rigid, the action is populated by characters that are cold, bitter, and impossible to love, not unlike the places they inhabit. But I love it. I loved it from the beginning, but after a couple of lectures about it I was able to articulate why. In contrast, although I hated reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs.Dalloway, I still call it a good book because it’s a joy to wrap your head around the prose and the ideas behind it. However, it will never be my vacation book choice.

So, when trying to convince someone the book you are reading is good/bad, think about your arguments and how to phrase them. Put yourself in a good position by knowing what you are talking about. Don’t tell them it’s bad because it bored you, that doesn’t mean anything except that it’s not your kind of book. Speak their language, and if you can’t find common ground let it go.

In conclusion, I am leaving you with the lovely Richard Feynman, who, when asked to explain how magnets work, did a very poor job, in the end being forced to admit that he can’t explain it simply because he does not share a common language with his interviewer. This, of course, has nothing to do with books, but it does illustrate a small fraction of my frustration while trying to explain this morning why I like an author’s work (Hanif Kureishi, if you must know) to no avail.

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6 thoughts on “Explaining Art to Hares and Defending Good Literature.

    TheLastWord said:
    July 22, 2013 at 3:54 am

    At the end of the day, it is the reader’s sense of awareness, his upbringing and background, his belief system and the values he holds dear that will color his perspective of the book he is reading.

    When I first read Somerset Maugham I was unable to complete the book. Thinking that the story lines may have been beyond my comprehension for the time and stage of my life (I was in my teens), I tried reading him again at two other points in my life and the good doctor failed once again to reach my brain. John Galsworthy, Hemingway, Melville all make my tedious list. In recent years (in middle age) ‘Love in the time of Cholera’ left me tired and bored. It took too long to get to the point. The story meandered. The overall impression I have is of an unfulfilled story.

    Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ resonated because of my background. I could feel and touch the characters, it was inconceivable that Seth was not referring to people I actually *knew*.

    Wuthering Heights reeks of power. The power of the family, the power of the unforgiving landscape, the power of love and hate. Above all, the power of revenge.

    Sometimes it’s just that the words and imagery used to tell the story and / or make the point do not resonate with the reader.

    annarosemeeds said:
    July 21, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    Very great post and so true! I too enjoyed Wuthering Heights although I disliked many of the characters. Upon reading Moby Dick, I loved certainly elements of the story and appreciated it as a great work of literature. However, much of it was not my cup of tea. I felt similar about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Invisible Man, and even David Copperfield. Even though I don’t love them or sometimes even disagree with them, I still respect these novels. However there are many more classics and modern works that I both respect and enjoy.

      Cristina responded:
      July 21, 2013 at 8:46 pm

      Yes, I too believe the characters in Wuthering Heights aren’t very likable. I don’t really think they were every created to be liked. However, it is their darkness, want for revenge, and all these strong feelings that I really admire. Characters who feel the need for revenge and who are so cruel are not found in the majority of the novels written around that time. If you’ve ever read what the critics of the time said ( no flattering critiques there), you will see that its darkness wasn’t appreciated, perhaps because the novel was surrounded by other works focusing love and sugar coated characters.

        annarosemeeds said:
        July 22, 2013 at 2:02 am

        Very true! I hadn’t thought of it that way. I do enjoy likable characters better than fake ones. However, I always want to root for the “good guy” even if they have lots of faults. For example, Victor Frankenstein has numerous downfalls as does his monster. But I cared for both characters and wanted the best for them. I suppose it is about the connection the author makes with their characters to the reader. Although I cared a little for the characters in Wuthering Heights, it was not enough to deeply engage me in their story. That might just be me though. 🙂 I still love the novel!

    monicahlv said:
    July 20, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Great essay. I agree with you that when it comes to liking or enjoying a certain author or book, it is truly a matter of taste and opinion. I hated Wuthering Heights; it was too negative for my taste. However, I did enjoy the discussions we had about it, and that we all agreed that the latest movie version was shit. I am all for trying something new (thank you for introducing me to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett), and that you tastes do change over the years. I used to hate to read anything that was considered ‘intellectual’ or ‘philisophical’ (Curse you Berndt), but now I find myself gravitating more towards those types. The Flat Earth Society, that is a whole other bunch of crazy right there.

      Cristina responded:
      July 21, 2013 at 8:40 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Monica. I wasn’t so daring before, but I find that I now enjoy trying new things regarding literature. I can’t say every new thing is a success, but the books/authors that are, well…it’s like making a friend for life.
      Oh and yes, The Flat Earth Society was given as a more…ahem..extreme example. 🙂

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