Saturday, August 25, 2007

Smuttering retreats

In writing of "snobbery about smutty books" Sam Jordison complains that we haven't escaped from "the assumption that clever people can cope with raunch and others, well, it might give them bad ideas!". It's probably true - I mean, the assumption is probably true. After all, it has given Sam bad ideas. One is that of a straw man: "If Ian McEwan fills healthy portions of his books with awkward young men's masturbatory fantasies, it's art. When Jilly Cooper glories in no holds barred rutting, it's a cheap attempt to shift units and titillate her (by implication rather pathetic) readers." Who is making these judgements? Nowhere in the blog is the claim that "one deserves more respect than the other, elevated as it is by art" attributed to anyone. Perhaps "the mysterious invisible authorities" who canonise these specious oppositions and producing so much snobbery are closer to home than Sam imagines.

In an old notebook, I found this from James Joyce: "Pornography is kinetic. It has aims and is therefore bad art." (I've no idea where this comes from by the way.) Yet what is bad art? We've all heard enthusiasts recommending Shakespeare with reports of extreme violence in Coriolanus and King Lear or humour in so many of the rest. The suggestion is that thrills and laughs give convenient access to better things - "great art", whatever that is. But what this great art is meant to provide has never trickled down in the same way as the concurrent suggestion: that Shakespeare is no better than wish-fulfilling entertainments - Joyce's bad art. No wonder happy consumers of these are confused and offended when not afforded the same "respect" as those who are stroking only their chins.

One commenter on the blog tries to make the distinction between stories that "explore something about the dysfunctionality of the characters" and bodice-rippers in which "the sex is just there to be sex". Unfortunately this makes literature sound like a branch of sociology and, worse, gives the impression that it is further removed from reality than penny dreadfuls. More bad ideas! Direct access to the real is the hope of art; it wants not ideas about the thing but the thing itself. This hope is soon dissolved, and indeed reality is kept at bay with distancing ideas and the tight control of genre (hence reviewers proudly claiming to enjoy potboilers as much as Pulitzer winners). In contrast, the drama of great art emerges as both ideas and genre are questioned, destroyed even.

For example, Shakespeare's Richard II animates the tension between trust in ritual and growing suspicion. The King undermines authority in the ritual of trial by combat by halting the fight between two noblemen. It all leads eventually to the destruction of faith in his divine right and he is overthrown; superstition can no longer protect him. Richard's death marks a change of epoch. One thing the play doesn't do, however, is doubt the ritual of the art itself. But perhaps doubt is implicit; something we can see from a distance breaking the power of theatre after Shakespeare's time as much as it broke King Richard. (So, if Shakespeare were alive today, he wouldn't be Shakespeare.) Yet it's a trust Sam Jordison tries to maintain. It's understandable as it's constitutive of the products that drive discussion in dominant cultural forums. And it does, after all, have a mysterious cultural authority. The trouble is, it is an artistically empty maintenance. It has no artistic authority. It leads to pointless chatter about respectability, as if that was all great art had to offer! But I don't want to pick on Sam. I've defended him elsewhere and there are others maintaining the dead space more deserving of criticism: Ian McEwan and Jilly Cooper for instance.

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