Well, a lovely weekend in Paris – visiting friends, hanging out in the 6e, and once again failing to get to the Sainte Chapelle, one of the finest pieces of Late Gothic architecture in Europe. Hey ho, one day I’ll get there, tho’ I’ll be cursing Dan Brown as I do so. He mentions it in the Da Vinci Code, so there are now permanent queues to get in. Hmmph.
Anyway, I’m whizzing around at high speed today, so it’s a very quick post. I’ve just been listening to a Neil Gaiman / Susanna Clarke interview courtesy of The Guardian, in which he defines a certain kind of short story as ‘miserable people having small epiphanies of misery’.
That’s a great comment, at once a definition and criticism of a certain kind of Modernist / more generally literary writing. When it’s well done (Katherine Mansfield!) it’s fantastic; when not, it’s turgid, depressing and futile. Minute, miserable subject matter becomes an end in itself – questions of quality of writing (‘how well is this done?’) are ignored.
Which raises a very interesting question. Why is subject matter rather than quality of writing so often seen as the only value needed in defining a book’s literary worth? For me, it’s because of a lack of understanding of the craft of writing.
And I’m not sure where that lack of understanding comes from. Perhaps one explanation is that, for all the talk of Modernism and Post Modernism, our approaches to judging writing remain trapped by the great Romantic pose of the spontaneous effusion.
By definition, spontaneous effusing (what an ugly word!) privileges content over form. ‘I was so moved that I had to write this…’ – so content is all and form is ignored, at best a neutral quality, at worst something profoundly restrictive. What matters is the quality of experience that drives the piece, not the quality of the piece itself.
Which throws critical negativity onto anything that’s not directly realist. Whether detective fiction, fantasy, romance or whatever else, such fiction comes not from direct observation of reality but rather from a much more mediated process of working out – of crafting. And, if you believe in spontaneous effusion, you mistrust crafting.
So, much as the Romantic pose is very attractive (‘bring me my opium, my catamite, my quill – I must compose!’) perhaps it’s time to step beyond it and acknowledge that direct observation and subsequent effusion is an aesthetic choice only, and has nothing to do with the qualitative.
Which, come to think of it, once you’ve been to a couple of poetry readings built around dodgy confessional poets is something you really don’t need to be told.