A made-up waste of time

In a disturbing and far-reaching insight the composer of such pop hits as Wonderwall announced last week that reading fiction is a waste of time because it’s not real. He is currently reading about the Bay of Pigs and the nuclear stand off with the Soviet Union which is more gratifying to him because it really happened.

From time to time this shocking analysis of the essentially fraudulent nature of fiction, vis a vis fact, is uttered by sportsmen. Presumably sportswomen already know this and don’t need to talk about it. Sportsmen, on the other hand, like to tell the media that novels are not worth the time at all because they are all made up.

Such a delineated view of fiction and value is based on a simple dichotomy of the real compared to the invented. Empirical facts are better than the invented. It seems quite plausible in a basic calculus of efficiency. A person may gain something by learning things or else lose precious time by the distractions of another person’s imagination. There is also a sense of utility in which the fact may be used; it may achieve a result of some type that benefits the person. Such an economy of mental effort is not something that Keynes gave time to analyzing but Foucault liked to digress into that territory.

Dickens created a character who espoused the same view. Thomas Gradgrind from Hard Times ruthlessly pursued the learning of facts above anything else. His reason was that they could be more useful than anything imaginative. He was more a caricature as so often occurs in Dickens, but his logic and fiercely held opinion is evidently still strongly, and probably, widely held.

Why novels should be the butt of such harsh criticism and not painting, or poetry, or dance, sculpture, song lyrics, and especially rock lyrics, is not articulated. Perhaps it’s the effort to read a book with so many words that causes such indignation. All the arts, whether high or demotic are invented; to disparage one is to implicitly criticize all of them with the same fault. Shakespeare, Goethe, Moliere – a waste of time.

Where this simple minded view is hopelessly wrong is that many things that seem real are invented. Money is one. It’s created out of nothing and exists within a tactic social agreement and state sanction to be used. In a sense it’s not real. In financial markets rehypothecation is another where institutions reuse collateral pledged by clients as collateral for their own borrowing. These objects are transferable, transacted and useful.

Believing firmly in such an attitude means many nuances and layers are missed. Histories of Victorian England are fine but add Middlemarch to the reading list and a reader has a greater appreciation of nineteenth century social customs. Read Proust and contemporary views on the Dreyfus Affair and later life during the First World War are made more vivid. True, although Proust’s idea of vivid is more like nature-morte.

This perception on how to read novels and associated ideas may be missed by the writer of “Don’t Look Back in Anger”. In any case he shouldn’t be reading books, he still needs to finish a middle-grade guitar course chord book.

Guy Cranswick
20th October 2013


Modernist Peloponnesian

Labels for art seem to have proliferated in the last decade or two. Music has seen this to an extraordinary extent with hybrids revealing the fragmented nature of listening and audiences.

Hang on there a minute, don’t go away — I must change my new CD. It’s Thrash-Def-Punk-New-Country by Duane Texas. It’s a great musical style. It combines the narratives of country music about loss, or riding into another lonely town, with all the thrusting energy and soundscape (Klangfarben the German fans call it) of an aircraft carrier’s landing deck during combat.

As I was saying, labels have expanded. Once it was possible to see a French movie, now it’s put under the Art House category. Because some actors don’t speak English, doesn’t make it art. As a label, a signifier of a thing, it is meaningless. It’s like a cut-up that William Burroughs might have created on a major bender. In any case, not all French movies are Art House; the ones they don’t export are mostly frivolous comedies that contradict the image of a self-conscious aesthete.

Despite the rampant growth of labels I’d like to add another one. This may seem paradoxical; after all I have been saying that labels do not add information or understanding. Consequently, another label is not likely to be any clearer than any of the others. This is not really an addition, it’s a consolidation.

There are many baffling genres in writing; Theater of the Absurd is one where many of the protagonists don’t belong to it. Another is Southern Gothic which comprises the work of American writers who wrote about maniacal characters in eerie settings with strange plots and all set in the American south.

As a label Southern Gothic is silly. The southern is clear enough but Gothic is nonsensical. Gothic was an insult hurled at Germans by Italians who loathed anything the wooly-faced barbarians did. Of course, here Gothic means that strange form of writing, probably best exemplified by Edgar Allen Poe. I don’t care much for Poe; he is an overwrought writer practicing syntax and adjective selection to startle.

There may be some writers in the Southern Gothic form that sit well there but one, Faulkner, would not. This became more apparent to me as I have been watching ancient Greek theater. The Oresteia by Aeschylus and various plays by Euripides, Medea and The Trojan Women in particular. There is a fine production of Agamemnon and the female roles are played by men.

For French speakers this production of Anouilh’s Antigone is very good. It is in modern French but the intensity of emotions and intellectual debate is close to the original.

Where Faulkner fits in with ancient Greek tragedy was like a piece of the puzzle. The vocal style and syntax of some of his works is very distinctive but the declamatory narrative in some of the great books is not contemporary and it was while listening to Aeschylus that the musical connection became obvious. It’s as if he thoroughly absorbed the Greek plays and heard them again, as Joyce did with Ulysses, to create his own work.

Although his books are mostly set in Yoknapatawpha County in the South, it could be Corinth or Thebes. On this basis, Southern Gothic can be tossed in the trash and Modernist Peloponnesian replace it as much more accurate.

Guy Cranswick
7th October 2013