Monday, November 02, 2015

`Art Is Not the Same Thing as Cerebration'

Honesty and a robust literary appetite, sometimes accompanied by a healthy gift for provocation, often are mistaken for philistinism or parochialism – mortal sins in the herd-minded, reputation-obsessed literary world. Take Philip Larkin. He reveled in annoying tastemakers and snobs. Asked in an interview if he knew of any other librarian-writers besides himself and Jorge Luis Borges, Larkin replied: “Who is Jorge Luis Borges?” Then he goes on to praise Archibald MacLeish, of all people. This wisecrack has been mustered as evidence of Larkin’s vulgarity and lack of literary culture. 

Something similar is at work in George Orwell, most rousingly in “Good Bad Books,” an essay first published seventy years ago today, on Nov. 2, 1945, in the English magazine Tribune. Orwell says he borrows the category from Chesterton and defines it as “the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished.” He cites the Sherlock Holmes stories as an example and asks, parenthetically, “(Who has worn better, Conan Doyle or Meredith?),”and I’m not certain I could read either again. Clearly, the good bad category is idiosyncratic. Your good bad may be my bad bad. 

After reviewing what he calls “`escape’ literature” (what people today call “genre” books), Orwell moves on to the heart of his matter:

“There is another kind of good bad book which is more seriously intended, and which tells us, I think, something about the nature of the novel and the reasons for its present decadence. During the last fifty years there has been a whole series of writers — some of them are still writing — whom it is quite impossible to call `good’ by any strictly literary standard, but who are natural novelists and who seem to attain sincerity partly because they are not inhibited by good taste.” 

This is quite wonderful, and the names of suspects will spontaneously erupt in the minds of devoted readers (my first would be Anthony Burgess). All of Orwell’s nominees are unknown to me, and I suppose that substantiates his thesis. He goes on to remind us that intelligence, sheer intellectual prowess, is not a prerequisite for writing great fiction. It can even get in the way of a good story: 

“The existence of good bad literature — the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously — is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration.” 

Orwell’s demolition of the unreadable Uncle Tom’s Children is delicious, as is his off-handed dismissal of Virginia Woolf in his final sentence. A righteous cause or even a fashionable one are no guarantee of readability. Orwell writes (and my first thought is of P.G. Wodehouse, whom he admired): 

“All one can say is that, while civilisation remains such that one needs distraction from time to time, `light’ literature has its appointed place; also that there is such a thing as sheer skill, or native grace, which may have more survival value than erudition or intellectual power.”

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