Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Is it still good art if nobody likes it?

From The Times Online:

They can’t judge a book without its cover. Publishers and agents have rejected two Booker prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors. One of the books considered unworthy by the publishing industry was by V S Naipaul, one of Britain’s greatest living writers, who won the Nobel prize for literature.

The exercise by The Sunday Times draws attention to concerns that the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.

Typed manuscripts of the opening chapters of Naipaul’s In a Free State and a second novel, Holiday, by Stanley Middleton, were sent to 20 publishers and agents.

None appears to have recognised them as Booker prizewinners from the 1970s that were lauded as British novel writing at its best. Of the 21 replies, all but one were rejections.

Sorry, but I'm just not shocked or appalled by this because I've never believed it's incumbent on publishing professionals to spot "genuine literary talent." How could the single-minded pursuit of "talent" be in the best interest of agents and editors, people who have to make their livings just like everyone else? They're not looking for great art, they're looking for books that will sell. And that means story and timeliness will be a larger consideration than an author's breathtaking (or breathtakingly awful) prose.

The literati may grind their teeth to stubs and protest that quality literature is being trampled under the feet of the Dan Browns of this world, but hasn't history taught us that the masses tend to rush right past Art in their headlong pursuit of entertainment? Why does it surprise anyone that the editors and agents in this "study" showed no interest in a couple of novels that received high praise from the artsy crowd a generation ago? I can think of any number of things that were once highly praised but that now make us yawn. Jello molds used to be the stars of party tables. Eight-track tape players were once the coolest things imaginable. And there was a time when everyone I knew owned a dog-eared copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

I haven't read Naipaul, so I must ask: Was In a Free State truly good, or was it just good for its time and place? Certainly many of the classic novels would never be published today, and I'm wondering how much of our continuing love for them depends on our seeing them in their proper context. If we took them out of their times and places, as was done to the books submitted in the Times' experiment, wouldn't most suffer a substantial loss of beauty? Don't we need to be informed in order to appreciate art?


Susan Kaye said...

This is why pics of Twiggy still scream, "THE 60s," Cheryl Tiegs the 70s, and so on. Everything is in context and much of what we see, think and feel is part of the times in which we experience them.

This experiment -- which has been done before -- is an example of the literati being stunned that their particular annointing doesn't last forever.


Mirtika said...

I wasn't surprised, either, because of all the exposure I've had to publishing via you writer-folks and what I've read online and in books--editors are looking for what they NEED, not what academics want. If you're the editor an imprint that sells well to housewives who want soapy melodrama, a literary submission will be rejected. Doesn't matter if the prose is luminous, it doesn't FIT.

And I also considered the time element. What was groundbreaking in '69 is old hat today. Audience taste changes, editors have to adjust.

Art almost always appeals to a limited crowd. Most folks don't rush every weekend to galleries and museums to discuss the lates trends in "art". (I would, if I werent' so lazy, cause I used to jump the bus and trains in NYC to go alone to the MET.) Good poetry won't support a poet. Many writers of high-level fiction still need a day-job.

That's how it goes.

I have read Nobel Prize winning work and not felt particularly moved. I've read throwaway novels and wept. I've had my life changed by science-fiction and fantasy works that didn't get Pulitzers or Nobels. I guess I am a 3/4 Philistine. But I'm a plebe who spends about a couple thousand a year on books (down from 4 thousand some years ago before my eyes went OLD on me.) So, I guess, I have a right to my non-art and the editors who are happy to supply me. :)
Mir--I wander off topic, I guess, but I haven't had my first cuppa joe yet....

agnesd said...

These few words are priceless. Good stories sell, and they also survive.

Camy Tang said...

Mir and I share part of a brain, because I thought I was the only one who ever admitted that Noble Prize winning books aren't my cuppa tea. I usually scratch my head and don't finish the book.


Arethusa said...

I don't know about good works that sell also surviving. I'm sure if we took a look at many books that were selling 10, 20 years ago you'd be hard-pressed to recall any of them now, while many classics slumbered in their heyday and were then rediscovered years later for several reasons, depending on the book. And vice versa. It's not nearly so straightforward.

And I don't think that simply because some publishers rejected a book that it is no longer art or that "nobody" likes it: it's just the publishers. Certainly the books may have been neglected because they aren't current or doing something new--which is a valid stance, IMO- but that hardly speaks to their lack of quality (not convincingly anyway). Anyway aren't they the first to admit that they do their best but frankly many books succeed and fail sales wise in spite of them? Some books get the publicity blitz and sales are ho-hum while an unknown with minor campaigning blazes a trail through word-of-mouth?

I'm almost sure too, that certain publishers are looking for some art, and believe enough in the work that while it may not sell like Dan Brown or Nora Roberts it will find it's audience and it is worth doing.

I suppose I am one of the "academics" (ha!) or the "literati" who enjoys Dubus as well as Kleypas, not out of pretention or hoity toity ways but out of true appreciation for both.

I am going on, but I do want to say that I don't think that one necessarily needs to be informed to appreciate art, just perhaps to fully understand and enjoy it, yes. One can still appreciate it aesthetically: when I was younger and just getting into Renaissance art I didn't really know much what 3/4 of the artists were depicting (it being so Catholic), or some of the symbols used but I loved it and admired it still.

Mirtika said...

Well, I can say this: Having read many of Shakespeare's plays, and having had to do in-depth essays on a few of them, combined with my knowledge of pop culture and my love of genre fiction, sure helped me TRIPLY enjoy FORGIVING SOLOMON LONG (which I will review this week at http://mirathon.blogspot.com. Knowing King Lear and MacBeth and Julius Caesar helped the novel resonate more. And,well, having gone through comic book nerd phases. :)

I have enjoyed literary and genre, but I most prefer very well written genre--fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thriller, romance. Like Camy, my brain is wired to enjoy genre fiction. And yet, I would marry Doris Betts if we were both lesbians. Or Isabel Allende. Just for their writing prowess. :)

Mir<--no, not for gay marriage, no, not gay...just saying...

J. Mark Bertrand said...

My teeth are already worn to nubs, saving me the pain I would otherwise have felt reading all this. :)

Naipaul deserves his reputation as far as I'm concerned. I've read both of his novels that made the Modern Library Top 100 list -- A BEND IN THE RIVER and A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS -- and they are excellent. I haven't read IN A FREE STATE, but I expect it is more of the same. For readers unfamiliar with Naipaul, I can see how the irony of the experiment might be lost, but this isn't a case of some obscure has-been having his prissy mandarin novel resurrected, only to see it fall under the blade of contemporary taste. If anything, it strikes me as one more example of why the commodification of all things might not be the Ideal.

Publishing, like any other business, survives on profit, but traditionally publishers have seen their role as something more than making a buck -- i.e., it was thought that there was a potential for transcendence in the work. "The best is what sells" is one of those illusions that requires a pretty narrow range of reading to maintain. I'm disillusioned on this count, and happily so!

pacatrue said...

I am just waiting for the day when art novels and entertaining ones are the same thing again. Art can make you want to turn pages too.

Arethusa said...

Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Penelope Lively, and Steve Stern write...well I'm not sure what you mean by "art novels" exactly but they do write what is classified as "literary fiction" and are page turners. So is Phillip Roth: I've just started his "Sabbath's Theatre" and it is darn hilarious. So is Andre Dubus. So is Luis Alberto Urrea who wrote one of the best books of last year, The Hummingbird's Daughter. And I've barely touched the translated lit. Really anyone who is saying that literary fic is still about bored upper-middle class folks leading depressed lives (or whatever the current image is) probably only pays attention to NYTBR and similar boring sources.

Or doesn't pay any attention at all. *shrugs* Whichever.

Anonymous said...

To answer the main question, yes.
Who cares if nobody else likes it.
If you, yourself , find it flawless then it is still good art. If not even you like it, along with the public, redo it. Make it worth your while. Make it stand out. Make it speak to people in a way that they can thank you for such a wonderful work of art.

Do not forget that you, as a person, are a work of art as well.

Angela Dyan Craig

agnes said...

I'd like to see wonderful and experimental works self-published by the author, and given away for free, to be enjoyed by any number of people. The authors who want to make a living can have someone buy their manuscripts, then share in the profits.

Any critic can review a 'free' book, as well as one produced by a for-profit publisher. I don't believe there is a law keeping free books from being in a library, either.

A creator can't confuse making art with making money.