Anyone who has followed the debate on here about poor George Steiner's weariness of the western novel might have detected that I'm a staunch supporter of the novel per se, in all its forms, for good or ill, for better for worse, and for many reasons. Foremost perhaps because I'm not an expert, I'm not an arbiter of taste, unless you are weaning your baby that is, in which case I'd advise savoury tastes before sweet and the current evidence suggests waiting until they are six months old.
I have long felt there are as many readers for books as there are books available. Just because I'm not the right reader for a book (to snaffle Sandra at Bookworld's thinking) doesn't mean that there aren't another zillion out there who are exactly the right readers for it.
Tired narrative for me might be exciting and exhilarating for another, who's to judge? It is one great big circular debate.
For reasons various I've been pounding through John Carey's What Good are the Arts?
The last book I read by John Carey had a profound effect on my reading life to the extent that I could say it created a major turning point, confirmed what I had always felt but never quite had the courage to articulate with any confidence. The Intellectuals and The Masses : Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880-1939 opened new trails of thought back in 2000 when I was about to embark on my year of studying modern literature.
Had all this really come about as a means of excluding the masses from culture?
Were the masses, the philistine hordes, in fact a metaphor for the unknowable and invisible?
I'm of good philistine horde stock, the nearest we got to the nineteenth-century intelligentsia was as ostlers for the Rothschilds, probably horse thieves before that which explains my love-hate thing with Equus Maximus so this was all relevant. I had a memorable year of reading with all this in mind as I tackled head on for the first time the likes of E.M.Forster, Graham Greene, T.S.Eliot, Virginia Woolf et al. I came to some interesting conclusions of my own, many of which were slowly simmered and stewed and then cemented into the foundations for the thinking behind dgr scribbles.
So I was expecting no less of a challenge to my thinking with What Good are the Arts? My version a recent edition with an added postscript from John Carey, who in the aftermath of initial publication, found himself deeply into what we might now term Archbishop territory. Misinterpreted, misquoted and generally with the literary equivalent of the Synod incandescent with rage and baying for professorial blood.
The exploration is fascinating and on the surface a seemingly simple task , do the Arts do us any good?
The methodology becomes quite complex and I almost suspect that even John Carey didn't realise quite what a maze he was traversing until he found himself slap bang in the middle of it. But though the argument often became quite convuluted for me, John Carey as you'd expect, hacks his way out the other side.
We lost each other on several occasions when I was convinced we should head one way through the maze and he steadfastly moved on in the opposite direction.It was of course me who hit the blind alleys and the dead ends and John who was carrying the picnic and had eaten all the egg sandwiches before I arrived.
But the book merits perseverance to the second section where John Carey argues 'The Case for Literature' and why he sees it as 'superior to the other arts, and can do things they cannot do.' He is keen to acknowledge and emphasise, on the back of the first half of the book, the seeming contradiction.
'...all judgements made in this part, including the judgement of what 'literature' is, are entirely subjective.'
Then proceeding to a subjective definition of literature,
'...writing that I want to remember - not for its content alone...but for itself : those particular words in that particular order. Like all criticism of art or literature my judgements are camouflaged autobiography, arising from a lifetime's encounters with words and people that are mostly too complicated to unravel.'
You see that's exactly what I think, and perhaps what many of you think too, in which case there are treasures to be unearthed for one and all in this book.
What I now think of happily as Carey-isms abound,how about this,
'Literature gives you ideas to think with. It stocks your mind. It does not indoctrinate, because diversity, counter-argument, reappraisal and qualification are its essence. But it supplies the materials for thought...it encourages questioning and self-questioning.'
'Poetic ideas do not tell you what the truth is, they make you feel what it would be like to know it.'
I've taken all these out of the context and barely touched on the full argument, but I hope it may be enough to point you in the direction of this amazingly thought-provoking book. My copy of The Intellectuals and the Masses is itself a tatty, well-thumbed philistine-like mass of luminous highlighter pen markings, from the days when I used such things and life in my forties demanded it.
Now I'm into my fifties it all feels a bit less urgent, less strident, the gentler 4B pencil does very nicely, but it's been working overtime on What Good are the Arts?