Here we go again, another keeper of the canon is taking arms against a sea of MFA graduates and program writing, as she calls it, work which whittles narrative to the thinness of a toothpick, which mistakes craft for art and believes true writing is a self-indulgent rumination on self. An ignorance of the classics, she protests, leads to nothing but the naïve repeating of the obvious. (“No Fool,” by Molly Fisher, a review of Elif Batuman’s book, The Idiot,’ Harper’s, March 2017 pgs. 91-94.)
If keepers of the canon know anything, it is how to acerbic. Buds that dare to bloom outside the circle of the accepted are doused in gasoline to discourage flowering. In novelist Elif Batuman’s world, a woman who takes her notions of art from Dostoevsky or Henry James, a novel should be anything but spare. Spare is a betrayal of literature which, by its metaphysical nature, should be pregnant with “all the irrelevant garbage, the effort to redeem that garbage, to integrate it into Life Itself, to redraw the boundaries of Life Itself.” (Ibid pg. 91.)
Who am I to quibble with a person who dares define art, though I suspect the Twitter generation will find Henry James too ornate. I, too, feel sorry for their loss, if they do. As in music, literature must have its Wagner as well as Satie. But if we honor Dostoevsky, must we disparage Raymond Carver? And why rail against tales written in the first person? Excuse my naiveté, but truth is possible when seen through the singularity of the human lens.
I can wade through Donna Tartt’s tomes and feel rewarded, but like Robert Browning, I’m inclined to believe “less is more.” No disdain for brevity would lead me to turn my nose up at Notes from the Underground, Billy Bud or the Turn of the Screw, all novels which can be read in a day. Consider. Is a Haiku less art because it confines images to a few well-formed pearls?
Why do keepers of the canon insist upon confining art to shoulds and oughts when all art desires is to be free? Literature is nothing more than airy thoughts expressed through an alphabet. What matters is that the words formed ring true.