For Manguel libraries are not simply repositories of learning but nerve centres of civilisation, where the conscious and the subconscious outpourings of centuries teem together in a platonic mirror of life that may also, paradoxically, be humanity’s fullest iteration of itself. Yet, in another digression, he points out that “every book confesses the impossibility of holding fully on to whatever it is that our experience seizes. All libraries are the glorious record of that failure.”
In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.
I am not sure that I agree with this, there have been many human cultures without written language, they still have rich, complicated cultures and story-telling traditions.
I find the implication that people who ‘don’t read’ have ‘lesser’ lives to be as snobbish as those bucket lists that claim a person’s life isn’t complete unless they can afford to take expensive holidays or eat at exclusive restaurants.
But, it’s also easy to find a quotable quote out of context and miss its wider meaning.
I found it reading this article on Artificial Intelligence, in a paragraph talking about different forms of learning, learning through direct experience and learning through written instructions, an accumulation of others’ direct experience.
What do people need to know? The Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari desert lived a hunter-gather lifestyle that lasted for over 150,000 years, a lifestyle that required them to have “not only an unwritten almanac of dietary knowledge but […] a library of almanacs.” This knowledge was collected and passed on without writing.
Maybe we can say that literature is the compensation for our atomised modern lives? But that’s not really any different to calling it ‘escapism’.
What has become truly necessary is stating the obvious: No work of art, no matter how incisive, beautiful, uncomfortable or representative, needs to exist. Yet the internet — the same force that has increased awareness of social-justice movements — has hyperbolized all entreaties to our fragmented attention spans. It’s now as easy to see all the incredible and twisted ways the world causes suffering as it is to waste a couple hours scrolling through Twitter. The concerned citizen’s natural response is to prioritize. It’s why so many outlets seem to invoke moral outrage as a growth strategy — and why being told what you need to read or watch starts to be appealing.
The prospect of “necessary” art allows members of the audience to free themselves from having to make choices while offering the critic a nifty shorthand to convey the significance of her task, which may itself be one day condemned as dispensable. The effect is something like an absurd and endless syllabus, constantly updating to remind you of ways you might flunk as a moral being. It’s a slightly subtler version of the 2016 marketing tagline for the first late-night satirical news show with a female host, “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”: “Watch or you’re sexist.”
This usage seems to gesture everywhere but at the art itself, both as an admonishment to the audience and an indictment of the world that has begotten the themes contained in the work being discussed. If the point of art might once have been found in its pointlessness, this attempt to infuse it with purpose runs the risk of rendering it even more irrelevant. On the bright side, we’d have less homework.
The relationship between art and politics has always been fraught. During the French Revolution, the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller observed that “utility is the great idol of the time,” and he proposed that art, with its ability to expand the mind, could be a route to meaningful freedom. Later critics seized on the idea’s lurking elitism. The revolution eventually led to Napoleon, and from the fallout, which included the formation of a middle class with a taste for uncomplicated art and the money to pay for it, rose the bohemian movement in favor of “art for art’s sake” — and against the demand for meaning or morality in culture.
The purpose — or lack thereof — of art will most likely be debated until the moment true liberation arrives, so a to-and-fro process repeats throughout history, with culture occasionally called upon to serve in ideological battle, then permitted to roam free. In the late 19th century, social-realist works depicting the working class and the poor proliferated in Europe, reaching their peak in America during the Great Depression. But by the 1940s and ’50s, abstract expressionism emphasized pure form and feeling; art was, as Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko put it in a letter to the art editor of The Times: “an adventure into an unknown world. … The imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.” The pendulum swung back quickly with the antiwar music of the Vietnam era and the social movements of the ’70s.
Art is infinitely adaptable; it accommodates activism naturally. When used to describe specific works today, however, “necessary” constrains more than it celebrates. If we can access only the essential, we may start to crave the extraneous — which, through this increasingly distracting yearning, may feel essential, too. Next to stories of grave injustice, the movie “Paddington 2,” about a bear that wears a red hat, is still considered “an inviting, necessary bit of escapism” by Vanity Fair.
Along with obligation and requirement, “necessary” can also suggest inevitability, even predestination, the sense that a work is both mandatory for the audience’s political education and a foregone response to the world as it is. There are many noncomprehensive adjectives we can apply to good art: moving, clever, joyous, sad, innovative, boring, political. But good art doesn’t have to be any of these things, necessarily; what we want out of it is possibility. To call a work “necessary” keeps the audience from that possibility and saps the artist of autonomy as well. That it’s frequently bestowed on artists from marginalized backgrounds pressures these artists to make work that represents those backgrounds. Worse, it subtly frames their output as an inevitability, something that would have happened regardless of creative agency, and thus suggests that these artists are less in control of their decisions and skills than their unnecessary counterparts.
When applied to bad art with good politics, “necessary” allows the audience to avoid engaging with a work in aesthetic terms, which tend to be more ambiguous and difficult. When applied to good art with good, or even ambivalent, politics, it renders aesthetic achievement irrelevant. Not only is that depressing, it also nullifies the political argument in favor of art in the first place: Why write a novel when a manifesto will do?
Is looking at imaginary violence necessary to promote social change? I find myself puzzled by the logic of this. After all, the majority of viewers of the show are already self-described feminists who are wary of the current administration. And, as many female critics have pointed out, the second season’s obsession with violence makes it a little exhausting for anyone to watch, let alone someone who doesn’t already agree with the show’s ethos.
Sophie Gilbert at the Atlantic wonders whether it is necessary to make viewers endure so much visceral suffering, especially at a cultural moment when “the endless revelations that have emerged since October about abusive men in the entertainment industry and beyond have felt wearying in their range and detail”. Likewise, at the Cut, Lisa Miller considers whether the violence against women we see throughout the series counts as “torture porn”, looking at the ways in which Offred’s suffering is part of a biblical and literary tradition in which “the bravery of the heroine is intensified by her victimhood”.
My frustration with season two is less about its fixation on violent imagery (I’m a fan of lots of violent shows) than on what I see as a veritable lack of imagination in presenting these images in the supposed service of social justice. I don’t think there is any compelling evidence that watching images of female suffering alone will lead to social change and, as Miller points out, one of the reasons that The Handmaid’s Tale images don’t always seem to be galvanizing viewers to action is that they stem from a longstanding tradition of seeing the female experience as inherently painful. It’s hard to imagine a world without female suffering if you keep coming back to these same tired motifs, which are pretty much everywhere in our culture, and I find it frustrating (sexist, even!) that women who have to endure misogyny every day are then scolded for not wanting to see it unfold onscreen.
A woman at work asked ‘what exactly are you?’, I said we are Arab and Sephardi Jews, that my grandparents came from Syria and Turkey, and that some of our ancestors came from Spain and that’s why we spoke French.
From Claudia Roden: A Book of Middle Eastern Food, a BBC Radio 4 dramatisation, by Anjum Malik, of the creation of Claudia Roden’s recipe collection A Book of Middle Eastern Food.
This line jumped out at me because of the sheer complexity of identity it invokes. Is there a single work of fantasy or science fiction out there with an alien race / elf society / invented human ethnicity which contains a fraction of the intricate history, geography, and culture glanced at in that brief description?
But first: on the matter of editing and its discontents. Now personally I hate editors, except maybe when they’re paying for lunch. Why do I hate them? Because once you get them in your head, you can’t rid yourself of them. One of them said to me once, regarding some riff I’d engaged in on something or another, “No one cares about that.” Ever since, when I sit down at the keyboard poised to type up a flurry, that niggling voice commences in my head: “No one cares. No one cares.” You see why I hate these people? Who died and made them auxiliary superegos? Who needs another superego?
Possibly most writers, as it turns out. Or so I found myself thinking not far into Men and Apparitions, which is supremely, magisterially unedited. Tillman has said that terms like “experimental” or “traditional” or “mainstream” or “conventional” “are not resonant” for her. Maybe “downtown” then? Not as a geographic locale, but as an aesthetics of rejection. The traditional “downtown” writer rejected narrative (or in the visual arts, representation and “literariness”); here the rejectee is editing. There’s a rule of thumb for print media (well, a rule of thumb I just invented): the more “uptown” the press or the publication, the higher the pay and number of readers, and the more violent the editing. If you wish to be published in the prestige rags, you can very well end up arguing back and forth with an editor over a single word, certainly over an extra clause, not to mention what ideas you’re permitted to express or jokes you can make. Tillman has clearly not been having these sorts of arguments. She’s chosen not to have those arguments. She ranges free as a writer, or as close as it comes. She resides “downtown.”
Now if I were Tillman, I would have appended to the phrase “ranges free” a jokey fillip such as “like a pricey chicken.” And then followed with “(kidding).” This is one of Tillman’s preferred delinquencies in Men and Apparitions: a dumb not-exactly-joke, followed by a parenthetical not-exactly-retraction. I don’t have the technology to count the number of “kidding”s in this volume, but there are lots. “Haha” also recurs, occasionally amputated to “ha.” Also “half-kidding.” But I’m not Tillman, and after it crossed my mind to append “like a pricey chicken” to “ranges free” (because the phrase “free-range chicken” strikes me as unaccountably funny) I said to myself: that’s just dumb. Perhaps I even typed and deleted it, but in any event, I self-censored, having ingrained the habit from years of torment at the hands of editor-superegos. I imagine that Tillman would not have done the same. She loves a rimshot, the feebler the better. Don’t take anything here too seriously, I think I’m being told.
And why exactly are we being told all of this? It’s the first big question that any working novelist must ask of him or herself. Good fiction should feel seamlessly necessary – as if someone has grabbed your wrist and begun to whisper a story so urgently that you have no choice but to listen. So would such a narrator really stop to let you know that their morning alarm wakes them with “polyphonic pleas” or distract the narrative with an unwieldy image such as “diarrhoea-conquered toilet”? Would they really want to break the suspense with a line such as: “The past rises up like the heat pimples that itch along the scalloped neckline of my top”?
There comes a painful moment in every writer’s life when they must concede that the thrillingly descriptive phrase they’ve been fashioning for hours or days (or even, sometimes, in my case months) must go if it interrupts the story. If you let mere words muscle in between the tale and the telling – or, worse, allow them to push your reader away (or, as in this case, give her a severe case of brain-ache) – then daylight rushes in on the magic. Your fiction doesn’t live.