Wednesday, July 15, 2009

as byatt, art and book reviews

A friend of mine who has spent many years reviewing books recently described book reviewing on her blog as necessarily and at essence a very subjective thing, and something which should be understood as such. So when, in a slightly fangirlish moment, I went looking for AS Byatt reviews and found one that was lukewarm, I had to laugh at myself for getting angry. They were a reviewer, they were communicating their experience, not everyone likes AS Byatt, etc. The review was all about how the reviewer had disliked Byatt but liked Possession, so it was actually quite positive. But since Possession is one of my favourite books I still felt slighted. Especially by the comments. The first one was by a man who was apparently knowledgable about Victorian poetry, and he called her poetry 'inauthentic'. I didn't read the comments for long, becuase they made me upset. Becuase I thought the poetry captured something about Victorian poetry, it's allusiveness particularly. But then again, I haven't read much of it...

But since it makes me sad that people don't like AS Byatt I thought I should try to explain why I do. The difficulty is that I like her books for precisely the same reason some people don't: I like the English academic protagonists and the 'cleverness' and the literary-ness. I also happen to think the characters are great. I feel like the books have a lot of depth, with well-rounded characters, a lot of literary allusions and something to say about scholarship itself and why people do it. I understand this would not appeal if you had no interest in English academia or literature, but I do, and I love it. In fairness (if that is really the right term) to the reviewer I mentioned above, the book that introduced her to her dislike of AS Byatt was Still Life- which is a book I have never read. I have a feeling that it is one of the books I picked up in the library, read the first page of, and put down with a sense of foreboding.

Reading The Children's Book yesterday I was reminded of another side of AS Byatt- the one that has an interest in fairy tales. I've read some of her fairy tales and they are wonderful, while many modern writers have tried to rewrite fairy tales very few of them do it with the same grace and sense of magic and menace that AS Byatt manages. Part of what I like about AS Byatt is to do with this, it is her ability to tell stories and her love of stories. The part of The Children's Book I referred to reminded me strongly of my own childhood, and how I always felt that some day a magic door would open up and I would be transported to another world, and inanimate objects had a life and there were invisble, hidden things. Even when I grew a bit older and knew none of it was true, part of me still felt that a hidden door could open at any moment.

AS Byatt:
"The seen and the unseen world were interlocked and superimposed. You could trip out of one and into the other at any moment."

I haven't finished reading this book yet, by a long shot. And I wasn't sure of it to begin with. But it's drawing me in, and those lines for me hold promise. So far, I think in a way it is a book about art. About art and literature and the magic those things hold. Maybe literature is the wrong word, maybe I should say stories.

It's a sharp contrast to an article I read today about the productivity commission into whether the Australian Government should continue to subsidise the publishing industry by imposing rules on importing new books in order to support Australian writers. I believe the general verdict is 'no', but whether that is the right response I couldn't say. David Marr has written a scathing article on the report (Titled 'Book Report a Jumble of garble). He quotes the report as it tries to quantify the "unpriced externality component of the cultural benefits" of Australian literature:

The commissioners aren't singing psalms to the "externalities" of a vibrant national literature. They see negatives everywhere. We're too prone, for instance, to hog the cultural benefits for ourselves. "Most of the cultural value" generated by "hundreds of thousands of titles purchased and read in Australia each year", they say, will be "internalised" by the readers.

No net gain to the nation.


Helpfully, they sketch what beneficial national literature looks like: writing that helps "diffuse social norms" in the interest of more "predictable or trustable" human behaviour. "The reading of books of cultural value may help individuals to feel more connected to, and to be more productive within, particular social groups or the wider society."

That's not how you do it! I don't know how exactly you quantify the value and benefit of a book, and people have been arguing about the value of art for centuries, but I'm pretty sure they're doing it wrong. Books are not there to improve productivity or disseminate the values of the state- they are there to do a wide range of things including (but not limited to)- entertain, enlighten, give insight into human nature, educate on a topic and put across a point of view. It is best to have a wide range of books giving a wide range of viewpoints, homogeneity is not the goal, so how can 'Australian literature' promote ''predictable or trustable' human behaviour'?

But in a way that really reflects my view on the debate, which is basically that art should not have to serve a purpose, it only needs to be beautiful. Or, as Ella Fitzgerald might say, 'Tain't what you say it's the way that you say it. 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty' because beauty has an inherent value, we should create beautiful things. In my English honours year there was a course on literary theory, and I heard the students give speeches at our mid-year seminar on why art/literature should be political, and I thoroughly disagreed. Politics is transitory, art should be transcendent. People don't like Shakespeare because of his politics but because of his words. While the politics add to your appreciation, and are important, they are not what makes literature.

Now that you know my views on art and AS Byatt, you can judge my reviews accordingly.

1 comment:

  1. I have discovered that Still Life is one of the books in a series that I have read, and enjoyed. It is the second in the series, and so an odd place to start if you want to read AS Byatt.