Thursday, 8 January 2015

Art as a criticism of life - from Colin Wilson


From The Craft of the Novel, by Colin Wilson - 1986 - a superb work of literary criticism, almost completely neglected.

I found this book very helpful when writing my MA thesis

and I think it could be very valuable as a 'how and what to write' manual for aspiring story writers (novel, play, movie etc) who are aiming-high.


Most talk about 'artistic detachment is disingenuous. No writer can depict the whole world... all he can do is offer 'typical samples', like a grocer allowing you to taste a piece of cheese. 

But as he holds out the cheese to you on the end of his knife, he is clearly implying that this sample tastes exactly the same as the rest of the cheese on the counter.

The same goes for the novelist; as he hands you his 'slice of life', there is a tacit understanding that, so far as he knows, this slice tastes very much like any other slice he could offer you. 

This is what the critic Matthew Arnold meant when he said that literature is a 'criticism of life'... It is handed to the reader with the implication : this is what life is like. 

...But if we examine Zola's work [and that of the other 'naturalist novelists] ...  we shall find that they always seems to be a prosecution witness against life, and never try to present the defence.


Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with the bulk of art in the past century; its excuse is that it is realistic, but in practice that is dishonest - and art (...literature, cinema, even music) functions as a prosecution witness against life. 

Then, this bitter, twisted, nihilistic view of life is presented as if it was a discovery about life - rather than something deliberately built-in by the artist.

Any other - more balanced - perspective on life is dismissed as dumb or derided as deceptive.

But then, for a work of art honestly to present life as anything other than horrible does require that it at least allows for the possibility, even as a mystery, that there is something more than life.

And that possibility is ruled out, in advance, by many or most artists.


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