Literature or Art?

Literature is defined as written work that has artistic value, which puts it in the broader category of art. I have no problem with this. But I do have some complaints about many of the books and articles I read. Unless I'm reading non-fiction, a textbook, or a technical article, I read to be entertained. Hopefully there is a plot; a story line that wends it's way to a satisfactory, but unpredictable, conclusion while holding my attention along the way.

Many authors don't have that much to say, so they bore you with distracting details that do little, if anything, to enhance the reading experience. Perhaps they think it is art, and add these “artistic” details so that their finished work will be book-length instead of a short story, or a long article instead of a shorter one.

A writing instructor I had in a creative writing course, told me that the hard part about writing was taking 20 pages of writing and condensing it to ten pages. But the really hard part was to then reduce those ten pages to five. I see just the opposite happening in most of the books and articles I read. These authors take five pages and build them up to 20 with what they think is artful prose. It's not.

Here are two excerpts from the opening paragraphs of an article by Janet Frame, in The New Yorker (June 2, 2008), titled, “A Night At The Opera.” She spends three paragraphs describing how they laughed at the movie.

“We acted the cliché. We melted with laughter. Not the prickly melt that comes from sitting on a hot stove but the cool relaxing melt, in defiance of chemistry, like dropping deep into a liquid feather bed.”

“It was, simply, like being thrown on a swing into the sky, and the swing staying there, as in one of those trick pictures we had seen so often and marveled at–divers leaping back to the springboard, horses racing back to the starting barrier. It was like stepping off the swing and promenading the sky.”

I'm not saying this is bad writing. Like beauty, it lies in the eyes of the beholder. But it seems to me a rather blatant and overdone attempt to be artsy. And this was less than a third of her description of how they laughed at the movie. I'd rather she had simply said that the movie was very funny, or that they laughed crocodile tears, and let it go at that. I'm not sure that crocodiles have tears, but it makes the point better than trying to associate laughing with “...the prickly melt that comes from sitting on a hot stove...” That doesn't sound like a laughing matter.

If you have never seen the Marx Brothers in, “A Night At The Opera,” then reading Janet Frame's article by that title is not going to enlighten you. Either rent the movie or go play miniature golf. Her article, in spite of the title, is about a mental hospital.