(two Buddha heads observing an abandoned Borders)
A memoirist, currently being celebrated as a literary sensation, recently stated, “What’s the point,” after being asked about fiction, as if it were pointless to bother with a made up story when you could focus on the real thing, as if his life, or the self, was all that mattered for artistic exploration. He might as well have said, why look at a painting when you can go outside and observe the scenery? Why look at a sculpture of the human body and its remarkable construction when you can see them passing by or look in a mirror? Why bother with photography when you can see the subject with your own eyes? Why explore any subject that doesn’t delve into the self and it’s daily struggles? It’s a misunderstanding of self-expression.
As a lover of fiction, it burns me to see such disrespect for an art form that is increasingly overlooked, an art form as old as humankind and still practiced in all that we do, from blockbuster films to quotidian conversations, and frankly, is the best tool in the educational box – one we need more of, not less.
Comments about societal deterioration inevitably put the blame on the loss of family values as a major cause. Not to disparage the value of family, but incomprehension of what’s good, and why, have always contributed greatly to poor choices and unhealthy living. The influence of what’s popular, what’s been showcased for easy consumption, frequently dilutes quality, the latter sometimes confused with snobbish elitism. What is popular too often tends to be shallow, devoid of intellectual or spiritual nourishment, because it was created without the brutal exploration of veracious reflection, inadvertently promoting the vacuous following it sensationalizes.
In literature, the popular page turners garner most of the attention, though they often lack substance; in music, some of the most superficial pop musicians make millions while more talented jazz and classical players struggle to make a buck, and in the art of cooking, it unfortunately follows that fast food joints dominate the landscape, whereas a healthy whole foods meal requires staying at home or embarking on a treacherous journey through the jungle of unbalanced, processed foods. Too many consumers consume what is easy, immature, watered down, and miss out on the art of the composition, not understanding that quality, especially when it aspires to be art, is an acquired taste; something that requires sacrifice and edification to appreciate, instead of having it spoon fed like tasteless, pre-mashed baby food. Just like learning to appreciate a fine meal requires time and experimentation as our taste buds mature, sophisticated music and the art of fiction also require additional study to fully grasp their complexities. Though a hotdog or PB&J sandwich can be enjoyable, hopefully most would agree that there are better, more exquisite meals to be had. It’s no different with any art form, including fiction.
As someone who explores both forms of memoir and fiction, I prefer the latter. Fiction, when it aspires to be art, can be more truthful than nonfiction. The memoir can be beautifully descriptive and courageously honest, but can, like most nonfiction, also be biased, based on one writer’s perception of actual events, and be hindered by memory. Fiction, on the other hand, has no such limits and uses a story to explore the truth, often the writer’s personal truth. Vision or symbolic meaning can further enhance or add depth to an underlying theme or plot, showing the universality of character, of habits, of setting and struggle – and if it’s good, then it is seamless, and ostensibly natural, and the result is often much more powerful than simply telling a true story.
Art can change us. I recall how a small photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy, taken shortly after JFK’s assassination, stopped me in my tracks. It hung unassumingly in an art museum and I almost passed it by. Something in that photo caught my eye. It haunted me, and still does. When I was five years old, I remember a woman practically crashing through the door of my kindergarten class, hysterical and crying about the president having just been shot, and subsequently watched some of the coverage unfold on TV, but I never understood the unbearable depths of Jacqueline’s pain until I saw that picture. Had I been standing next to her when that photo was taken, even as an adult, I doubt I would have felt her anguish or the resulting compassion as much as I did from seeing that image. It captured her detachment from everything she once knew, and it never let go of it.
Stories can be just as powerful. They can paint a picture as well as any painter or photographer, one that can become embedded in the mind, not just because of the events depicted, but because of how the artist – the writer – captured the mood with description or symbolic imagery.
Michael Cunningham’s book, The Hours, comes to my mind, how he brings an old chair to life and sets the mood for the events that follow:
Richard’s chair, particularly, is insane; or rather, it is the chair of someone who, if not actually insane, has let things slide so far, has gone such a long way toward the exhausted relinquishment of ordinary caretaking – simple hygiene, regular nourishment – that the difference between insanity and hopelessness is difficult to pinpoint. The chair – an elderly, square, overstuffed armchair obesely balanced on slender blond wooden legs – is ostentatiously broken and worthless. It is upholstered in something nubbly, no-colored, woolen, shot through (this is, somehow, its most sinister aspect) with silver thread. Its square arms and back are so worn down, so darkened by the continual application of friction and human oils, that they resemble the tender parts of an elephant’s hide. Its coils are visible – perfect rows of pale, rusty rings – not only through the cushion of the seat but through the thin yellow towel Richard had draped over the cushion. The chair smells fetid and deeply damp, unclean; it smells of irreversible rot.
That chair, to me, is the heart of the book, symbolizing its major theme. More than one person has told me that the movie, The Hours, was too depressing. Maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me since depression is what it’s basically about, but I’d never thought of it that way because the movie excited me as much as the book did, not because of the events of the story, but because of how well it was performed. The two scenes between Meryl Streep and Ed Harris, in which the above chair is depicted, are two of my all-time favorite movie scenes because of how powerful the writing, acting, and set decoration all come together and drive the entire movie. They are so well done that they almost make me weep – not because of the drama, though that is part of it – but because of the absolute beauty of such remarkable quality. That and I’m a sucker for stories about writers, especially after Richard (in the book), laments about his failure as a writer near the end of his life: “There was so much, oh, far too much for me. I mean, there’s the weather, there’s the water and the land, there are the animals, and the buildings, and the past and the future, there’s space, there’s history. There’s the old woman across the way, did you notice she switched the donkey and the squirrel on her windowsill? And, of course, there’s time. And place. And there’s you, Mrs. D. I wanted to tell part of the story of part of you. Oh, I’d love to have done that…I wanted to write about everything, the life we’re having and the lives we might have had. I wanted to write about all the ways we might die.”
Another example, by Denis Johnson, in his story, Work, depicting hope and longing:
And then came one of those moments. I remember living through one when I was eighteen and spending the afternoon in bed with my first wife, before we were married. Our naked bodies started glowing, and the air turned such a strange color I thought my life must be leaving me, and with every young fiber and cell I wanted to hold on to it for another breath. A clattering sound was tearing up my head as I staggered upright and opened the door on a vision I will never see again: Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and ways, and the miraculous balls of hail popping in a green translucence in the yards?
We put on our clothes, she and I, and walked out into a town flooded ankle-deep with white, buoyant stones. Birth should have been like that.
As good, in my opinion, as any painting or photograph, and yet, I’ve never met a non-writer who was aware of its existence. More often than not these days, the major audience for good literary books tend to be other writers. I recently waited and wondered what business was in the process of moving into another closed bookstore and wasn’t surprised when it turned out to be a drug store. If that isn’t a sad and somehow fitting symbolic representation of our current society (drugs over books), I’m not sure what is.
Art is surely self-expressional, but self-expression is not just about the self, something pop musicians, pop writers, pop painters, and perhaps the memoirist mentioned above, don’t seem to understand – pop musicians most spectacularly; they are often referred to as artists, and they are, though too often exhibitionist would be a better label. They’ll tell you it’s about self-expression, which it is, exhibitionism being an art form that most today reduce to shock value with nothing else to say. The message of their art always seems to come down to one statement: look at me. The second part of their message often being: I have a hot body. And the third is all about money. If they do try to express something meaningful, they often don’t know how. They express it without the staying power of the image.
There’s a difference between a pop artist, or a memoirist, or a blogger, saying this is me, this is who I am, this is what has happened to me, this is how I dress and act, this is my sexual freedom being expressed as I grab my crotch, versus someone who has insight on how something in our world works, or doesn’t, and is able to make you feel it by weaving it into an entertaining story in such a powerful way that it can change who you are.