After all three of our posts and some discussion in comment boxes, I feel as though we've hashed out the question of male and female imbalances in literature as much as I wish to for now. It was a good discussion, but the question itself doesn't interest me much; I enjoy gender, as part of life and (therefore) story, and too much of politics can kill the delight in anything. So I'll move on, happily, to the next question, which Mr. Pond helped set me up for with this little bit of wisecrackery:
"If you can lock two literary critics in a room without them finding some point of disagreement within ten minutes, then run screaming to the Ghost Busters—it’s a doppelganger."That made me laugh. It's just so true. But in giving my own opinion on this week's topic—the need for an objective baseline for Art, and what that should be—I'll have to step back, even from the concept of whether any two critics could agree on the placement of such a baseline. Way back. As in, to the beginning.
In John chapter 1 in the Bible, the creative principle is described as 'the Word', the famed Logos:
"something said (including the thought); by impl. a topic (subject of discourse), also reasoning (the mental faculty) or motive; by extens. a computation; spec. (with the art. in John) the Divine Expression (i.e. Christ)"—Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and The Hebrew Bible"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men."—John 1:1,3-4, NASB
Now, before I go any further: The majority of this is thanks to my having spent the day with my mother, an artist, who had a lot to say on the subject when I told her I needed ideas for this blog post. She helped confirm my thoughts against a distinction between Literature with a capital L and entertainment/craft/schlock that supposedly doesn't count as Art.
Because I believe that the objective baseline for art is communication. Wherever we communicate, the creative principle is there. God may not be, of course. But our inherited ability to put available words to the expression of our ideas is present in everything from the illiterate troll comments on YouTube to Shakespeare, just as the refrigerator-framed drawings by a child come from the same source that gave us Raphael.
Are those troll comments and mighty works of crayon, then, art? Yes, in the most basic sense. Are they good art? Do I even have to ask? There is great art, and there is good art, and there is weak or flawed art, and there is plain old bad art, and I think we can agree to some extent on those definitions. But I don't draw a line on my bookshelf between Jane Austen and John Grisham and say of the latter, with a shake of my head, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."
[Dear God, can I please write books that sell as well as John Grisham's? And that people can love as I love The Testament? Please.]
As a writer, I look at the two successful authors and say "Jane's objectively a better artist, at least in most ways. From her, I learn about portraying subtlety of human interaction. But from John, I learn more about pacing."
Now, there's a place for searching out the best art, the kind that Masha means when she says "In good writing, as in any other art, the intimate and the universal come together..." There's a place for learning the difference between good prose and bad prose. There's a place for choosing literature that offers the mind more than a cheap-joke sitcom could.
In searching out things to read, I look for the intimate and the universal. I look for a good surface narrative with hidden depths of thought. I look for beauty anywhere I can find it. But most of all, I look for something that speaks to me. Because as Mr. Pond says,
"What makes literature great, irrespective of gender, is what George MacDonald called ‘sympathy’—the ability to identify with another creature, and share in their experience of hope and of suffering."That is good communication. And the best of literature communicates sympathy on the level of the sighs too deep for words.