Tuesday, September 10, 2013

When is a novel art?

Some people say there is no difference between art and commercial fiction, or between literary fiction and genre fiction. The only difference, it is sometimes asserted, is that the literary types are pretentious, pretending there is something more in literary fiction than in other kinds.

If literary fiction is an attempt at art, and I think it is, then what is art?

I came across this quote from the philosopher Jacques Maritain on art:

"The essential character of art ... is to instruct us how to make something, so that it is constructed, formed or arranged, as it ought to be, and thus to secure the perfection or goodness, not of the maker, but of the object itself."

I don't think I've ever read a better definition of art.

We know that many commercial films today are completed with the help of test audiences. If the test audience doesn't like the ending of the movie, then it is changed. Such a film can't be art because it isn't concerned with creating something "as it ought to be." The film is creating something as people prefer it to be, which seldom has anything to do with how the film ought to be. (Many films don't have to be changed because the makers are wise to what the market wants and never attempt to connect with what ought to be.)

So, literary fiction isn't so much about being something more, as it is about being something entirely different in character.

Maritain points to another little truth when he says art is about the object itself, not the maker. (For novels, I would add, for clarity's sake, that it also is not about the reader.)