Thursday Writing: Let’s get serious

Philosophers and aestheticians may offer elegant and profound definitions of art and beauty, but for the painter they are all summed up in this phrase: To create a harmony

Gino Severini

A little more than a week ago, I was reading what I thought was a serious literary book, and it surprised me. It was a fast read, which I didn’t expect. It was a dystopian novel involving clones, which I didn’t think a “serious” author could write about without being made fun of. And, best of all, I couldn’t put it down, which was a feeling I’d only previously associated with “non-serious” works. It was crushingly evident that I have some real misconceptions about “serious literature” and its possibilities.

I was an English major when I started college, and I’ve been a voracious reader all my life, so I’ve had plenty of exposure to the classics of various eras of literature. But I don’t read them, generally speaking, for fun, and now that I’m out of school most of my reading is for fun. I read mysteries: Agatha Christie and her sisters in crime Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, and lighthearted contemporary series like Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody and Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I adore young-adult and children’s books, many of them fantasies or science fiction. And I also go through a fair number of nonfiction and advice-type books, and graphic novels. (The full list is on Goodreads!) But I rarely read “literature” because I thought it didn’t speak to me the way these books do. Then I read the novel I began this entry with, and it made me wonder if I’d misjudged the whole sweep of “literary” novels by lumping them all together like so many unpleasant homework assignments. If a “serious” novel could be as exciting and as page-turning as Amelia Peabody, then maybe the difference between “serious” and “not serious” wasn’t as vast as I’d imagined. So what is this difference, anyway?

I tried to figure this out methodically. I made a list of the “serious” books I’d read and liked, and a parallel list of the non-serious. Jhumpa Lahiri, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Margaret Atwood were on one side; JK Rowling, Elizabeth Peters, and Agatha Christie on the other. How did these writers differ from each other? Harry Potter is fantasy, but Atwood writes amazing science fiction. Stephen King is all about horror and yet he’s taken seriously as a writer. So genre was out, and with it, subject matter; they were not the determining factor. Was it humor? The “serious” group does tend to be far less funny than the other, but that alone didn’t seem to do it. I couldn’t figure it out, so I left the problem for the time being. But I kept worrying at it underneath my main mind. I thought about it afresh on Tuesday at the Legion of Honor, as I discovered “serious” museum-worthy artworks weren’t what I expected either. And I brought it up this morning with Erik, and his musical perspective brought a whole new level of inquiry into the discussion.

This is what we came up with:

“Serious” work = ambitious scope + careful use of medium (language, paint, notes, etc)

“Not serious” work = primary concern is with message (plot, image, melody, etc), rather than medium

Good work = good work, regardless of whether it’s “serious” or not.

Scope, the missing piece Erik supplied, is (as far as we’ve decided) the vital element that decides whether a work is “serious” or not. Miss Marple is highly enjoyable to read, and gives us many life lessons, but that isn’t the point, whereas in a more highbrow literary work, exploring the meaning of life would be the primary purpose, and enjoyableness secondary.

Of course, breaking down all the world’s art like this is problematic, not least because applying any kind of formula to art is just abhorrent. I’m very aware that on some level, talking about serious versus non-serious art is just as ridiculous as arguing that someone’s an artist just because he’s angsty and dysfunctional. However… it’s a question that’s been at the back of my mind for many years, and I’m not done unpacking it yet, because I think the answers I come up with have significance for my own writing and painting and drawing.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

And don’t forget to come back tomorrow for another guest post on Open Mic Friday!