Farting around with literature

It may seem a bit odd to provide a link in the first sentence to an article I do not intend to comment upon (other than to say that I agree with the author’s position, and am glad he has articulated it); but nonetheless, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to this piece in The Spectator by Scottish composer James McMillan. It is well worth reading.

What this piece lacks is a good sub-editor. When McMillan writes “[Andrew O’Hagan] was subjected to a tirade of abuse that inferred he was a disgrace to Scotland”, he had presumably meant “implied” rather than “inferred”. I do not want to make much of this: it’s an easy slip to make, and, God knows, I’ve done far worse myself. But one might have hoped that the Spectator’s sub-editor would have picked this up. More seriously, the sub-editor should have provided links to the various bits of evidence McMillan gives in support of his argument. Of course, a bit of Googling can satisfy the reader that the evidence McMillan cites is depressingly real (although I do confess I haven’t checked all of it), but the absence of references, which could so easily have been provided, does seem a bit odd in so prestigious a publication as The Spectator.

It is one of the pieces that should have been linked to, and which I found on googling, that I felt deserved some comment here. In his piece, James McMillan quotes Alan Bissett, whom he describes as “one of the emerging court jesters of the new political establishment”, opining as follows on James Joyce:

… lucky enough to write baffling, unreadable prose during a period in which it was the vogue to elevate baffling, unreadable prose.

The quote comes from this article published in the Guardian (where else?) some nine years ago. I had missed the article at the time, but, so egregious are its arguments – where they exist – that I find it difficult to let it pass without comment. Reading the full quote in context enhances rather than mitigates its contentious nature:

I have a first-class degree and a masters in English Literature, and I’ve read plenty of difficult books, so if I can’t enjoy Finnegan’s Wake, or large parts of Ulysses, where does the fault lie? With me? Or with an author who was lucky enough to write baffling, unreadable prose during a period in which it was the vogue to elevate baffling, unreadable prose? Ditto various other modernist works designed principally to exclude the masses.

Let us ignore the errant apostrophe in Finnegans Wake: that may, once again, be the sub-editor’s fault rather than the author’s. Let us focus instead on the idea that many modernist writers deliberately wrote “baffling and unreadable” prose in order to exclude the masses. This contention was made at some length by John Carey in two books, The Intellectuals and the Masses, and What Good are the Arts?

That much modernist literature is difficult is clearly true. So, for that matter, is much pre-modernist literature. Many find Milton, for instance, rather difficult: some, I know, even find him “baffling and unreadable”. If difficulty is a good reason for rejection, then Carey should certainly be rejecting Milton: instead, he is a world authority. Given that he is a noted scholar of some very difficult literature; and given further that, presumably, he personally likes those areas of literature in which he is so noted a scholar; one may conjecture to what extent his derision of difficult literature may be a form of self-hatred. Not that I am saying that Carey is a self-hater: it would be absurd, after all, to state as well-established fact what is but an idle and frankly insulting conjecture. But that make me wonder why Carey, and, in his footsteps, Bissett, should declare with such confidence, as if it were a well-established fact rather than mere idle and frankly insulting conjecture, that “various … modernist works [were] designed principally to exclude the masses”.

(My own take on Ulysses, incidentally, maybe found here. In summary, I argue at some length that it is not in the mere fact of its difficulty that its greatness lies.)

The basis of Bissett’s argument is the following contention, unsupported by any evidence or argument:

Art exists for one reason: to bring pleasure.

It is easy enough to think of various works that are indisputably works of art, but which provide little if any pleasure – Goya’s Black Paintings, Wilfred Owen’s war poems, Richard Strauss’ Elektra, and so on. It may, I suppose, be argued that even these works, harrowing though they all are, provide a “pleasure” of sorts – an aesthetic pleasure; but if “pleasure” is deemed to be an underlying principle in all works of art, from Pickwick Papers to Crime and Punishment, from Strauss’ waltzes to Mahler’s 6th symphony, then, it seems to me, we are stretching the meaning of the word “pleasure” to cover far too much: we are taking it to the point where it is no longer capable of distinguishing; and, hence, it ceases to be useful.

But there is a more fundamental objection to Bissett’s contention: he has at no point argued that there needs to be a reason in the first place. Why should art need to justify itself? Why can it not be seen as an end in itself? To argue either side of this issue requires argument: Bissett does not think it worthwhile to offer any, taking it as a given – as, indeed, did John Carey in the very title of his book What Good are the Arts? – that art is a means to some end rather than an end in itself. That may or may not be the case: I do not presume to judge on this particular point. But what I do know is that this point isn’t axiomatic: if one is to insist on this point, on either side, supporting arguments need, at the very least, to be advanced.

But logical argument does not seem to be Bissett’s strong point. He starts by comparing love of art to religious belief, declaring confidently at one point that “faith means nothing until you can prove it”, seemingly failing to realise that once something is proven it ceases to be faith, and becomes fact. Then he asks:

So what does art prove?

The question is meant rhetorically, but I think I can answer that:

Nothing, nothing at all.

Did any artist worth his or her salt ever set out to prove anything in a work of art? What a question to ask!

Then, this follows:

We talk about the soul, the truth, the spirituality, the uplifting or transcendental qualities of great works. But these only exist in so far as we supply them ourselves. Thom Yorke once sang, “Just ‘cos you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.” Our atheist would argue that the spirituality that we sense in a cathedral is a combination of spectacle, belief and atmosphere. They’re designed that way. There is a performance, but not the essence, of spirituality.

Yes, it takes the reaction of a reader, or of a listener, or of a viewer, to complete the work of art: truth, spirituality, transcendental qualities, etc., may all lie latent in a work of art, and are only realised once we respond to them, and feel,these things. But then Bissett quotes a line from a song that says quite the opposite – that even if we feel such things, they do not necessarily exist. So what side is Bissett taking here? That these things exist if we feel them? Or that, even if we feel them, they don’t? He seems to be saying both as far as I can see, and it doesn’t make sense.

The two sentences that complete the paragraph are utter gobbledegook. What the bleeding hell is “performance … of spirituality” as opposed to the “essence … of spirituality”? And this is a man complaining of other writers being “baffling and unreadable”! The whole passage is so confused, both in its thinking and in its articulation, that once one has taken the trouble to unpick it, one realises it wasn’t worth unpicking in the first place.

It would take far too long to unpick the whole wretched piece, enjoyable though it may be to do so. But one more point, and this the last – I promise! It’s about this bit:

I remember a lecturer at university who banned us from saying that we had enjoyed a novel, since enjoyment was not what literary study was about.

Bissett says this assuming, I think, that we’d all sympathise with him on this point, and take sides against the lecturer. However, the lecturer is perfectly correct. As a reader, one may nor may not enjoy a book – however one defines “enjoy”; one may or may not take pleasure in it – however one defines “pleasure”. One may then take the trouble of going to the review section of Goodreads or of Amazon, say how much one did or didn’t enjoy the book, and give it mark out of ten, or out of five stars. One may say it was awesome, or, conversely, that is sucked. One may go on discussion board to impart one’s opinion that it was awesome, or that it sucked. That is fine. But when you are at an institute of further education, where you have chosen to study literature rather than merely pass your opinion on it, then, whether you enjoyed it or not, whether you took pleasure from it or not, you are compelled to examine the work in a systematic manner. You are compelled to learn how to do so.

In short, there is more, far more, to the study of literature than merely farting around. This should be inscribed on the walls of all literature faculties: “The study of literature is more, far more, than merely farting around.” And if you are studying literature at an advanced level, you should try at least to understand what this “more” consists of.

And if you can’t, or won’t, then I guess there’s always a future writing about literature in the arts pages of respected newspapers.


7 responses to this post.

  1. Excellent piece and frankly Bissett sounds idiotic (and my respect for Carey has gone down too after his dismissal of modernist literature). Art is not there to give pleasure- art exists for itself, it’s something the artist *had* to create, and what effect it has and what response there is to it is another matter. Eastenders gives pleasure to those who watch it (presumably) – does that make it art?!?!?


    • Thank you for that, but, in retrospect, I don’t think I should have posted the above. It was an angry reaction, and anger does not make for clarity of thought: I should have thought a bit more before commenting. Oh well – it’s there now!

      Not that I take back anything of what I say. Refusal to see art as anything more than mere entertainment, and the derision of those who do see it as more, are both common, and they both act as flame to my blue touchpaper. And I don’t know that I’ll ever learn to stay quiet at the “it’s all a matter of opinion” mob.

      But I’ll try to write something a bit less angry and a bit more considered, as the things that I was reacting to won’t be going away any time soon.

      As for John Carey, he is a man I respect enormously, and I really don’t understand why he should put forward such frankly insulting thoughts about what the arts are. I really don’t want to be rude to John Carey, especially given his admirable Milton scholarship.

      Anyway – since there’s little point in taking down what i have put up, I’ll try to write something a bit better thought out.

      Alll the best for now,


  2. Posted by alan on August 16, 2016 at 7:27 am

    “so egregious are its arguments – where they exist” – may I use that? (but with out the egregious, it seems to have too many meanings).
    ” “Just ‘cos you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.” ” – I think that depends on the nature of the “it”. The statement may be correct In the narrow sense of wanting or feeling something to be true and then finding out that it is not true. However, many people experience love for someone else or some thing and then later discover that the object of their love is in someway not “real”, i.e. on further experience it doesn’t demonstrate its qualities according to their hopes and expectations, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the emotion or make it less real.


    • I’m sure the definition of “existence” or of “reality” is a complex philosophical matter that I’m not competent to comment on, but neither, to go by his article, is Bissett. “Just ‘cos you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.” Indeed – you may think windmills are giants, but they’re really windmills. Some may say that reality is only what exists as physical entities in the real world, but that doesn’t seem to me to go far enough. Is the number three real, for instance? Sure, “three trees” or “three houses” are real enough, but is the number three, without attaching itself to objects such as trees or houses, real? And what about feelings and emotions? If I feel angry, or contented, or apprehensive, or afraid, are these emotions real?

      I’m not qualified to discourse on these matters, but it does seem to me that emotions are “real”; and that if they aren’t, we need to reconsider our definition of reality. So if I think there’s a ghost in the dark corner of my bedroom at night, the ghost is not “real”; but the fear I experience is – indeed, it must be. As you say, it’s the nature of “it”. If certain works of art make me feel certain emotions – emotions that I do not have the words to describe, and which I refer to vaguely as “spiritual” and “transcendental” – then what, exactly, is unreal about that? My emotions? Or the works of art that have given rise to these emotions? I don’t see how either can be “unreal”. And I don’t think Bissett has a clue. His purpose is merely to sneer at people like myself, who offend his sensibilities by taking the arts seriously.

      As I said in my response to Kaggsy above, my post was written in a fit of anger, and I really shouldn’t have posted it. I’ll try to post something a bit more considered on the matter.


  3. Posted by obooki on August 16, 2016 at 8:15 pm

    I remember that article Bissett. I see I even commented on it. Was that really 9 years ago? Frankly I’ve always been suspicious of all art which is difficult / obscurantist, because I’ve never bought the argument that it is necessary. My opinion of Joyce these days is quite low, not just for this, but because I don’t actually think he was a very good writer, by which I suppose I mean, user of the English language. Other people seem to think differently however.


    • I must have a look for your comment!

      Difficulty or simplicity of prose style is not, I think, an optional add-on: it is integral to what the work is. If Joyce had written Ulysses in simpler prose, or if Orwell had written Animal Farm in difficult prose, they wouldn’t have merely been the same things in different garbs: they would both have been entirely different books. And Joyce didn’t want to write a different book: he wanted to write Ulysses.

      To wish for a book to be less difficult is really to wish for another book entirely. Which is fair enough. As long as we don’t pretend that we’re essentially wishing for the same book, but done differently.

      I, personally, like difficulty, as it engages my mind: excessive simplicity tends to bore me.

      And yes, I guess your view of Joyce’s writing ability may be viewed as a trifle eccentric 🙂


    • I just read your comments, Obooki, and I agree fully. It’s simply extraordinary that so many people, even those who have degrees in literature, think that study of literature is no more than expressing opinions.

      (And incidentally, the Scottish Higher in English – at least when I sat mine back in 1976 – was considerably more than this.)


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