In my last two posts, I’ve outlined some observations about changing attitudes toward literature and how those views came about. What I didn’t include, at least overtly, was my opinion on the matter. You might have picked up on my disapproval—especially since it rarely takes three posts to say, “I agree”—but it’s time to conclude the series by laying out what I think more precisely.
By reading only for technique, judging authors less on what they have to say and more on how they say it, we rob literature of its power and ignore its higher purpose. It’s like using Picasso’s Guernica as wallpaper: it would definitely give your living room some pop, but at a large loss of potential. Many writers learn to adorn and polish their work, but few seem to understand that literature can go beyond style. Books of the past have given voice to social critiques and made ideas come alive with stories, but literature today has been written into a corner of triviality. I worry that literature could become like fashion: pretty and popular, and certainly lucrative, but insubstantial.
I should clarify one major disclaimer: while we need to return to the earlier concepts of theme, we do not need necessarily to return to the earlier sources. Often, the sources of earlier writers’ themes have been dogmatic religion, traditional morality/convention, and a blind faith in social reform that today seems naïve. Clearly, not every writer is going to turn to these same subjects, or at least not in the same way. This is perhaps yet another reason current writers shun older works, because they find the thematic content outdated and confusedly believe all thematic content is the same way. I don’t want to come off as a reactionary trying to ban anything written after 1900; I’m just saying that things written before 1900 have value, value we might lose if we don’t examine the excesses and faults of our attitudes.
Matthew Arnold said that poetry was the mixture of art and ideas, and this seems a neat summary of my recommendation. Reading only for technique gives the artistic view of literature, but misses the other half. But as ideas alone can be boring, art without ideas is tame and trivial.