Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Uselessness of Literature

There's something in the air, an attitude to literature, which has been making me steam this past week. First and foremost it came wafting towards me from the stage at the Literature and Science 'debate' at Manchester University in a veritable CP-Snow-Two-Cultures attitude. As a result, since no one on the panel was a scientist, what emerged - most particularly from Martin Amis - was a sense of science as 'the other'. Now this in itself infuriates me. We live in a world increasingly dominated by science and a life increasingly technological in nature, and if literature sees itself as separate from this - and not, as it should, as the very means by which we process and come to terms with the effect of science on the way we think about the world and ourselves - then it simply declares itself irrelevant and indeed signs its own death warrant and justifies another reference to literature which made my blood boil last week:
Does it matter—in so far as anything literary matters these days—if historical fiction is inaccurate? (my italics) (A Historical Whopper, Theodore Dalrymple, BMJ). (Thanks to John Grue for the link.)
In fact Martis Amis has engaged in his fiction with notions presented to us by science, and it's becoming clear that there's a disjunction between his fiction and his public pronouncements, but while I find the latter understandable as a novelist's hyperbole and ironic provocation, I also consider them irresponsible and even dangerous in the context of public debate.

But it wasn't just the angle of the discussion which created this inadvertent demotion of literature; Amis was explicit: Literature doesn't make anything happen, he said.

I'm not the only one who is incensed by such a statement. Clare Dudman, chemist and fiction writer, commented on my post below:
Did Martin Amis really say that? The point of literature then is that it has no point. If any of us believed that then surely we wouldn't write at all!
Exactly. Call me an uncool idealist, but I would never have written my novel The Birth Machine, or the novella which is currently seeking a publisher, if I hadn't hoped they might at least cause some debate about certain modes of scientific thinking and their effects on our lives - and surely, to influence thought and opinion is potentially to influence action.

Today Robert McCrum (who once thought that good literature always finds a market, but who has clearly changed his mind on this) describes the very real way in which serious literature is being eradicated from our culture. He ends on a positive note, with the hope that the recession, by squeezing the publishing industry as a whole and along with it the bestseller culture, will make way for a resurgence of serious literature. Hope he's right, and just so long as Martin Amis and others stop announcing the urbane uselessness of literature...
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