Thursday, April 12, 2012

Literature as comfort blanket

An interesting post by Danuta Kean, which relates to the issues discussed in my last post, below. She asks why some books become bestsellers, however badly written, often without much of a marketing campaign (Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, she tells us, received only £5,000 advance, 'guarantee of little or no marketing', and I understand that the first Harry Potter had a similar kind of introduction to the world). Kean's conclusion, which seems to me correct, is that they 'tap into contemporary anxieties about our lives' and yet are 'overwhelmingly reactionary', providing a literary comfort blanket (rather than any political challenge).


Tim Love said...

"they 'tap into contemporary anxieties about our lives' and yet are 'overwhelmingly reactionary', providing a literary comfort blanket". Maybe, though I presume it's hard to predict in advance what these anxieties are and which books will succeed. I remember as a kid re-reading books often. I guess they were comfort blankets. They weren't classics. Nor were they ground-breaking.

Your Brain on Fiction offers an alternative explanation - that novels are "an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life" and that the brain "treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters". It doesn't need to be good literature, but it helps a lot if it's what others are reading too - readers can discuss plots, talk about what makes X such a cool guy, etc, without the complications of Real Life.

I enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code. I read it in Italian, as practise, not because of anxieties about Catholicism. It wouldn't surprize me if the translation were better than the original. Next holiday I might try the Twilight books.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, that's a point that Kean makes: that it's hard to predict beforehand what those anxieties will be, which is presumably why Dan Brown got such a low advance for TDVC.

I also think it's true that many people tend to treat fictional characters as real, which is why so many people object to books where they don't find the character sympathetic. But it's an unsophisticated way of reading...

Dan Holloway said...

"'overwhelmingly reactionary', providing a literary comfort blanket (rather than any political challenge). "
That would explain why there seem to be sparkling references to Atlas Shrugged on any and every blog you can shake a stick at at the moment, then.

I think comfort blanket is a very polite phrase - ostrich blanket would be more appropriate - I think people crave reassurance in times of desperate need as a way of avoiding head-on thought.

As part of our Not the Oxford Literary Festival we had a session on political engagement and the arts. We had poetry from Danny Chivers who was the guy convicetd of aggravated trespass with intent for reading a poem during the Fortnum and Mason occupation, and Davy Mac who wrote The Homeless Oratorio, and the overwhelming sense that came through was the age-old dilemma of tyranny prevailing because good people do nothing - because it's easier to stick your head in a pillow of distraction (I read another article the other day reminding us yet again how the predominant culture in Nazi Germany was not violent, tempestuous Wagnerianism but overwhelming sentimentality). I think this is yet another reason why artists need to be wary of nailing their colours to the "anything to get published" mast - whilst publishers may not be able to predict success, they are looking for it, and if pandering to anxiety is a key element of success, that renders being published at least partly inimical to being published.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well said, Dan - in particular the sinister implications/potential consequences of sentimentality