Monday, August 11, 2008

11th August

i went to a reading at the Book Festival this afternoon.
A friend of a dear friend of mine has just had a collection of short stories published.

I have to say that the success of book festivals everywhere has always been a bit of a mystery to me.
Prose is prose because it is meant to be enjoyed in private in the act of solitary reading.
Reading aloud is a different thing altogether. What works on the page may very well not work off the page.
And almost certainly not when read by the author; who generally is an author because they are a private person who shrinks from the exposure of performance. And as a result read extremely badly.

So the fact that publishers and their publicists have managed to persuade people to pay out for the dubious privilege of hearing works which weren't in general intended to be read aloud being read aloud by people who generally do not have the skills to read them... it seems to me to be an instance of the triumph of marketing over good sense.

this was case in point.

To make it worse, it was chaired by a person who, as far as I could tell, had no inter-personal skills at all. What she was good at was saying "Does anyone want to ask any questions?" in such a way that it drove all questions out of anyone's head.

Mine included.

She was also utterly joyless and dull.

So these, in a way, are the questions that have occurred to me now. the questions I would have liked to ask if I had had my wits about me.

Each of the three writers described situations that had strong elements of joy and pleasure about them.

The first was about the friendship between three men who went swimming every day one summer. The act of swimming; the friendship between the three of them; these were clearly important for all of them.

The second was about a man and his girlfriend. obviously they had good sex together; and in a strange and limited way, he cared about her suffering (she had chicken pox) and wanted to alleviate it.

The third was about a couple of gay men who took care of their elderly neighbour who lived alone. The relationship mattered to them; and it mattered to her also.

Yet the focus of each story was on unhappiness. On limitation. On disgust.
Why should that be?

The purpose of art might be about giving pleasure. one of the pleasures of a short story might be in the relishing of language. Yet this was completely absemt from all three stories; except possibly the second, whose author seemed to take a delight at one point in describing the repulsive aspects of his lover's illness.

The first two stories, written by men, were exclusively phallocentric and heterosexist. They allowed no space for the possibility opf different perspectives and different ways of being.
The third, written by a woman, actually did: if only in a rather limited and timid way.

Do the writers have any sense that we are all inhabiting a very repressive culture that causes great suffering? Do they acknowledge that perhaps one function art can play in such a world is to explore different ways of living and being? Are they aware that art has a moral dimension?

I feel cross with myself for not asking these questions at the time.
But they need asking now: of almost every artist who is allowed to be currently active.


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