Better than a dream
Listening to Copernicus

The Muse, if you like

I've been hammering away at the commentary of my PhD, and one of the small tiresomeness (as opposed to the large tiresomenesses, of which there are also plenty) which make it slow work is that 'writing' is such an ambiguous term. It can be an almost concrete noun - 'Some of the writing is fluent' - or an abstract noun - 'Writing is a creative practice' - or a verb - 'Writing stops me eating'.  So quite often I want another word for the large body of continuous prose, the piece, that I've ended up with in A Secret Alchemy, for the work of... for the -

Yes, dammit, why can't I bring myself to call the novel I've ended up with a work of art? Maybe not a very good one, maybe not one that will be spoken of in hushed awe a hundred years from now. But it is undeniably an object which I worked at, which is made of words rather than images or sounds, and whose form identifies its value for humans as aesthetic rather than practical. What a long winded way round you have to go to avoid calling a novel a work of art, and yet if writing - literature, if you like - is one of the arts, why do I feel so inhibited from calling it that, and myself, by implication, an artist? For one thing, when did 'art' which in Shakespeare's time meant all sorts of clever crafts and skills - 'there is no art to find the mind's construction in the face' - come to mean paint on canvas or, at a push, stone or bronze? Mind you, I notice that artists talk of artworks, these days, as if works of art now only inhabit museums. (We could be boring about the influence of German, via American, which uses nouns like 'art' as adjectives by jamming them onto other nouns like 'work': 'resident permit', 'author information', 'grief work' and so on, but we won't, will we?).

I talk endlessly about craft, and even have a notion of what it is that makes a work of craft into a work of art, and I do, actually, if you'll be kind and not feel it's your duty to take me down a peg, believe that the latter is what I do. So why can't I say so without hedging it about with lightly humorous asides? Perhaps it's English inhibition, with an admixture of the equally English cult of the amateur. 'Oh, I just dabble a bit' he says, before getting five canvases accepted into the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. Or perhaps it's because there's no easily-defined point where craft becomes art. Maybe it's simply because coping with a great baggy monster of a form, like the novel, demands a great deal of craft, and, day-to-day, it's craft which we feel is the work we do. If it turns into art, that's something extra, un-tameable, the Muse, if you like.

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