In an online group of writers of which I am a part, I read a thread about whether writing should be thought of as art or entertainment. I won’t share too much what others had to say, but I thought I might share my thoughts on the matter.
Why do people read? Is it to pass the time, to get some sort of thrill from it that in the end means nothing? Lets expand the question a little: why does one live, is it merely to try to derive some sort of enjoyment out of it, pass the time in the most pleasant of ways while we pass between one stretch of non-existence and another? Or do we desire some kind of meaning from existence? When we get to the end of our lives, will we be happy to say that we got through it being amused more often than not?
You may say it is unfair to compare life to literature. I will argue the point later, but please bear with me until I do. Many people do indeed go through life searching for one distraction after another. While there seems to be something to be said for having fun for fun’s sake, it doesn’t seem to provide enough in the long run. By the time we reach a certain age, most of us are looking for something more enduring than transient thrills. We want our lives to have meaning, we want our presence on this world to last beyond the brief moment of life that we get. So we seek to create, to accomplish, make things that will outlive us. We give birth to and raise children, desiring to pass along not only our genetics but also our values and hopes. And as fond as we are of our comforts and our amusements, we quite easily sacrifice them when we have a goal, a hope, or a child whose best interests we wish to advance. Even when we haven’t made the sacrifices ourselves, each of us thrills to the story of someone who has endured hardships in the name of a goal. And we cry and take to our hearts those heroes who have made the sacrifice of their very lives in the pursuit of goals that were bigger than the individual’s interest of comfort and amusement. So I would have to say that to the vast majority of humans life does have meaning.
Let us now get back to literature. Must it too have meaning? Because that after all is what art is all about to me, that it contains something more than the elements of a story artfully crafted to amuse a child or adult. My assertion is that, like food, a written work must do more than appeal to the taste buds. We know enough to at least try to refrain from eating a Twinkie because we know that while it entertains us, it does little to enrich us. And of course it is much easier to deny a child that Twinkie, knowing that while it may taste good, it does not possess the necessary healthful aspects that food is supposed to provide. We know that to be healthy and face life with the maximum of vigor, we should be careful about what we put into our bodies. But too often we neglect the fact that the mind too must be fed by organic, healthy “food” in order for it to act at peak efficiency.
I know, it all sounds so very utilitarian. Of course amusement has a place in our diet—it is the spice of life. But when we start eating Twizzlers for breakfast, we have lost sight of the concept of the occasional indulgence. When we read certain types of literature—which we freely admit are not art—exclusively, we deny ourselves the healthy aspects that reading can actually give us.
But isn’t reading supposed to be escapist? After all, the mere act of reading takes us away from more productive things we could be doing. I would respond to this by saying that reading a work of art does not take us away from life but in fact allows us to see life more clearly. If a book is written with a desire to speak truth, then the reader has an opportunity to broaden their appreciation for life.
Lastly, if life should have meaning, then all things should have meaning. Again, this seems like a heavy burden to place upon us little mortals, who have so little time on this Earth. But all the more reason to embrace the life we have while it exists. All diversions from life and the reality of the life we are living are like little deaths. String enough of them together and it’s not really living at all. In a sense then, art is life, or at least a mirror that allows us to see life as it truly is. We might be more amused to look into the mirror and see ourselves as princesses and mighty warriors, but we are better served, and perhaps happier in the long term, if we dare to look at life unflinchingly.
If literature, like life, should have meaning, then the book will continue to live on in the reader long after he has turned the last page.