Just putting it out there... Literature as a Progressive Art Form

The question focused on in this blog post is: ‘Has writing, in comparison to other art forms, refrained from moving on and progressing into something more than the basic form?’ This post focuses more specifically on the novel as to poetry as I feel that they would require a very different analysis.

The main idea of this argument was transmitted to me via a second hand William Burroughs album and can be summed up by looking at, say, watercolours or realistic paintings as the primal form of painting. People often grapple with these styles as a student, whether in formal training or self-taught, to learn the basics of proportion, perspective etc. and then, once they’ve learnt the ‘rules’ and ‘laws’ of their craft, they disregard them and have the ability to create something new. This therefore leads to new movements that transgresses and questions what previously was thought of as ‘good art’. There is no doubt that there have been literary ‘movements’, but have these movements really moved us any further from the ‘watercolour’ pieces of writing? Is there enough writing that plays around with the laws of punctuation and narrative? Is there enough crossover with other art forms? Is the formatting and visual aspect of a text an overlooked element of the art form that could be utilised? Burroughs proceeded on this record to cut snippets of phrases, replaying them over and over with almost unbearable sounds in the background. It may not have worked too successfully, this is likely the reason that they weren’t released in his lifetime, but he has to be commended for trying to push the art form forward.

To look at a few examples of where the novel’s form is explored, my first example is a personal favourite of mine, Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. In this novel, the place is a character through the narrative voice, the speech runs from one character to another throughout the large paragraphs with no use of speech marks and the last chapter ‘Landsend’ flits around different flats in a housing project. The music of the text and the strong, different voices of the characters make it easy to read, telling me that the writer really has learnt his craft and through this he has then been able to push it on to create an artistic representation of a living and breathing place that he wouldn’t have been able to had he followed conventions. I once read an article that really stuck with me about plot being a tool for the writer to utilise when necessary rather than being a necessity. In cinema, the mainstream films follow this rule but independent cinema seems to be far more progressive than smaller press novels (to my knowledge). I could list countless films like Gummo, Better Things, Songs from the Second Floor and so many more that push the idea of plot out of the way to create their visions in much the same way as Hubert Selby Jr. did in Last Exit.

There are many more examples where interesting features have been used, if we look all the way back to Laurance Strene’s Tristam Shandy where he uses an all-black page to signify a death, then to the use of language in Finegan’s Wake, we can see that authors have always broken down conventions with varying effects. Three more contemporary examples that really effectively utilise this freedom from structures are Dean Lilleyman’s Billy and the Devil, Merced Es Benz by Iphgenia Baal and The Goners by Mark Gluth. The first takes us through a character’s whole life, so it can be argued that plot has been used to create a narrative ark in some form but it’s the construction that is interesting. How it jumps around from chapter to chapter, from first person, to third, to second, to being like a script, to every sentence beginning with ‘because’, and all at a rapid pace that rushes by as the characters life does. The second is dictated to us through text message conversations, emails, Facebook and Google search results, fitting the life in which we live. The last is a nice small square book built up of vaguely connecting sharp, stark stories undispersed with very atmospheric images that really add to the overall feeling of the writing. All of which are made more interesting to the reader by being more than just the story and we, the reader, are rewarded by these features.

I may have got it completely wrong, as I have done often in the past, but my question will still be asked: Do you think that we are doing enough to push the novel forward and to develop it into something new and more exciting for the future? By reading solely works of this ilk for a while now, I must admit that I will pick up books written in a more conventional manner and often, no matter the time or setting, just think that is feels a bit Victorian; it’s like I’m watching a period drama rather than a contemporary work.

What are your thoughts?