Last night I had the pleasure of eating dinner with Ian McEwan, and hearing him read at Arizona State University. (Since I drove all the way up there, I also got to bother a friend of mine while she tried to finish making edits to her MFA thesis, which is due today. You’re welcome, friend!) Yes, that’s a boast, but mostly I bring it up because McEwan was asked a question during his Q&A that I’ve been thinking about all day.
It was the last question of the evening, and at first blush seemed like the most obnoxious and self-flattering. Decide for yourself. The query was: “Is it good for people to read fiction?”
(I would have been very impressed if McEwan had just said “No” and then wished us good evening.)
The reason I find the question a little irritating is that it has a flavor of “What-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” about it. But it’s also a nice divergence from the usual Q&A fodder of “How do you get your ideas?” and “Can you describe your writing process?” The Prove Your Worth question at least offers something to bite into, a vehicle for airing one’s philosophical positions or getting righteously annoyed, depending on how you want to play it.
McEwan addressed the issue from the point of view of morality, assuming the questioner was asking if reading fiction makes us better people. His answer included a nod to the Nazi concentration camps wherein prisoner-bands were forced to play achingly gorgeous classical music, showing once and for all (as McEwan said) that an appreciation of art does not necessarily save or improve us.
I take this point. However, I also think there is something limiting to the idea that, just because an SS guardsman’s appreciation of Mozart failed to move him into freeing all the Jews in Buchenwald, music is not transformative. Perhaps art doesn’t improve us, per se. It may still deepen us.
Complexity and perfection are two different ideals. To me, art celebrates and investigates the deep passages of the human animal – the ones that criss and cross and dive and never, never, reach an end point. In this view, it’s quite possible that a German soldier might crack open the skull of a woman for stealing a bit of bread in the morning, and still enter into a serious study of Bach cantatas at night – music that causes him to dream in new colors, and call his father, weeping with strange insight.
Does that make said German soldier good? No. But it means that he is capable of growing – as we all are – in all directions. Not just up.
So to me, art (in general) and literature (specifically) are still good. They are just not guarantees.