This starts to break down when you actually use words. Poetry, by and large, presents images, sometimes a single image (The Red Wheelbarrow). Pretty much an aesthetic response. Short stories often go for a single epiphany, both for a character and for the reader. Joyce more or less invented this for Dubliners, but others, e.g., Chekhov, were already writing stories this way. Where this tends to seriously break down, in my opinion, is with the novel.
Who can read Bleak House and miss the criticism of the British legal system? Or, for that matter, the plight of children in many of Dickens' novels? Is it possible to read The Old Man and the Sea and not understand Santiago's existential ordeal? I enjoyed The Buried Giant because of its profound meditation on remembering and forgetting, both on the huge, genocidal scale, and on the small, relationship scale.
It's not that I think that the theme is everything. I value imagery, style, wit, characterization, and so forth. If the novel has no value beyond its message, it does indeed fail as art. But to willfully ignore the obvious message seems to me totally unnecessary. I'm quite sure that Atwood would be quite disappointed that a reader totally missed her scathing critique of fundamentalist Christianity and its attendant sexism in The Handmaid's Tale. Yes, the book succeeds as art in a variety of other ways as well, but there is no doubt in my mind that she wished to dramatize her convictions about feminism.
Nabokov wrote his Lectures in the "can-do" 1950s, and he probably was over-emphasizing the purely aesthetic value to combat the idea that there is only value to fiction in some kind of practical use. In our STEM-obsessed world, we still must defend the value of the arts and humanities. But in my opinion, it goes too far to say that a work fails as art if it actually has a thematic point to make.
And BTW, both One Hundred Years of Solitude and Dracula are fantasies. Dracula belongs to the particular form of dark fantasy that we sometimes call horror. That magic realism is a particular type of fantasy is the subject of the lengthy thread that keeps being spammed. I might stress, though, that what tends to be considered the difference between magic realism and fantasy is that the former has implied political and social implications. Which leads us back to asking what does the work of art mean? The very question that you claim to refuse to ask.
: There is, of course, no reason to
: differentiate fantasies unless we go on with
: Nabokov's notion that all novels are
: fantasies, which I only mentioned because it
: popped into my head. Of course, fantasy is a
: useful label that tells us more or less what
: to expect from a book. I suppose what
: Nabokov wanted to do was to warn writers
: about being to literal or something. I
: happen to have his Lectures on Literature
: here. I'll tell you some of what he says,
: not to insist, but to give us something to
: talk about.
: He begins by saying, "Of all the fairy
: tales in this series, Mdm Bovary is the
: most romantic." The other books in the
: series being Mansfield Park, Bleak House,
: Ulysses, The Metamorphosis, Swan's Way, and
: Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. He says, "Let
: us remember that literature is of no
: practical value whatsoever..." As you
: alluded, Wilde said the same. He says,
: "We shall discuss Mdm B as Flaubert
: intended it to be discussed, in terms of
: structures, thematic lines, style, poetry,
: and characters."
: Later he asks if Mdm B can be called
: realistic or naturalistic and lists six
: things he finds implausible, the last being
: the aforementioned horse riding, then says,
: "In point of fact, all fiction is
: fiction. All art is deception. Flaubert's
: world, as all worlds of major writers, is a
: world of fancy with its own logic, its own
: conventions, it's own coincidences."
: In the interest of discussing structures,
: style, etc., I wonder what it is that makes
: a novel a fantasy as we generally understand
: the term. What makes Titus Groan a fantasy
: when 100 Years of Solitude or Dracula is
: I am an aesthetic sort of person. For me,
: books are about nothing outside themselves.
: To the extent they seem to be, they fail as
: art. In most cases, people are just reading
: stuff in. Mari recently read A Handmaid's
: Tale with a little group here, so it has
: been on my mind. For me, there's nothing
: feminist about the book. It's about Ofglen
: who never existed in a society that never
: existed. It's called speculative fiction.
: Speculative fiction is to sci-fi as what
: (Titus) is to fantasy. But Titus feels more
: like fantasy than the HT feels like sci-fi.
: It is probably going to far to say that
: literature has no practical use. James Woods
: talks of literature teaching us to notice
: more in life and says that as we notice more
: in life, we also notice even more in
: literature. But I do agree, assuming Nabokov
: meant to say that, that literature offers no
: commentary on life, at least no more than
: anything. If I spy on my neighbors, I can
: draw some conclusion about life, and perhaps
: it's inevitable that I do so.
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