Still Defining Art?

In a rant about one of the books chosen for Oprah's book club, Salon.com's Hillary Frey attempts to define art negatively:

His story might be shocking, but it isn't art.

The piece (which looks like a negative review of the book) is littered with opinionated bits of supposedly self-evident condescension. Interesting to see that some people still clench to this view of art and criticism. No analysis of the phenomenon through which this book was chosen for Oprah's book club ("the most successful book club in the world," Frey tells us without citing any evidence outside the U.S.). A header of "Is this even writing?" introducing the second "page" of the piece (as if writing were defined by the content). Some gushing comments about the book club and its host ("Like practically everyone else in America, I love Oprah."). Much projection of attitudes and sentiments on readers of the piece ("There is something inherently creepy…"). Vacuous predictions of the phenomenon's outcome ("Readers will dissect the "rage" Frey carries like an old blanket throughout his book."). And, of course, apparent disdain for those people who "will in the end rely on their skills in pop psychology as they try to make something of this memoir."

Not saying that the book deserves a better treatment. Haven't read it. But that's not the point. The piece isn't really a full-fledged review of that book about which Hillary Frey seems to have such a strong aversion (apparently, it has a lot to do with punctuation, for some reason). But it is a rant about a social phenomenon which is addressed only obliquely. Hillary Frey's disappointment is visibly about a decision taken by Oprah's almighty and benevolent book club (Frey cites a publisher's comment on book sales to show that Oprah herself "did a worthy and wonderful thing" with her club). But the crux of the matter is that, "[w]ith James Frey, the book club is losing its identity as a literary feature, morphing into yet another vehicle for self-help." This would have been a great opportunity for Frey to undertake some kind of analysis or even just a reflection on the implications of this change. Yet it's simply a way to introduce the previous quote about art. So, now, artists are not only responsible for their work but for the inclusion of their work in the reading list of a television personality. Fun!

Yes, self-help books sell. Whether or not they deserve respect from a would-be literary critic, they have a large impact on U.S. society. Oprah's television show certainly connects with self-help books and the very notion of self-help. For those who mostly know Oprah Winfrey through Oprah, the connection between the book club and James Frey's A Million Little Pieces seems rather unsurprising. Self-help books and Oprah are part of the same social phenomenon. One could even talk about individualism and self-reliance in the U.S. (guests on Oprah often advocate for people finding solutions "in themselves," AFAIK). And these connections may have little to do with Oprah Winfrey herself, though it does seem to relate to her television persona. Some could analyze the phenomenon in financial terms, others in psychological terms. Yet others might see changes in the very concept of "literature," happening since at least the 1950s.

It's fascinating to see how convinced some people can be of the value of their own opinions and tastes. And how unlikely it is for some people to look at the broader picture.

Ah, well…

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About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

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