6.16.2004

Shepard on Lit Discoveries, As Mentioned Earlier

Michael Bishop has a thoroughly fascinating, albeit political, thread on his discussion board. Lucius Shepard made this remark that got me to asking again about this age-old question of literature:

"I wish, Tom, I was less cynical and could accept the fact that art changes souls, or habits, or instititutions, but I just don't buy it. All the poets and writers and etc whom I read when I was a teenager, those who professed a belief in the power of art to effect significant change, I now think they were either sophomoric idiots or in love with the sound of their own prattle. Even if I grant they were right to a degree in their own day, anyone saying the same thing today...Well, it's not that I don't believe entertainment can't be coercive and persuade you to buy chocolate bars wrapped in blue instead of red, okay? But I think the audience for the kind of art that might effect soul-change (if such is possible) has been drastically shrunk. As to the sort of change you speak of, the group experience, I liken that to the effects of revivalism. When people go to a revival meeting and, amidst a group fervor, accept Jesus, then go home and sin their butts off, which is what seems to happen, I don't give it much credulity. Maybe one person in a thousand does take something real home with them, but by the time it's filtered, processed, regurgitated, and re-interpreted by another audience,the good effect has been so diluted, it's like spit in a river. This doesn't mean that I'm endorsing giving up the effort. Sysyphean effort is the lot of humankind. But a real, pronounced effect...? Guess we're gonna have to disagree on that point."

I may or may not be lumped with the sophomoric idiots, but I do believe that literature can affect change within people, depending on the readers' level of openness to other perspectives, i.e. lack of bigotry--which isn't to say that people should be wishy-washy. To expect every person to be bowled over by each theme encountered would be to expect steep and directionally chaotic waves of fluctuating opinions throughout a population. Rather, change is affected by 1) consciously taking ideas under advisement and waiting to observe whether themes match one's reality and/or 2) subconsciously taking in the information and letting it filter back out should the literature's plot arise in life.

Shepard later writes, "people... don't influence me as much as they reinforce things i believe. Influence is hard to pin down." There's a great deal of truth here. In all honesty, Aldiss' quote did not affect the change in my attitude toward the destruction of my hard drive, which I initially took pretty badly. But reinforcement is, I assert, a kind of change, deepening and affirming and allowing you permission to feel the way you do. Change is a slow process of accretion because we've hopefully already acquired such change, weighing, evaluating and perhaps discarding old changes should better information arise.

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As a side note, I also enjoyed Jeff Vandermeer's seeming conflict of opinion, an opinion I happen to share, which may or may not be ambiguous, depending on how you view the term: "I do think that writers of fiction can still serve as effective chroniclers of the politics and injustices of their times, so long as it is hardwired into character and plot, and is not done as lecturing.... There's bigger game afoot than political expression in most fiction I read."

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