Christopher Beha on entertainment and art as an adult—
When the champion of adult culture is portrayed, even by himself, as an old curmudgeon yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, it suggests that this adult culture is one of the unfortunate but necessary costs of coming into adulthood. We give up the pleasures of entertainment for the seriousness of art. I just don’t think that this is true…
Much is taken from us as we pass out of childhood, but other human beings who have suffered these losses have created great works of art, works that can only be truly appreciated by those who have suffered the same losses in turn. These works are among the great recompenses that experience offers us. Putting down “Harry Potter” for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex. It seems to me not embarrassing or shameful but just self-defeating and a little sad to forego such pleasures in favor of reading a book that might just as easily be enjoyed by a child.
Christopher Beha on the ambivalence around criticizing juvenile novels and films—
The strong ambivalence running throughout Scott’s piece emerges from the fact that he sees an intimate, even necessary connection between the decline of the straight white male’s stranglehold on the culture as a whole (which he views as all to the good) and the rise to dominance of a juvenile strain within popular culture in particular (which he likes a lot less). But even assuming that both of these things are going on, it’s not at all clear how much they have to do with one another. There is a difference between art that merely enacts a culture’s refusal to grow up—say, a Y.A. fantasy turned summer blockbuster marketed at adults—and art that engages thoughtfully with that refusal.
In fairness to Scott, he acknowledges this by devoting a good part of the essay to a discussion of how much American art over the years has taken as its subject the unwillingness to grow up…
This happens to be another conversation in which Henry James has a key part to play…James is every bit as concerned with innocence recoiling at adulthood…
Why is it, then, that we rightly recognize in James a maturity absent from so much of American culture not just today but a hundred years ago? It is, I think, in part because he treats the passage into adulthood as not just painful or costly but also as necessary, and he looks that necessity straight in the face. What’s more, he treats his reader as a fellow adult aware of this necessity. (In his magnificent story “The Author of Beltraffio,” the narrator asks the famous author whether young people should be allowed to read novels. “Good ones—certainly not!” he answers. Not that good novels are bad for young readers, he adds, “But very bad, I am afraid, for the novel.”)
What is being lost here is a distinction that James himself insisted upon, between the artist’s subject matter and his treatment of that matter…
James’s distinction is one worth keeping in mind. If we assume that subject matter is what defines a book as “young adult,” it doesn’t make much sense to discourage adults from reading a book with that label. It is as much as saying that certain types of human experience are beneath serious adult attention, which I don’t think is true. And it does seem that many books have the Y.A. label slapped on them purely because of their subject matter. (After all, there is little cost to a publisher for labelling something Y.A. if the label doesn’t put off adult readers.) But, in these cases, the label is simply a marketing tool, which isn’t something that a critic ought to be paying attention to.
On the other hand, the label is sometimes wielded to make a real literary distinction. It is obviously possible to give a subject a treatment that is more appropriate for a young audience. For the most part, this involves simplifying things—first the diction and syntax, but finally the whole picture of life. There is nothing dishonorable about this simplification—it is a way to make material accessible to children. Nor does it strike me as shameful for adults to spend a lot of time reading these simplified treatments. But it does strike me as strange. If someone told you that he was an American-history buff and that his favorite work of American history was “Johnny Tremain,” you might not think this a cause for embarrassment but you would probably suspect that he didn’t know as much about history as he thought he did, and you would wonder why his interest in the subject had not led him to adult treatments of it. In some sense, you might even think he was missing out, that the simplified treatments of history that we give to children are not just less true but less interesting because of their lack of complexity.
Christopher Beha on Henry James's theory of the novel—
Lingering in such conversations is the assumption—shared on all sides—that the novel began its life as a popular, even naïve, form of entertainment, before being transformed by modernism into an impressive but somewhat uninviting high art…And one way of understanding this is as a call for a return to the novel as it existed before James came along.
James himself was familiar with the argument that good novels were, for the most part, simple, accessible works that could be spoiled by too much “literary analysis.” In his 1884 essay “The Art of Fiction,” one of the first and probably still the best assertion of the novel’s status as high art, James noted that “literature should be either instructive or amusing, and there is in many minds an impression that … artistic preoccupations, the search for form, contribute to neither end, interfere indeed with both.” He adds that many readers who would otherwise disagree about what exactly makes a novel good would “all agree that the ‘artistic’ idea would spoil some of their fun.” But James would have none of this. Behind every great novel, he insisted, there exists some theory of the novel, however unspoken. “The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle, but the theory, too, is interesting,” he wrote. “And though there is a great deal of the latter without the former, I suspect there has never been a genuine success that has not had a latent core of conviction.”
Christopher Beha on the challenging pleasures of reading Henry James—
These books…do share one characteristic with the mature classics: the obvious care with which they were constructed. Notwithstanding James’s reputation for overworking his material—“he chewed more than he bit off,” goes the famous complaint—you never have the feeling that he is wasting the reader’s time. Every sentence has a purpose, every scene a place in the whole. To put it in Jamesian terms, there is always a governing intelligence at work behind the page. I missed this intelligence when I read novels by other writers, which so often gave me the enervating sense that things were happening for no reason except that it had occurred to the author to make them happen. So I kept returning to James. By the time I’d finished the first volume, I’d bought the second, and I had a pretty good idea that I’d be reading them all.
When I mentioned this plan to friends, their responses fell roughly into two camps. “How impressive,” some said. “Better you than me,” others said. They seemed to take for granted that such a project was an exercise in self-discipline or self-improvement, not something that one did just for fun. But that was exactly why I was doing it. Occasionally, reading James stopped being fun and, when it did, I stopped reading him, sometimes for months at a time. Eventually, I came back, because so few other writers offer the particular pleasures that James does.
Jason Farago on the disappointments of the Pablo-matic exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum—
Like the noun-turned-adjective “problematic,” this new exhibition backs away from close looking for the affirmative comforts of social-justice-themed pop culture…anyone who was expecting this to be a Netflix declension of the Degenerate Art Show, with poor patriarchal Picasso as ritualized scapegoat, can rest easy. There’s little to see. There’s no catalog to read. The ambitions here are at GIF level, though perhaps that is the point…
The trouble is obvious, and entirely symptomatic of our back-to-front digital lives: For this show the reactions came first, the objects reacted to second…
Most bizarrely, the routine rested on a condemnation of art as an elite swindle, and modernism got it particularly hard. “CUUU-bism,” went Gadsby’s mocking refrain, to reliable audience laughter. (As it is, Picasso’s own Cubist art appears at the Brooklyn Museum through a single 6-by-4.5-inch engraving.) The sarcasm, from a comedian with moderate art historical bona fides, had a purpose: It gave Gadsby’s audience permission to believe that avant-garde painting was actually a big scam…
Not long ago, it would have been embarrassing for adults to admit that they found avant-garde painting too difficult and preferred the comforts of story time. What Gadsby did was give the audience permission — moral permission — to turn their backs on what challenged them, and to ennoble a preference for comfort and kitsch.
Brandon Taylor on representation in literature —
At that time, it was possible to complain your way into social prominence and into book deals or at least into blogs that you could one day hopefully convert into a book deal. It was time of high grievance. And so I am not surprised that my statement of purpose begins with this straightforward declaration of representation hunger. I don’t know that I feel the same thing in quite the same intensity now. I mean, certainly, I write what I want and what I want to write is stories about gay black men. I am not trying to represent anyone. This is just what brings me pleasure. And I don’t find that I owe a particular duty to anyone or anything in my writing of them. I think the way I meant that first line then was “no one tells queer black boys what they can expect from this life” that I wanted my work to be a corrective. Just at that moment, actually, a great deal of voices rose out of the internet to spend quite a lot of time and energy telling queer black boys what they can expect from the world. Like, a lot. To the point of it turning into a scheme of self-victimization.
It's actually kind of wild.
I do think that my work more or less achieved the other goals set out in that paragraph. For example, I think my work has very much been interested in finding language for the intimate relationships between men. I am not creating such a vocabulary, I don’t think. I would not make such a claim. But I do think that in my work, I am writing about interactions and kinds of interactions that feel true to me and which I have not seen written about very much before. I also think that in my steadfast dedication to domestic realism—the Cheever of it all, my problematic ancestress—I am importing queer life into a space that Updike once said was incompatible with queer characters. That also is not very new. But it is something I wanted to do and I have done it.