Gosh I feel like such a rebel using the word ain’t! Didn’t you squeam a little bit when you read it? Still, I think it makes the point.
We’ve pretty much covered the moral aspects of how to review – or judge – a book. We reminded ourselves to use charity, that the parts of book do not necessarily condemn the whole, that sin should be portrayed as sin, and never glorify that sin.
What we have to address now is how
we approach the book. What are we demanding of the author, and is it just? If the answer to that question is that we are expecting the literature we are reading to teach us, to instruct us – especially morally – than we are wrong.
Literature’s job is not to teach, but to please us.
It is an art, after all, and that is the primary goal of all art. To please.
Okay, listen. That doesn’t mean that literature is a waste of time. You know that, right? Because back in the day, I thought everything had to have some kind of tangible benefit. I thought everything had to be useful. The world was made to be utilitarian, and anything that didn’t fit the mold was out.
I know – I hope – you aren’t of that same stripe.
Because, while literature’s primary goal isn’t to teach, we can learn from it. As an art, Gardiner reminds us that, in literature, we can
find truth through the door of beauty. And if I strike upon something beautiful, let me have no fears that I can miss truth, for they are both but different facets of the same Thing. (34).
I can already hear it!
But there is no beauty in modern fiction!
Oh friends! I’ve read those books, too! And sometimes, there really isn’t any beauty – at least that I have found. But sometimes, the beauty is in what is missing from the book.
Take Siobhan Vivian’s book, The List. Interestingly, when I first read this book it did nothing for me. My review still holds, the book, I believe, is too ambitious. And I really didn’t care about some of the characters. Still…
That book stayed with me for days. Even now, it circles in around me and causes me to pause and think. I think about the girls and how tragic their lives became after “the list.” I think about the cliches, and the truths that they are a mirror of in high schools across America. And I think about scenarios later in life, when we are supposed to be too old for that kind of thinking. And yet it persists. No, there isn’t any publicized “who’s who” list, but it exists. And how can we change that? And really, are we Margo? Is there a way to change that?
And that is where the beauty of that book lies.
It’s “the beauty of the potentiality of the human soul, unrealized, frustrated, dissipated on the husks, but still fundamentally and eternally there” (35).
I’m not saying that because it’s “art” it’s good.
Art for art’s sake isn’t a truism either. There is such a thing as bad art. We can’t just say that we are “pleased” and therefore it’s good. Natural law forbids it. Natural law requires that there be some truth to something in order for it to be intellectually pleasing.
Again, Gardiner reminds us
[truth] is so important that if falsehood, untruth, is portrayed in the story, it fails as art, no matter what the specious pleasure derived, for though the end of art be to please, it must please legitimately and rationally.” (37)
Why? Too keep us human. St. Thomas is the one who reminds us that reason gives humanity to a man’s acts. Too move against that is to make us less human, as it were.
So then, to recap.
There is beauty – and by extension, truth – in modern literature. Just because it isn’t a laser pointer, pointing out this and that truth on the SmartBoard, doesn’t mean it is a bad book. Good books don’t set out to teach, they seek to please the reader, in truth.
That’s the pleasure of a good book. And the freedom to read it? Why, what could be more Catholic than that?