Agnes Callard writes (NYT):
Like many others, I have been finding my taste in books and movies turning in an apocalyptic direction. I also find myself much less able than usual to hold these made-up stories at a safe distance from myself…
If I have something to feel guilty about, I want to feel guilty. If something frightening is happening, I want to be afraid of it. Which is to say: When things are bad, I want to suffer and would choose to suffer and even seek out suffering.
1. In times of turmoil, we may have a stronger craving for art that “feels real.” But such art is in fact often especially phony. The “special effects” have to be all the better, so to speak. None of what we are consuming is a realistic experience in the first place, so perhaps we are seeking out greater artifice and fooling ourselves about its realism even more than usual.
2. Should we be watching videos of bad events in hospitals? (originally Chinese hospitals, now NYC). Some people are indeed doing this, but as a substitute for Jane Austen? How about videos of people dying from Covid-19? Videos of other respiratory diseases as the next best fill-in?
3. What about the art vs. non-art margin as a larger choice? Don’t many people with terminal diseases (more terminal than usual that is) want to go for long walks in nature? Doesn’t fiction exercise much less of a hold on elderly minds and matter most for teenagers and people in their early 20s and perhaps also women in their 40s-50s? Perhaps the implication is, during a pandemic, to move away from art and literary fiction altogether.
4. The Guardian reports that sales of long, classic novels have gone up. What do those novels have in common? Are they a kind of comfort food? Do we value their length? That they are high status? That we read them already in earlier and perhaps happier periods of life? Are they long projects we can absorb ourselves in? Those seem like illusion-laden motives for reading them, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
5. Perhaps we like to read especially pessimistic dystopian novels as a kind of talisman. “Tell me the worst, let’s get dealing with the fear over with, then I will feel protected that reality will not disappoint my expectations because things won’t in fact be that bad.” That is again another kind of illusion. The aforementioned Guardian link suggests that sales of dystopian novels are up in general, even if they are not about plagues and pandemics.
6. Yiyun Li said: ““I have found that the more uncertain life is, the more solidity and structure Tolstoy’s novels provide. In these times, one does want to read an author who is so deeply moved by the world that he could appear unmoved in his writing,” she wrote.”
7. If people are bored, should they then wish to experience further boredom through their choice of fiction? Or would a diversion from boredom be acceptable and indeed preferred?
Somehow I think in terms of a portfolio approach to aesthetics. In harder times you need more tugs, pulls, distractions, and offsets than usual, but they should not all run in the same direction, or they will become predictable and cease to move you.
So when it comes to fiction, take some chances in your reading and toss in some of the older classics and horror and dystopia as well, and lots of fun and warmth and those walks in nature too.
So yes make a (marginal) turn in the apocalyptic direction, but in part it is to shore up your own sappiness.