Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Vonnegut's canary

I've quoted this before, probably, but I want to do so again by way of preface to the next post:

I have the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts. You know, coal miners used to take birds down in to the mines with them to detect gas before men got sick. The artists certainly did that in the case of Vietnam. They chirped and keeled over. But it made no difference whatsoever. Nobody important cared. But I continue to think that artists – all artists – should be treasured as an alarm system.

I'm coming to one of favourite themes again: where are the canaries today? There are some, to be sure, but where is the breadth and invention and anti-establishment anger that we saw, for example in the sixties. It's important not to generalise, but there was more poltiical writing in the sixties, and it took different forms.

What we get now tends to be lumbering, didactic, lumpen, worthy material. It says something important but, boy, doesn't it know it. It preaches to the converted. It doesn't make the reader ask questions.

In the next post I'm going to discuss Donald Barthelme's The Indian Uprising. This is an interesting piece, I think, because it is clearly political, but it wears its politics - not exactly lightly, but certainly eccentrically. I have argued about this story with someone who knows more about short stories than I will ever know, but he had a blinkered view of this story: he couldn't see how subversive it was, he couldn't see how it was capturing a mood, asking questions, making a stance. I believe it is a remarkable piece - as flawed as it is successful, but at least it's brave. I don't see similar bravery in today's writing.

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