Monday, April 30, 2007

Collective Wisdom

This nicely captures the interplay of tradition and innovation in the development of art forms:

'In her recent book about the novel (Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel), Jane Smiley points out that while the writer gets to make the rules for his or her work, the reader has the option to read it or not, and is free to "object or disagree." This critical pact has required novelists since Boccaccio to think about the best ways to lure the reader into reading (for it remains true, with few exceptions, that novelists want their books to be read). They experiment with ways of telling stories, and because some experiments are more fruitful than others, a collective wisdom eventually accrues about how to proceed.' (Diane Johnson, "The Malibu Decameron," New York Review of Books, April 26, 2007)

This may refer to fiction, but it can also apply to poetry: those who radically assert the necessity of innovative forms (along with a rejection of traditional forms) fail to consider that the traditional forms are the results of fruitful experimentation—which is exactly what the ideological traditionalists also forget!

(The article is only available in full to subscribers to the NYRB electronic archive, but this is the first paragraph, which anyone can read!)


Donald Brown said...

Yes, true, but beware of those moments when "collective wisdom" slides imperceptibly into "conventional wisdom." And then we need innovation to get out of the rut.

Ms Baroque said...

Yay, how simple and true!

Andrew, this is it - the thing I wish I'd thought of in a thousand conversations! I'll have it now.

Donald, that's what the final statement is about - clearly that is why people keep experimenting.

Andrew Shields said...

As I've pondered this since yesterday, the special feature of this passage to me has become the combination of the relatively simple idea that "some experiments are more fruitful than others" with the role of readers and other writers in judging which experiments are successful. It's the role of reception in the development of forms that I have not seen highlighted before.

The critique of "conventional wisdom," that is, is what ends up being focused on, and not how the experiments are subject to a long-term, collective judgment as to their success.

It also struck me that this is implicitly an evolutionary theory of forms—although it is one that has an element of intelligent design to it!

Finally, Ms. B.: be sure to credit Jane Smiley, not me, when you refer to this idea! :-)