A woman, fixing her heart and lifting her soul. Credit: John Phillips/UK Press/Getty

April 27, 2021   5 mins

Didn’t it used to be a philistine thing, to look at art and ask: “But what is it for?” I’m sure it did. I’m sure it used to be appreciated that excess was the point when it came to culture, and a Gradgrindian insistence on utility was the mark of somebody who was dead on the inside.

Oh well. That, presumably, was then. This is the depressing now, and it’s the people who claim to be on the side of culture who are pressing for the measure of it to be, not “Is it good?” but “Is it useful?”. And because we live in an era of relentless individualism, the only kind of useful that counts is making you — the unique and precious consumer — into a better person.

I came across a splendidly disheartening example of this in publicity for a new book called Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher, which publisher Simon & Schuster says “shows how writers have created
 engineering enhancements to the human heart and mind.” Sounds terrible, I thought, and so I read some of Wonderworks. And it was even worse than that.

Fletcher wants us to think of literature as a technology. Specifically, as “an innovation for troubleshooting our humanity”. It’s a thesis that comes with a dusting of neuroscientific talk about how “literature’s inventions can plug into different regions of the brain”, and a lot of purple prose. “The medicine men may have run out of unguents and potions; the heavens may have vanished or grown cold,” he writes. “But still, literature could fix hearts and lift souls. That, in brief, is why literature was invented and what it was invented to do.”

Oh really? This is what those of us in the business of literary criticism call “a heck of a claim”. Was the poet who wrote Beowulf  “fixing hearts and lifting souls”? Of course not. What they were actually doing was telling a baller story about fighting a big snake, imbued with reflections on feudal loyalty and vengeance which are semi-impenetrable from the society we live in now. That snake fight is forever, though.

Was Aphra Behn trying to “fix hearts and lift souls” when she turned out Oroonoko? I am pretty sure that what she was in fact doing was getting rich, given that she wrote for a living and wrote a lot. Were the patrons who sustained literature before the arrival of commercial publishing in the “heart-fixing, soul-lifting” business? No; they were displaying their wealth and culture to other wealthy, cultured people — and good on them, frankly.

It’s not that literature can’t be personally uplifting, or even morally improving; but when you insist that this is what literature is for, you make a claim that sits at odds with the manifest intentions of most writers and readers. Why do I read? Largely because I hate to be bored, and books are my favourite way of not being bored. (Also, a little bit, because I like people to think of me as someone who reads books.)

There is some psychological research suggesting that reading fiction helps people to exercise their empathy, perhaps leading them to act more generously. Whether those findings are robust and well-replicated, I don’t know, and I’m not really sure whether it’s necessary to make any claim stronger than this one on literature’s behalf: reading stories forces you to spend time inhabiting someone else’s subjectivity — Joan Didion, sinisterly, described writing as “an imposition of writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space” — and doing so might make you better at imagining the inner life of other people.

But here’s the kicker: if it works, it only works because you’re thinking about somebody other than yourself. To approach literature in the way Fletcher urges us to — as a shortcut to self-improvement which can help you “unfreeze your heart” with Samuel Beckett and “lessen your lonely” by reading Elena Ferrante (both genuine chapter titles, I swear) — is to approach it thinking only of yourself. It’s a solipsism utterly destructive not just to the enjoyment of fiction, but also to the quasi-medical benefits that Fletcher is touting.

Still, he’s hardly alone in his efforts to turn art into cure-all. Reading Lloyd Evans’ recent broadside against the “pleasure-free zone” of contemporary theatre, I discovered this quote from Matthew Warchus, artistic director of the Old Vic: “Fiction doesn’t have to be just a diversion or a pastime. It really can change individuals and societies for the better. Intelligent entertainment is a transformative necessity, not a luxury.” Sounds terrible, I thought, although as I haven’t seen the “intelligent entertainment” Warchus was referring to, I can’t give any judgement there.

But also, I don’t want to see anything that’s being touted as a “transformative necessity”. I like being diverted. I appreciate a show that passes the time. Leaving the auditorium and asking myself “did this change me individually and society as a whole for the better?” sounds very, very tiring. Theatres are uncomfortable enough already with the terrible seats and inadequate toilet situation; I don’t see why they should start pressing on my conscience as well as my bladder. Do you know what people actually like? Cats and The Mousetrap, that’s what people like.

Yet the most fun I’ve had at the theatre has often been very uncomfortable indeed. It’s just that the discomfort has been dramatic, rather than didactic: the strain of being made to feel for two different people at the same time, of holding both sides of an argument in your head at once. The next thing I’m going to see is a revival of David Mamet’s sexual harassment two-hander Oleanna. It will probably make me furious. I can’t wait.

I suspect that any play aiming to “change individuals and society for the better” isn’t going to invoke that kind of tension. Instead, it suggests some of the dreary issue-based theatre I’ve diligently sat through — the kind of play that knows what a good person would think, and is enjoyed by audiences made up of the self-identifying good. You come in agreeing and you leave agreeing, and actually, nothing is transformed.

The “useful” approach to art is the shortest way to hollow it of any purpose at all. If you’re trying to “energise your life” (another Fletcher chapter title, Lord help me) you should probably have a spoonful of peanut butter, and not — as he prescribes — read Frankenstein, which is a novel and an achingly tragic one, rather than a self-help tract. If you want to uplift the state of the nation, don’t watch a play, go into politics.

But if you want to read a novel or watch a play, you should do it for pleasure. It should feel like a luxury, rather than an obligation. It should be something that you invite to occupy your attention on its own terms, rather than conditional on its ability to fix you up — and if it doesn’t occupy your attention, you can bail at the interval or after the first fifty pages. Perhaps art will improve you as a person. But if it can’t entertain you, I don’t see why you should give it the chance.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.