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Sartre’s “What is Literature?”

I’ve finished reading Sartre’s 1940s musings on the above question, and Sartre apparently feels cursed by getting what he wished for. To quote, “In short, actual literature can only realize its full essence in a classless society. Only in this society could the writer be aware that there is no difference of any kind between his subject and his public. For the subject of literature has always been man in the world.” But then later in the book he writes, “Authors had to meet the demands of a unified public. There was no hope of getting away from their class of origin. Born of bourgeois parents, read and paid by bourgeois, they had to remain bourgeois; the bourgeois had closed around them like a prison. It was to take them a century to get over their keen regret for the lightly and parasitic class which had indulged them out of caprice and whom they had remorselessly undermined in their role of double agent. It seemed to them that they had killed the goose which laid the golden eggs.”
In short, instead of writers being supported by a landed aristocracy that often put up with irreverence for the sake of being entertained, writers were now integrated into capitalist society. Jeanette Winterson complained about a similar problem in her “Art Objects,” a book length essay about various facets of art and the artistic life. Business people judge writing by its profitability, while nobles had judged it by it prestige, so you get two different kinds of art. Of course, Dickens, Austen, and Shakespeare were all subject to market forces and managed to write both popular and good work.

Sartre’s solution for writers is to break free of the bourgeois reading class and jump into the New Media of his time, which was movies and radio. This would expand writers’ audiences. I guess he didn’t realize that when people think of movies, they mostly think of actors, not writers. If I were to say “Julia Roberts” or “Will Smith” or “John Wayne,” we could come up with a list of movies, but unless the writer was also the director, such as Joss Whedon, chances are you don’t know the names of any Hollywood writers except Charlie Kaufman. You could probably name many novelists whose books have been adopted into movies, but Sartre goes out of his way to write that “It is by no means a matter of letting our works be adapted for the screen or the broadcasts of the French Radio. We must write directly for the cinema and the wireless…” I suppose Sartre has doubts about the ability of novels to be adapted for the movies, and Dean Wesley Smith did tell our writing class once that “B novels make A movies and A novels make B movies,” because in an “A novel” too much is really going on in the head of the main characters to translate well into film. I think that’s mostly true, unless you get some really, really good actors. It’s hard to tell how many actors are good or not, since actors like Julia Roberts, Will Smith, and John Wayne are usually hired to play Julia Roberts, Will Smith, and John Wayne under different character names. You can’t really know if a famous actor is any good or not until they “play against type” convincingly.

Twenty years later, Umberto Eco, novelist, public philosopher, and linguist, would shout out a call for an academic rebellion against the superficial nature and misleading information of the mass media, even if it meant going door to door and talking to people personally. The closest I can think of it ever happening was when a group of experts when on various news outlets to complain about Rommey misquoting them during the last presidential election, but what Eco seemed to want in his 1967 essay (in his collection “Hyperreality”) was a way for people to argue back against the very new media that Sartre hoped would bring new life back into writing. Now, in the 21st Century, the Internet has grown into just such an instrument, but Eco’s dreams of an Ivory Tower rebellion is actually a revolt of the Common Folk, since it is non-academics who do most of posting, arguing, and exposing. The academics are too busy with their research and career concerns to bother, leaving the field by default to the rest of us. Unfortunately, the revolt of the Common Folk is being fought on a battlefield owned by Big Money, so keeping the Internet free and fair will be a challenge for Internet Activists; they might have to get as organized as the ACLU.
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