Novelist Susan Patron misses the answer.
To my delight, I was recently introduced to the writings of Sigrid Undset, a Nobel Prize recipient who expertly mixed poetry and philosophy into her realistic novels. Undset’s determination to avoid the choppy modern style of her contemporaries has served as a beacon to me during these summer months, when the humid warmth combined with a slight respite from work lures me away from more substantial reading. At one point, Undset wrote that she desired to “write in a painterly way…if only I could master the language…make the reader see the springtime.” In my estimation, she exceeds her goal through her beautiful prose. In her late work Ida Elizabeth, for example, the growth of the main character’s garden flowers mirrors the development of her soul and the tumultuous Norwegian seasons parallel the story’s events.
Undset’s writing stands out against the fun, fast-paced novels my tired mind is often drawn to at the end of the day. Yet, as I learned more about her and her writings, I sensed there was a deeper reason for their lasting impact. I did not understand why, however, until I read a recent blog from novelist Susan Patron. Patron wrote to defend her decision to include the character of a prostitute in her soon-to-be-released addition to the children’s “Dear America” series. While explaining the thought behind her choice, she takes advantage of the opportunity to remind parents and readers of the purpose of literature. It is not just to produce a good or entertaining story, she emphasizes, but to help us be more “human” through its realism. Patron declares, “The job of writers and other artists is to prod and poke, to provoke questions, to challenge assumptions, to lift that corner of the rug and give readers a look at what’s been swept underneath.” The importance of this task, she then asserts, limits the reach of parental discretion. It does not prohibit parents from supervising their own children’s book choice, but it does preempt their right – and thus the public’s right – to censor other children’s reading.
While I concur that Patron has uncovered a truth here, I find she also obscures literature’s purpose on two subtle points.
First, her judgment that any writer is fully equipped to determine at what age children can be exposed to a controversial subject is a bit high-handed. If the honest portrayal of reality to readers is the sole important factor in this discernment, as she appears to claim, what limits can truly be placed on the material that falls into children’s hands? Pornography is realistic; is it therefore suitable? The standards she appears to recognize are relative, and thus not applicable standards at all.
Second, apart from her flawed reasoning, she misconstrues the purpose of literature on an even grander scale. Indeed, as she delineates, much of literature should be realistic and thereby reveal truth. The entire goal of the introduction of the novel, after all, was to offer a representation of reality to the literate populace. But if realism is the only end of writing, how could we judge the excellence of an author’s style? The manner in which the word performs this task of representation is just as important. Art is meant to lift man higher, to ennoble him by revealing truth through beauty. Otherwise, it is superfluous to culture. Is there value to a book or a film which shows some depraved element of human nature, or some horrific sin of society? Certainly, in its teaching quality, but the same effect could have been produced through a news flash or a walk down the street. Such a work merely reflects a question that already existed. An excellent writing selection would also impart something new to the reader. Take as a model, the various screen-writings about the Holocaust. Does the depiction of the horror of the extermination camps satisfy us? Of course not – it would leave us feeling pessimistic at best and, at worse, despairing. The strength of the human spirit to withstand evil is what endears these stories to us. Beauty is the element which turns our minds and hearts to a new perspective and a positive change, and art that does not reveal truth through beauty is somehow lacking.
Perhaps Patron would agree, and she had simply failed to hash out her ideas completely within her article. At any rate, this brings us back to Undset and her commitment to write stories which would not merely be told to the readers, but would be painted for them. Her artistic prose succeeds: we are not simply interested by her characters, but we are drawn into their world. Once enthralled with its beauty, we explore not only their emotions but also the meaning of their lives and our own.
Undset’s perfect balance of realism and beauty causes me to wonder: in how many areas of our lives have we blinded ourselves to the good by focusing narrow-mindedly on what is wrong, or forfeited joy for wallowing in pain, which feels more real at the moment? Perhaps in our reactions to political policies which sadden or infuriate us to no end? In our friendships and relationships which require hard work to maintain? As the summer dwindles, Undset’s words call us no doubt to turn our focus from the reality of the lengthening nights and look instead to the springtime ever ahead.
Rachel Ronnow, a graduate of Ave Maria University, loves to write during her afternoon coffee break (a.k.a. nap-time) when her duties as a mother and teacher abate temporarily. She currently resides in Alexandria, Virginia with her husband and darling baby girl.