Monday, February 21, 2011

The No Problem Novel

I think the oddest thing about the advanced people is that while they are always talking of things as problems, they have hardly any notion of what a real problem is. A real problem only occurs when there are admittedly disadvantages in all courses that can be pursued. If it is discovered just before a fashionable wedding that the Bishop is locked up in the coal-cellar, that is not a problem. It is obvious to anyone but an extreme anti-clerical or practical joker that the Bishop must be let out of the coal-cellar. But suppose the Bishop has been locked up in the wine-cellar, and from the obscure noises, sounds as of song and dance, etc., it is guessed that he has indiscreetly tested the vintages round him; then indeed we may properly say that there has arisen a problem; for upon the one hand, it is awkward to keep the wedding waiting, while, upon the other, any hasty opening of the door might mean an episcopal rush and scenes of the most unforeseen description.

from The Illustrated London News, 25 June 1910 (as quoted in the Hebdomadal Chesterton)

I think this point applies especially to works of art and entertainment. Really, do we need any more searing indictments of racism on page or screen, considering only a very few people are in favour of racism, and any genuine racists are unlikely to be swayed by a movie? Do we need any more historical films bemoaning Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia? Do we need dramas denouncing wife-beating or drug-addiction? Who is in favour of these things?

It might be said that we need films such as Schindler's List, for instance, to remind us of the horrors of the concentration camps, to keep the awful reality of history vivid in our minds. And I think it's a good point-- we do need books and films and poems that simply reaffirm what is well-known.

But that is quite different from a problem novel, or a satire, or a denunciation-- that is, a piece of fiction making a case. I don't have much respects for such works unless they tackle something genuinely controversial-- for instance, making the case for censorship, or school discipline.

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