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Can the Commonplace Create or Be Literature?
Who can write? We say that everyone can. Because that is the diplomatic, democratic, politically correct answer. In order not to sound prudishly diplomatic, democratic or politically correct we then say that a certain skill is required. Technically, of course, anyone can be an author – but all you need to do is go into a bookstore to see how much crap is published these days. The literary elite, the good authors, are a select few. They're "unique voices", "original", "mildly scandalous", "thought provoking", "masters of language".

Special. That's what sells. Either the author, or his protagonist, has to have grown up on a rural Chilean pork farm in abject poverty, or have been a hyper-intelligent social misfit in Eton. If the protagonist/author is normal, some circumstance must be abnormal – on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger, or, having gone through an emotionally racking yet perfectly standard divorce, discard bourgeois life in favor of a neo-hippy existence in Indonesia with a lover twenty years your senior. Normalcy and routine don't interest, unless descripted in heart-achingly beautiful language, which then makes it exceptional.

In short, if you live in the developed world, are a relatively contented (or discontented yet done nothing interesting about it) middle-class human with a stable personal world, with average intelligence, average beauty, average sense of humor – there's nothing left for you, but to live your average life, happily, if possible. (Seinfeld, famously known as "the TV show about nothing" saves itself from absolute boredom by having sharply etched characters, with debatable senses of humor.)

Conformable, typical, normal, natural, everyday, ordinary, common, average, middling, commonplace, prosaic, conventional, habitual, usual, standard, regular – so many words to describe what we'd love to ignore.
It sounds to me like you're aching to become a writer, Ariella. Go for it and don't worry about what other people think.

Most great writers have gone through some suffering or illness, or both. If you haven't lived or loved enough yet, it might help to be a little neurotic ( like Seinfeld and co. ).
There's a certain voracious voyeurism in the reading public -- I'll give you that. Someone raised, say, in a brothel will have an easier time of it selling the first few stories. But I wouldn't say attracting a readership is the same thing as being great.
Joyce's Dubliners is more or less about the commonplace -- and the last story, "The Dead," is relentless, and magnificent. As is much of Woolf.

I believe in boredom, but I'm not sure I quite believe in the ordinary. By which I mean I believe in its ability to stultify, to instill prejudice and turn a blind eye to cowardice, -- and also its ability to perpetuate a kind of calm, a kind of home. But I don't believe the ordinary is safe, I don't think it lasts, or can be trusted to save us from the passage of time or the tragedies of life. The interior world of people, especially ordinary people, is not a well lit place. There's an immense amount that has to happen constantly to hold things together -- millions of small choices like the busy, tiny people in those meticulous medieval allegories.
In that sense language, which exposes the invisible and reveals the choices for what they are, can speak about the ordinary in a way that the other arts -- painting, music -- can't quite.

In response to Mia Vialti
The diffrentiation between attracting a readership and creating good literature is important. Thanks for elucidating. However, when you say "I believe in boredom, but I'm not sure I quite believe in the ordinary" are you saying that on some level, everybody has a "special" story, because of the choices they've made?  

I guess this sort of relates to questions about "selfhood" and literature. Are we all really different? Do we all have unique stories to tell? Would a book about a rural Chilean pork farmer's abject poverty "give ... the sense of - "Exactly!", like Arthur wrote, to another rural Chilean pork farmer living in poverty? Or is it the exotic that gives us that sense, and then we have to ask why. Is it because the exotic is so different, or is it because underneath the exotic we can find that underlying humanity -- and then, does that mean that we are all the same?

Qian's post notwithstanding, I agree with Mia that language can speak about the ordinary more than the other arts, simply because everybody uses language -- whereas an artistic or musical sense sadly isn't in as general use.

Maybe it all boils down to this: does art expose the unique underneath the general, or highlight the general aspects of the unique? (And portraying the unique as unique or the general as general? I'm not sure about those...)


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Latest Post: September 30, 2011 at 12:46 PM
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