I’m in the middle of a degree in fine arts. I took on a lot of art theory thinking that theory would be the thing that would really interest me. But it turns out that many of those who have written about art are kind of mad. There are impenetrable sentences. I will not tax you, or myself, by trying to quote them now. But take my word for it. Having been trained as a copywriter in advertising quite a while ago when the craft was still alive and well, anything that lost the reader had to go. In art theory, it’s as if the opposite applies. The more impenetrable your text, the cleverer you must be. And the more opinionated and opaque your writing, the more likely you are to be elevated to the status of genius.
Thank goodness some sensible women writers came along last century after several centuries of men with far too much time on their hands. Rosalind Krauss, Susan Sontag and Linda Nochlin, to name just three. However, now that semester break is here, my bedside table is groaning with a build-up of books that are not art theory.
Two nights ago I finished The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith. I’ve just had my own novel about art published. It’s called The Museum of Modern Love. And I’m also studying painting. So reading another writer tackling the challenges of writing about art and creativity was fascinating and fun. The novel starts slowly, and I wasn’t quite sure it had me. And then suddenly it did. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to find out what had happened a long time ago—and what was about to happen now. Marty De Groot will live on in my mind as if he had been a friend.
Half of the book is set in seventeenth-century Holland, where we meet Sara de Vos—one of the rare women painters admitted into the exclusive guilds. Sara is fictional but a composite of several women artists of the time. Her life is vivid and grim. Contrasted with her is a fine art PhD candidate, Ellie, living in student squalor in Brooklyn in the late fifties. Ellie specialises in Dutch women painters of the seventeenth century but is also highly skilled in restoring artworks. Which makes her an excellent forger. And then there’s Marty De Groot, Upper-East-Side old-money patent lawyer with an extensive art collection including a beautiful and rare Sara de Vos landscape above his bed. It’s been in the family for centuries. But after a party, Marty discovers that someone has replaced it with a very good forgery.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos demonstrates the gift of good literature. Here were characters I felt I was walking beside, observing at close range. I wished I could alert them to the folly they were about to embark on, the decisions they were going to regret. There were moments where I actually talked aloud to the characters—‘No, you can’t!’—‘Oh, no, you didn’t.’ That’s been rather rare in my experience—talking aloud to characters. I remember doing it while reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans. I yelled ‘Don’t go that way!’ I was on public transport at the time.
I love literary fiction. I’ve just begun Black Rock White City—A.S. Patric’s Miles Franklin winner. There’s a mad, clever graffitist and a devastated poet. Every scene is compelling in the way that watching accidents is compelling. Next on my bedside tower is Hannah Kent’s new novel The Good People. I feel like I’m going to enjoy her writing for decades of my life, if I’m very lucky. I intend to absorb as much literary fiction as I can over the semester break. Because I feel that someone has to.
I recently participated in a debate on Radio National on the topic ‘reading literary fiction improves empathy’. That is actually a scientifically proven fact. Many studies show that even extracts of literary fiction improve empathy as compared to extracts of genre fiction. But literary fiction lost the debate. The genre people were funnier. Audacious and outrageous. We, the literary, were considered and eloquent. We were all passionate and in the end, though no-one disproved that literary fiction improves empathy, genre fiction proved itself to be worthy of more attention and respect. And I have to agree with that. So we lost.
But for days afterwards, I worried about literary fiction. The day following the debate, I had to announce an annual writing prize to an auditorium of year elevens and twelves. I might have ranted a little bit. I told them that in a world where the only things they were reading and writing were emails and social media posts, and the fastest growing language was emojis, they’d soon be back to hieroglyphs. I reminded them that good literature is essential for expanding our thinking. And in a world threatened by limited thinking, expanding our thinking seems like a very good idea. I also told them how, when you come from Tasmania, reading good literature is your ticket to a global conversation. And that reading great literature is not only a way to solve the emotional starvation current economic thinking creates, but also a salve for sadness.
But it worries me that we might yet lose it. How many teenagers are still reading the classics? How many young adults have read more than fifty good novels?
I’m a big genre fiction buff. I have loved Tolkien since I was eight. Patrick Rothfuss. George R.R. Martin. The speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami. Sci-fi. Crime. Robert Galbraith. Kate Atkinson. But I am sure the only reason I can love genre fiction is that, like refining a palette, I indulged in serious literature from a very young age.
My father’s advice when I had grown out of Enid Blyton was to start on Hemingway at age six, then move on to Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Lee, the Brontës, Dickens. All by about age twelve. And this steady diet of good literary food has made me love the entire smorgasbord with all the exotic side dishes and delicacies. But I still love to return (as I do to a steak with a garlic mash or sashimi with a seaweed salad) to the elegant, complex, nuanced, intellectually and emotionally energising meal of great literature.
So what I’m reading is the best writing I can put my hands on.
Heather Rose is the author of seven novels. She writes for both adults and children. Her children’s series is created with fellow author Danielle Wood under their pen-name Angelica Banks and is published internationally. Heather’s latest novel for adults is The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin, Sept 2016).