12 Books of Christmas: Adventure, Mystery, and Romance

A Dialogue on Art, in One Act; Prepared by the Author for the Elucidation and Delight of Sundry Audience as should perchance click upon a Link to this Humble Site.

Dramatis Personae:

  • The Art Lover, a person of character and distinction, for whom the depictions of Narrative are delectations of Artful Construction, whether on the Stage, the Television or the Silver Screen
  • The woe-betided Knave, for whom happiness is a concept unknown in this life, and for whom all objects of beauty are hateful and foreign, and if not causing physical pain are nonetheless utterly undesired, who had best pray for mercy in the life hereafter for their Heretical Utterances against Art

Lover

I have lately seen a marvellous work, wondrous in this or any age, which may have not only been the best thing ever conceived in Heaven or Earth, but which has particularly touched my very soul with its beauteous design as if the author knew my needs specially.

Knave

I too have seen this work, but I fear your taste for hyperbole has interfered with a true rendering of its merits, for while they were many, I did but spot a few minor faults- or perhaps, rather than faults, let us describe these as peculiarities that could bear further scrutiny to understand the meaning they convey and whether that be for good or ill.

Lover

Come Madam, why tarnish our experience by giving any further thought to the matter, which is surely settled after our singular observation. Are you not running the risk thereby of diminishing your enjoyment unnecessarily? Surely one should be grateful for the gift bestowed by the Genius Artist, rather than attempt to unnecessarily equivocate?

Knave

But Sir, surely you can’t suppose that the only enjoyment to be had from enduring works of art is in the moment of the experience? Surely there are at least three phases of enjoyment of an experience – the anticipation for the event, the event itself, and the pleasurable recollections? We endlessly repeat our favourite experiences, but we vary the approach each time, learning how to best improve and experience. When one first experiences a pleasure, it is overwhelming, but by returning again and again we can refine our sense of enjoyment. If anything, with greater exposure we gain greater enjoyment than the simple and artless first exuberance.

Lover

That may well the the case, as I have seen my favourite Art Object many times, and each time reveals a new pleasure which I shall be happy to expound at sufficient length to test any human endurance should the occasion arise. But you spoke of faults, and surely as your own example makes elaborately clear, it is only greater perfection we obtain! Any faults as you might speculate into existence are surely merely your Opinion, Sir, and as is well known, Hideousness is in the Eye of the Beholder and you, rather than the Art Object must bear principal responsibility for the problems which plague your enjoyment.

Knave

If we can accept the idea that greater understanding of an Art Object’s perfection is to be found on each successive reviewing, we can at least admit that our own understanding is forever imperfect. Moreover, since we acknowledge that we have particular favourites, whose perfect qualities we seek to understand in greater detail, we must see that other, lesser, works, are imperfect in that they fail to meet the standard of perfection. And since we can acknowledge a correspondence here between perfection and imperfection, by studying imperfections we can also better understand perfection, for Art is Commutative.

Lover

Thou art a Knave

Knave

Don’t hate the player.

This method has saved from obscurity some mighty names in the canon of Art! Consider poor Alfred Hitchcock, whose works were regarded in the way you propose, as works to be enjoyed in the moment alone, without recourse to a deeper study of the techniques utilised. As genre art, they were improperly ignored as worthy of serious study until François Truffaut recognised that a great study of detailed perfection would educate all filmmakers everywhere. It is doubtful without Truffaut that anyone would have the regard for Hitchcock that he enjoys, and hence generations of great cinematographers and directors would have had to invent his techniques for themselves and cinema would not have advanced to become the most celebrated artistic form on the planet.

Lover

I might perhaps allow this one example, a singular exception to the commonly understood world of True Art, but surely you do not mean to imply that all such works, regardless of obvious meritlessness might be a worthy subject of such attentions? Must there not be a lower bound of Creative Endeavour, which, works falling below this bound, need not merit any attention?

Knave

I may be a Knave, but thou art a Fool, who is clearly not paying attention to this cleverly scripted Satire on a Discussion on the Internet.

Fool

I am not Fool enough to not recognise that you sought to evade my direct challenge on the notion of fault in Art: fault implies a value judgement that you have quite neatly conflated with the idea of execution. Yet, I sense a deeper intent, not one of understanding, but of Sitting in Judgement upon works of Arts, as if thou were an Arbiter, rather than a humble sensate seeking merely your own deeper gratification.

Knave

If I have been Knavish in this, my intentions are of the purest moral character available to mere mortals, for indeed, we can see that Works of Art are themselves not devoid of Judgement. Any work of Art is itself, whether deliberately or not, an ideological or moral argument for one notion of the world. Consider the embedded racist constructions in Heart of Darkness, in which native Africans are consigned to simple monstrousness, prompting in turn Things Fall Apart, which tries to understand the complexities of Nigerian culture, while yet marginalising women and hence leading to The Joys of Motherhood in response.

Fool

But why shouldn’t Conrad or Achebe be permitted to write whatever kind of literature they like? Surely it isn’t your place to pass Judgment and hence act as an Arbiter of Cultural Value! Doesn’t the existence of counter-works by successive authors demonstrate the non-necessity of your chattering from the sidelines?

Knave

Art is not a fully articulated statement of belief – if it were, it would render this conversation entirely moot. Art is as much a product of the wider culture surrounding the author as their own peculiarities – have you ever noticed how all the music in the top-40 in any given year all has more than a passing similarity? Engagement in the discussion of Art is as much an engagement in that wider culture as it is about any specific work; and since Art has a symbiotic relationship with Culture, an influence on one is an influence on the other. Therefore, if you want to have an effect on society, which it another word for Culture, you must also have an effect on its Art.

Fool

Your example is trivial! Such overtly political works wear their Hearts on their Sleeves for all to read.

Knave

Consider then Knight’s study of Detective Fiction, an apparently Artless Genre with no overt political positioning. Knight persuasive argues the essentially conservative political ideology that underpins the structure of the works, concordant with the details of most Murderers as those who seek to destabilise the Normal operations of Society. That the Detective is positioned outside of normal society, by being a foreigner, loner, or Old Lady Who Is Altogether Too Nosy, speaks to a hidden layer of thought about the very structure of Society: that it cannot be self-healing as it was considered to be in pre-Capitalist times. Correct operations of Society require an external agency to enforce the rules, and thus the separation of the Government from the People.

Pretty deep eh?

Fool

I admit it, you are the True Lover of Art, and I am a worthless degenerate who has taken for granted the benefits obtained through the diligent efforts of Critics throughout the ages to help direct Art to its best self, and in the process to make our whole society better.

True Lover

Thanks, I am pretty amazing!

Everything I learned about all of this really came from one book which is the cornerstone of modern Genre Criticism and should be studied in the same way as Aristotle’s much misunderstood Poetics. That amazing book is Adventure, Mystery, and Romance by John G Cawelti, which presents the basic chassis of this argument but is way better written. It’s the most-cited book I encountered while writing my thesis on Detective Fiction, and while it doesn’t address all genres, its conception of Formula is a multi-purpose tool that can be used to unpack and deconstruct all fiction. He’s my hero.

Fool

You may be right, but thou art also a Knave!


Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance : Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Conrad, Joseph, and Robert Kimbrough. Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1988.

Emecheta, Buchi. The Joys of Motherhood. Oxford, England: Heinemann International, 1994.

Knight, Stephen Thomas. Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Truffaut, François, and Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock,. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.

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