“The pointlessness of art is not an argument against it.”
Charles Baxter, The Art of Subtext
Before the pandemic, I worked as a receptionist at Massage Envy. It wasn’t the most pleasant or fascinating job, but neither was it very hard. I spent most of my days answering phones, clicking around on the computer, and attempting to sell various products to various people. Retail: you know what it’s like.
There were two things I really liked about this job. The first was that the front desk faced north, towards the all-glass entrance to the spa, and as the hours passed I enjoyed a peerless view of the sky changing color above the San Gabriel mountains. The other was that during slow periods, as long as I looked somewhat engaged with whatever was on the computer screen, no one cared what I was actually doing.
I spent a lot of time at Massage Envy browsing literary websites, both to track down new reading material as well as to acquaint myself with the contours of the publishing industry. I started writing a novel in February 2020, one that began as an obscure and too-drawn-out joke between me and a friend. This conceptual silliness lingered around the novel as it congealed, and was only underlined by my position as a minimum-wage worker in a sleepy town off the 210, scrolling through breathless profiles of MFA-laden young authors who all seemed to live in New York. From this distance it seemed as if writing my novel was just a bit I was doing.
It’s a year and a half later and I still haven’t dropped the bit. I haven’t stopped thinking of it as a bit, either, as the novel still exists mostly as a mental slurry of things I find funny and things my friends would find funny. But I am putting words on the page, a little at a time, pretending to take it all seriously.
I have, for the most part, stopped reading literary websites. I stopped right around month three of the pandemic. Why I stopped is partly because the Massage Envy where I did most of such reading closed in March 2020, first for a month, then for three months, then forever. But mostly I stopped because all at once, to a one, these websites started publishing vast quantities of blog posts and interviews and podcast episodes insisting that Books Are Essential Now More Than Ever. At first I read these headlines and was like okay sure, I can dig it. Then I thought more about it and realized that they were all cloying bullshit.
I do have a certain amount of sentimental belief in the power of literature, but it would take a real idiot to earnestly accept that books are the most essential pursuit available to humankind, especially in the world we currently occupy. Books are a comfort or a distraction or an educational tool, at best. Not that to be those things is without merit, but I do think that during times of global sickness and death, or a burgeoning ethnofascism as moronic as it is violent, or unquenchable wildfires belching smoke over an entire coast, it strikes me as so trivial as to be offensive to insist on the foremost necessity of books.
And the thing is—who cares? Even if literature isn’t essential, it’s not optional. This is proven by the fact that, even in the midst of crisis—and here I don’t just mean 2020—people keep on writing books. Myself included. I am still rotating my silly fake people and their made-up little lives in my mind, setting up their pratfalls, probing their follies. Not because I think this will help the world, not because it is noble and difficult work, but because at this point, the bit has become a habit. My novel has acquired an inertia that I can’t and don’t want to give up.
Art may serve a purpose or it may not. It might have some kind of evolutionary origin or it might not. It might have intrinsic moral/spiritual/intellectual value or it might not. Those are all fine debates to carry out, but I do think that at a certain point you have to reckon with the facts at hand. Which are: Humans make art, and always have done so and will very likely continue to do so. This won’t change in the face of an explanation (or lack thereof) for art. It does not matter to me whether or not art is essential, and as I’m sure you can tell from the above, I get annoyed by arguments stating that it is.
As much as the publishing industry might insist otherwise, the argument for literature being essential is the easy one to make. It will get you the most allies and make you the most money. Who wants to hear that their favorite book is inessential? Moreover, who wants to try and sell you a book if they think it is inessential? But do not mistake the financial anxieties of the publishing industry for proof that literature is some life-giving necessity, and do not adopt those anxieties as your own motivation to write.
Books are essential, now more than ever. But what if books have never been essential? What would we talk about then? Would we be motivated to find other explanations for why books exist—either individual books or literature as a whole? Could any writer live with themself and their choices knowing that the sacred output of their profession is inessential? If the answer is no, then why write at all?