I’ve just returned home from the LA SCBWI conference with a head swarming with information about writing. What has stuck to the forefront of my thoughts are two talks by M.T. Anderson, author of such novels as Feed and the two Octavian Nothing novels, among others.
MT had a lot of interesting stuff to say, but what caught my attention the most was what he said about literature, and perhaps by extension, all art. In a nutshell, he posited that the purpose of literature is to help the reader see the familiar in a different way. (For those curious about reading more, this is a theory espoused by the Russian formalist school of literary criticism.) By estranging the reader (for example, through use of language or various literary devices), the author causes the reader to experience the world differently and restores a sense of the unknown to what was before a habitual reaction.
I know how easy it is for me to something for granted and stop seeing what’s right in front of me. It’s this sort of closed mind that makes it difficult to see from another person’s perspective, to fail to notice what’s going wrong (or right) in our everyday routines, relationships, and desires, to become cemented in attitudes, beliefs, or knowledge that might be inaccurate. In much the same way as spending time in a foreign culture can shock the system and dislodge rusty thought patterns, so can experiencing art, whether that be through literature, theater, visual art, music, etc.
Following this train of thought, literature can act to help us see the world afresh like children do. In general, children are a lot more flexible and adaptable than many adults, and they are constantly having brand new experiences. Assumptions are harder to make without a few decades of experience and collected data to draw upon. While reading a novel that’s using estrangement to wake us up, we can regain our childlike perspective on the world, both as a place full of wonder and weirdness and as a terrifying mystery in which many things remain unexplained or beyond our understanding. The curtain of adult security and certainty that gives us the illusion of being safe in a world of rational order is drawn aside to expose the truth: that life is always uncertain, whether you’re two years old or eighty, and that any object, person, or event has several layers of reality beyond the surface.
While this ability to see beyond the surface is certainly useful for artists of all types, I would argue that it is invaluable to anyone who wishes to fully appreciate the human experience. Art forces us to take notice and stop moving through our daily lives on automatic pilot. It reminds us of what it was like to be fourteen, or helps us imagine an entire collection of possible lives we might have led (or might still lead). It shows us the world through someone else’s eyes, someone inherently other because they are not us. Whether we look at a Dadaist painting that skews common objects and reminds us of universal themes such as the passing of time or read a novel in which language describes a commonplace object in terms we would never have applied, the jolt tickles our brains. Remember, it says, to really *look* instead of merely knowing. Remember to breathe in an experience instead of getting too caught in our own heads to notice. Remember to listen and delve deep. Live what it is like to be a child, when the world lies before you, scary and stunning and exquisite.