I mentioned in my post on Jesus’ Son that I was going to be discussing it with classmates and would post if anything interesting came up in the discussion. It was mostly the usual kind of discussion you have in that kind of craft class — what is he doing, how is he doing it, why should we care.
It was the discussion surrounding the last part — the “why should we care?” question — that was intriguing to me. Keep in mind that this is a class of creative writers — we’re all in either the fiction or the poetry programs at Miami. Around the end of the three-hour class period, the discussion swung to exactly why we read this book in particular. One classmate said he had read it three times now and feels that he should be teaching it in his own lower-level English classes because of all the acclaim it receives, but wasn’t himself sure of the merit of the book. After all, the character is reprehensibly doing illegal and morally decrepit things, with little or no redemption. There’s no “I learned this lesson . . .” or character growth as far as we can tell — these stories are just accounts of characters taking drugs and doing some shitty stuff. What’s the point? my classmate wanted to know.
This sparked a debate that I will say I was shocked to hear coming from creative writing students. Some folks agreed with him — that there is no redeeming feature in this collection, that it was hard to read and harder to analyze, because nothing “good” comes from the actual content. However, one man said that the fact that we were having this discussion means that Johnson succeeded as an artist — because the point of art is to force people to think, to view the world in different ways than what’s immediately obvious to us.
I agree with him. Art doesn’t have to apologize for being gritty and real. In the real world, not everyone beats their addictions. Shitty things happen. Not every story has an up side. It’s the responsibility of us as writers to represent the world for what it is, what we want it to be, and everything in between. I think Johnson should be commended for his honesty.
I’d love to know what my readers think. Why does this book make us feel a certain way? Why is art? What is art? Big questions, I know. Looking forward to your answers!