Art vs. Mammon

The other day I stopped in at B & S's house and brought in the mail. B asked me to open the plastic wrapper that Poetry magazine had come in. Before I handed it to him I looked on the back for the authors this month and read off names I recognized. B took it and read off more names. He's a poet, so of course he'd know more of his ilk. He said, You gave up journalism for Art. Which was a nice way of saying things and isn't entirely true. It wasn't a conscious decision. I can be slow to realize what the common wisdom is--about anything. I didn't realize for years that many people think of fiction as Art, and journalism as Lesser Non-Art. For undergrad I went to J-school, and then to Famous Creative Writing School, where I'd questioned the purpose of Art when Reagan had his finger on the button and the budget. I would travel to Des Moines and Milwaukee and DC and New York City to protest nuclear proliferation and draft registration. I thought journalism was the highest and best you could aspire to because it Did Something, especially investigative journalism, which, by the way, I wasn't doing. I was writing features. But some of them had a socially-useful aspect. OK, some of them.

A friend of mine, N, taught a course on journalism that changed society, using books as texts. When student complained to her and her boss that N had assigned too much reading, she didn't back down. She decided the next year to add more required reading. She's tenured.

In graduate school I discovered radical philosophers on art and society and almost created an independent study for myself on political novels. I don't remember why I didn't follow through. When I worked for the major newspaper after grad school, someone in the newsroom said as if it were an acknowledged fact, that the novel was the real writing, not journalism, and I was mystified. I may still be. While at the same time, when I heard a major historian talk about the numbers of men who become cold mass killers in certain situations, I thought about William Carlos Williams' short story, "The Use of Force," which shows that the most humanitarian intentions can lead to violence and corrode the soul.

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