Ornithology and Birds

by | Dec 5, 2006 | Approaches to Writing, Literature, Writers

I have just begun Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, which, like Orwell’s “Inside the Whale,” is an examination of the state of English literature.  In his youth, Connolly was widely supposed to have a great career as a writer before him, but what he became instead, mostly, was a literary critic.  I generally don’t read much literary criticism, partially because I find that, like modern philosophy, it so often seems to lose itself in a jargon and set of categories that have no meaning to anyone but other members of the guild.  It may be a matter of insufficient brain-power, but talk of dialectics and deconstructionism and so on makes my eyes glaze over.  Of course, I would prefer to think that my lack of enthusiasm has something to do with one of my favorite quotations, whose author I have been unfortunately unable to trace.  But it goes like this:

Art criticism is to artists as ornithology is to birds.

Nevertheless it can be instructive at times to see what the ornithologists have to say.  For one thing, reading Connolly reassures me that there are people on the planet who are even more opinionated about literature than I am.  One thing I notice about his opinions is that he and I are sometimes poles apart in amusing ways.  We both admire Aldous Huxley, for example, but he trashes two novels that I think are quite fine, and he praises some short stories that I think are dreadful.

But here’s the main difference: Connolly sees writers as members of this or that school of writing, whereas I see them first as individuals.  It’s the difference between the ornithologist’s perspective and the bird’s.

A reader just left a comment about one of my blog entry ‘Which Side Are You On,’ in which I talk about Kerouac and Hemingway and different notions of the importance of craft.  The reader, Jimmy B, points out that Kerouac and Hemingway were both best at being, respectively, Kerouac and Hemingway.  “The best artists,” he writes, “(and probably the worst as well) are passionately themselves.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Both writers had their imitators, who have now largely been forgotten.  Both were consciously members of literary movements.  Hemingway was part of a group devoted to ‘le mot juste.’  Kerouac was highly aware of being the prose ‘voice’ of the Beat Generation.  But they are still in print because of their qualities as individuals, not because they are representative examples of this or that.


I have wrestled all my life with questions about the value and meaning of literature.  Today I at least ran across an intriguing definition of it.  Connolly says that literature is “the art of writing something that will be read twice.”  But why do we read it at all?  Why, for that matter, do any of the arts exist?

I believe it’s Kurt Vonnegut who suggests that the artist is driven to create a composition within the confines of a frame, or between the covers of a book, in order to provide at least the illusion of order within a chaotic world.  How very telling that he sees art as a form of therapy.  For all I know he may be right, too.

One thing I do know is that art exists because some of us cannot help but be artists.  For whatever reason, we are driven to paint pictures, or dance, or write stories.  It can be both a blessing and a curse, but it’s like being born with fins or with wings.  Fish have to swim whether they want to or not, and birds gotta fly as best they can.