When is a Novel not Like a Painting?

“Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana,” by Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky. {{PD-Russia-2008}}

To value a work of art by the degree of its realism, by the accuracy of the details reproduced, is as strange as to judge of the nutritive quality of food by its external appearance.

Leo Tolstoy

This quote got me thinking – in art, people have pretty much detached themselves from expecting a painting to look like the thing painted. We’ve all used to seeing abstract slashes meant to represent the Queen of England (seriously, I’ve seen it done), or two red stripes that can be sold for a couple million dollars. Yet when we read novels, our outraged reaction is often, “That’s not realistic at all!” If unrealism is permissible in “art,” isn’t writing a type of art? Why do we expect writing to reflect real life to some extent?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m just musing here. I would not prefer novels to be abstract and weird. Personally, I enjoy art of objects I can recognize more than abstract works, anyway. But writing, and fiction, is a funny thing. Often it is lumped in with “the arts,” but it doesn’t always fit in the same cubby-holes painting, sculpture and music does.

Full quote in context here.


Filed under Quotables

2 responses to “When is a Novel not Like a Painting?

  1. I would compare writing as an art to ceramics. If you make a bowl or a teapot, it can be really beautiful or really ugly. But regardless of how great the artistic execution, if it doesn’t work (as a teapot for tea, or as a story) the user is gonna be a little irked. 😉


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