f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: What I Did This Weekend: Part I – Who “Owns” the Novel?

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, February 20, 2006

What I Did This Weekend: Part I – Who “Owns” the Novel?

I watched two works this weekend—one documentary, one stage production—and they each raised some questions that I, at least, find interesting. Poor you.

I’ll start with the documentary. It was Rize by David LaChapelle. Basically it’s an exploration of a “new” dance form emerging from streets of L.A. (Though LaChapelle shows obvious links to other street dances and even tribal dances from Africa.) The dance is called “krumping” and, well, it’ll just be added to the list of dances I can’t do. And pretty high on the list, too.

One of the interesting points raised by one or two of the subjects (and then later undercut a bit) is the notion of “ownership of a form.” This has come up again and again in American culture, and often in regards to art forms that emerge from African-American communities (hip-hop, rap, jazz, etc.)

Essentially the point is that: these kids have next to nothing. They don’t have money to invest in ballet, tap, jazz dance—i.e. the basic dance forms that seem to make up the foundation of most current dance. So, without that access, they go the opposite direction purposefully creating a dance that is new. And though they may not have much they “own” that form. At least until MTV co-opts it.

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What intrigues me is the notion of ownership of a form. It’s obviously ridiculous in some terms. You can no more own an art form than you can own a color. And yet…Kenny G and John Coltrane are different, aren’t they? Vanilla Ice and Eminem are different…to remove the racial dynamic of it.

The question I’d raise is: “Who owns the novel?”

Functional literacy rates continue to be an issue and reading, overall, continues to decline. So is the novel now in the hands of only a precious few, the “literati elite”?

What’s also interested me is how little the novel changes—from culture to culture, language to language. It is, inherently, the same form. James Joyce may put it through the ringer in Ulysses. Ishmael Reed may tweak it in Mumbo Jumbo. Others have arranged and rearranged it through the years, but it still plows ahead—quite often running over folks who stand in its way.

I wonder if the novel’s unyielding presence is both the reason it’s made it this far and yet the reason it’s less “popular” today, especially in a world that favors the “new” and constant change.
What place do you see the novel having in our culture…and do we determine where it goes next, or will it just keep moving inexorably forward no matter what we throw at it?

Finally, what role does the novel play in places where major forms of artistic expression are seen as suspect, mere vehicles owned by a class often viewed as "oppressors?"

(EDITED: If you'd like to see me argue with myself, click here. Because after finishing the post, I realize I'm drawing an invalid comparison. Yeesh.)