An artist asked me if my writing had a common denominator, if there was a concept that summed up everything I wrote. He clearly thought that there ought to be, and even said he felt it was “arrogant” to attempt to use more than one concept over the course of a creative career.
Tom Wolfe wrote a whole book, The Painted Word, about this phenomenon of modern artworks being embodiments of ideas.
When one visits an art show, there are usually explanations located near the art works, claiming that a particular piece “transcends the dichotomy” between one abstract noun and another abstract noun. Although I actually think some artists just make stuff that's fun to make and fun to look at, and are about as enthusiastic about figuring out which dichotomy they've transcended as writers are about writing cover letters and synopses...
Brian Christian has a fascinating essay in Agni #69, “High Compression: Information, Intimacy, and the Entropy of Life,” about art and the compressibility of information. He throws around such ideas as that, when one is reading a genre novel, it will tend to be more predictable what the next word's going to be than when one is reading a literary novel. He talks of “the reading experience as a kind of extremely rapid sequence of guesses, and much of the satisfaction, it would seem, is in the balance between YES and NO...”
People read novels for pleasure. People don't read CliffsNotes for pleasure. So it's what's in the novel that isn't in the CliffsNotes that's important – an obvious fact, but one that surprisingly many people manage to unlearn at school. Other things people don't read for pleasure are blurbs, marketing pitches, and the descriptions found on the walls of art galleries.
There's a worrying passage in Dark Reflections on how graduate students think about literature. "Graduate students up to thirty-five Arnold could generally impress with his downright encyclopedic knowledge of the Beats,” Delany tells us, but “the work he actually loved from that era, the rough poems and angular stories of Paul Goodman, even Goodman's dry, dry Empire City and Don Juan, the soaring intellect of his literary, psychological, and educational essays, Orlovitz's Milkbottle-H, the pyrotechnics of Davenport and Gass, Sontag's offhand excellence, the poems of Frank O'Hara, Lorine Niedecker, James Schuyler, Richard Howard, and Mona Van Duyn, these he'd learned he'd best not mention, or he would receive dull stares. To praise them intelligently only called up embarrassed, bland silence – the hostility the ignorant always displayed when faced with knowledge that carried no validating mark of any current trend.”