Is one man’s Playboy another’s Picasso?

Famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe from the first edition of Playboy (December 1953). Time has rendered it artistic rather than salacious.

Famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe from the first edition of Playboy (December 1953). Time has rendered it artistic rather than salacious.

You wouldn’t think that literature had much in common with pornography but indulge me, will you?

Recently, the California porn industry objected to a proposal for stiffer – probably not the best choice of words here – regulations.

“I see what I do as my art,” actress Lily Cade told the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board. “And in the past, throughout history, art has been persecuted.”

Such self-deluded statements give me a chuckle. Art is about psychological truth no matter how realistic or unrealistic it is. Whereas the hyper-realistic pornography suggests that if you could be this super-sexed person – or have this super-sexed person – you’d be happy. And how true is that?

To me, this is more clear-cut than the Bookends question in the Feb. 21 edition of The New York Times Book Review: “Where do you draw the line between commercial and literary fiction?”

“I draw it up the side of the Boston Public Library,” James Parker, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, responded. “I draw it through the middle of Stephen King’s wallet. I draw it right between the frontal lobes of every writer who ever lived. I draw it — well, that’s enough of that. But here’s the thing: One desires to be read, one would like to be paid, and one writes, in the end, what one has to write, whether one is Robert Ludlum or Lydia Davis. Could Nicholson Baker, for example, if he woke up one morning and said, “Right, I’ve enjoyed being a genius and a critical darling, but it’s time for me to make myself some serious cake” — could he write like Lee Child, author of the zillion-selling (and, in their way, excellent) Jack Reacher novels? I don’t think he could. Amazing polymath-acrobat that he is, lifelong whiz kid, I just don’t think Baker would get neurological permission to type out some of those Jack Reacher sentences.”

I take great comfort in these words. Art may be about a great theme, great insight and great seriousness of purpose married to great style. Or it may be, in some cases, a popular work transformed over time. I think most people would agree now that “Gone With the Wind” and “The Godfather” trilogy – at least as movies – are art.

But, as James Parker suggests, does it matter to the individual artist? We each do what we can, partly motivated by money but mostly by what we see in our heads. Whenever I hear about someone getting a book contract or selling a manuscript to Hollywood, I can’t be jealous because I have to say, Could I have written that book? And the answer is always “No.”

Or in the immortal words of Miss Elizabeth Bennet to her sister Jane in “Pride and Prejudice”: “Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I can never have your happiness.”

Until I have someone else’s talent and luck – until I become someone else, which is never going to happen – I cannot have that person’s success.

Best to write what you can and leave it for others to judge, knowing that in the end there are only two kinds of works – good and bad.