Andrea del Sarto

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This is from a facebook discussion of craft vs content in writing. The argument was that many readers value content more than craft. It doesn’t really matter to them if a story is poorly written, as long as they like the message.

I wrote:

P.G. Wodehouse is frivolous. I have read him over and over, looking for content of redeeming social importance, and have not found it. But talk about craft! Boy, does that guy write well!

I think we need to add a third quality to content and craft. I just reread the poem “Andrea del Sarto” by Browning — about an artist who was supposed to have perfect skill, but lacked the divine spark, apparently due to his wife. Divine spark sounds corny, but there is something beyond skill. Maybe it’s included in ‘craft.’ The painter Caravaggio had it, along with skill. Passion? Honesty? Truth? It’s not the same as redeeming social (or spiritual) importance. It’s some kind of emotional or aesthetic force. I will also add that “Andrea del Sarto” is a scary poem to read if you are a writer. You think, have I done this? Have I tamped down whatever — passion, feeling, the divine spark — and created a calm, gray art like Browning’s Andrea? That is a deeply disturbing poem.

 Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
 Or what's a heaven for? All is silver-grey,
 Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!
 I know both what I want and what might gain,
 And yet how profitless to know, to sigh
 "Had I been two, another and myself,
 "Our head would have o'erlooked the world!" No doubt.  

Browning could be brutal…