Abstraction in art and literature

This is an interesting article on abstraction in art, including literature. It concludes:

You can also see the mark of abstraction on a fair amount of 20th-century literature—and not just the avowedly experimental writings of James Joyce or Gertrude Stein, either. Countless modern writers have been influenced by Anton Chekhov's short stories and plays, which renounce plot-based structure, concentrating instead on the quasiabstract sketching of character and mood. This approach long ago became the basis for the vast majority of short stories published in the New Yorker. Somerset Maugham, a staunch traditionalist who believed in the iron necessity of plot, liked to tease younger writers who embraced the magazine's famously ambiguous house style: "Ah, yes, those wonderful New Yorker stories which always end when the hero goes away, but he doesn't really go away, does he?"

But Maugham's sly quip also reminds us that nonvisual "abstraction," for all its historical significance, has never become truly popular with mass audiences—and neither, for that matter, has visual abstraction. Though it has no shortage of devotees, most people are still more comfortable looking at paintings with a subject, just as they prefer novels and plays with complicated plots and four-movement symphonies with familiar harmonies, and my guess is that they probably always will.

Yet despite what seems to be an innate preference for more or less literal representation of the visible world, the abstract idea remains to this day both seductive and perennially relevant. Why? Because the best abstract art has the power to cut through the rigid conventions of direct representation and externalize interior essences—to show us things not as they look, but as they are.Balanchine may have understood this better than anybody. "We choreographers get our fingertips on that world everyone else is afraid of, where there are no words for things," he told Jerome Robbins. He knew that a wordless glance across a near-empty stage, or a splash of color in the right place on a canvas, can sometimes say more than…well, a thousand words.

I feel like abstraction can be done well, in which case it's VERY interesting, or done poorly, in which case it's predictable, derivative, self-important, and dull. You know, like pretty much everything else when it's done poorly.

But I do like plot. And I think sometimes people get too wrapped up in the abstraction in a really admirable piece of writing and forget about the fact that there's a good story in there, too. Even a book as dense and experimental as James Joyce's Ulysses has some great storylines--the whole saga of the marriage of the Blooms was just heart-rendering, and the reveals were handled masterfully. I totally thought I knew where F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night was going, and I was totally wrong. I like Michael Chabon's books because he usually has a rip-roaring story going on along with the excellent writing (and The Yiddish Policemen's Union is my least-favorite because the plot is really predictable, especially if you've read his other stuff).