Art Should Be Uncomfortable

For the writer Mark Haddon, Miles Davis’s seminal jazz album Bitches Brew is a reminder of the beauty and power of challenging works.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Mark Haddon, the author of The Pier Falls, likes art that makes people uncomfortable. He’s felt that way ever since he first fell in love with Miles Davis’s 1970 masterwork Bitches Brew—a divisive, brilliant record that continues to both thrill and alienate listeners. In a conversation for this series, he explained how the album and its Ralph J. Gleason-penned liner notes helped him develop a taste for singular and unsettling work that feels like stepping out onto an unfamiliar planet. He discussed his attraction to works that stake out radically new terrain, even though that usually means losing some people along the way.

Haddon’s own writing seems to grow out of discomfort, too. He described his process as a kind of willful isolation, a grueling self-imprisonment he’s learned will yield results. Maybe it’s no accident that the characters in The Pier Falls, Haddon’s first story collection, tend to find themselves trapped in confining physical spaces: an ominous island, a depressing apartment, the bottom of a cave. In “The Woodpecker and the Wolf,” the astronaut protagonist battles hunger and malaise inside a tiny capsule, the last surviving member of a failed Martian colony. “That was why they’d been chosen, wasn’t it,” she reminds herself, “their ability to accept, to be patient, to endure.”

Mark Haddon is the author of the best-selling novels A Spot of Bother, The Red House, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was recently adapted into a Tony Award-winning play. He lives in Oxford, England, and spoke to me by phone.

Mark Haddon: Growing up, I should have been listening to the Sex Pistols and The Clash like everyone else under 18 in the U.K. But I was sent away to a boarding school as a teenager, so I was pretty cut off from the mainstream youth culture. It was a pretty unpleasant place, and I never felt at home, which is one of the reasons why I’ve never been a joiner, a belonger. In that strange, hermetically sealed little world in the middle of the English countryside, I think I was seeking out a music of my own—something I could like that no one else liked. Outsider’s music.

Having heard very little music beyond my father’s mild jazz collection and “Top of the Pops” every Thursday night, I hadn’t had too many formative listening experiences, but on two occasions, I heard a piece of music that changed the way I saw the world. The first was Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” which was performed at school by the choir. And the second was hearing Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.

Now, I know Miles Davis is hugely popular, but he wasn’t popular in the English shires of the late 1980s. I think I understood at the time that I was listening to something absolutely extraordinary: the sound of someone inventing a completely new language, one that was nevertheless totally whole and articulate.

It wasn’t just the music that struck me; it was also Ralph J. Gleason’s liner notes. The music and the liner notes together were a guide to an entirely new world. There’s a passage at the end that moved me then and still moves me now:

it’s not more beautiful, just different. a new beauty. a different beauty. the other beauty is still beauty. this is new and right now it has the edge of newness and that snapping fire you sense when you go out there from the spaceship where nobody has ever been before.

This is the definition of art that has always most excited me: the feeling of being taken to the boundary of the universe, then beyond that boundary into the surrounding darkness, and you’re the first person to ever be there. It’s not an experience that happens very often, but I’m willing to wait. I’ve never been someone who’s enjoyed music in general, or contemporary fiction in general, or films in general, or theater in general. I feel I’m standing on the runway waiting for the next big one to come in, carrying some of that outer darkness with it.

Just reading the liner notes lines again, I realize there was something else that was clearly important for me about this passage. I was born in ’62 and, like a lot of kids of that generation, the space program was hugely important in our imaginations. I wanted to be an astronaut—we all did. Of course, it rapidly dawned on me that I was too anxious and oversensitive to be an astronaut. Besides, you had to become a military pilot, and I had a lazy eye and wasn’t that keen on learning how to kill people. But reading this passage is a reminder that there are other ways to get to far-flung places at the edge of the universe.

I also love the fact that the liner notes are all written in lower case. I’d forgotten this until recently. Whenever possible, I still write in lower case. I always curse at modern word-processing programs, which assume you want a capital letter at the beginning at every sentence, a capital letter for everyone’s name, a capital letter every time you say “I”. Occasionally, when I have the time, I’ll actually go back and meticulously take them out because they look so untidy to me. It all goes back to that music and those liner notes. It still feels like a radical way to write sentences.

There’s only one passage in the liner notes that fails to ring wholly true for me. Gleason writes, “we can always listen to ben play funny valentine, until the end of the world it will be beautiful and how can anything be more beautiful than hodges playing passion flower?” He’s saying that new forms don’t invalidate the old forms, which retain their power. And maybe that’s true for some listeners, but less so for me. As I grew older, I stopped listening to most jazz that was recorded before Bitches Brew, and quite a lot recorded after it. It took me a while to formulate exactly why. It think it’s this: If I can imagine something being played in a hotel foyer, it’s not the kind of music I want to listen to.

Sadly, a lot of jazz—which was intimately interwoven with the experience of slavery and subsequent continuing oppression of black Americans, a music of protest, a celebration of pride and difference—was co-opted by commerce. As most things are, eventually. It’s become background music for most of us, and for me it kind of lost that angry beauty. I’ve come to realize that much of the music I like is music that is going to annoy people sitting in that metaphorical hotel foyer. Not lyrically but musically. Bitches Brew passes that test—it’s beautiful, but it’s not bland.

When a writing student shows you a piece of writing that’s not working, it’s relatively easy to help them improve. But it’s very hard—if not impossibleto tell someone positively how to write brilliantly. After all, there would be more brilliant writing if you could. I think it’s because the best writing—like the best music, the best theater, the best art—always does something you don’t expect, in a way that you don’t expect. It doesn’t have to be radical, it doesn’t have to be a wholly new invention, but is has to surprise you in some way. If it’s merely an improvement on what went before—that’s just craft, isn’t it?

I think it was Jean Cocteau who said fashion is what seems right now and wrong later. Art is what seems wrong now and right later. Great art has that slight discomfort to start with: It takes you a while to think, yeah, this is right. I just didn’t realize that it was right at the time. I think art grows out of a place of discomfort, too—for me it does, at any rate. I’ve come to accept that I’m going to be bored and frustrated for long periods. I’ve come to accept that I’ll be regularly dissatisfied and that I’ll have to throw a lot of stuff away. I have to be patient and slog onward and trust that something better will come along. It’s not a kind of moral strength, I don’t think. It’s a necessary balance between grandiose self-confidence and withering self-criticism. I spend a lot of time pacing up and down getting absolutely nothing done, but it seems to pay off in the end.

I often say to people when I’m teaching, if you’re having fun it’s probably not working. And for me, the job of writing is pretty uphill most of the time. It’s like climbing a mountain—you get some fantastic views when you pause or when you get to the top, but the actual process can be tough. I’m sure there are people out there who enjoy writing, and I wish them all the best, but I’m not like that. I wish I could enjoy the process more, but I think I’ve come to accept that for it to work, I have to be uncomfortable.

The liner notes and music from Bitches Brew are connected in my mind as they are connected for no one else on the earth: with a little illustration which I first saw in a science book I had when I was a little kid. It was a reproduction of an engraving from Camille Flammarion’s 1888 book L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire, which depicts a fake medieval landscape, and a guy in a gown who has walked to the edge of the picture, to the edge of the earth. He’s somehow managed to poke his hand under the bottom of the lowest, nearest of the bounding spheres, and behind it he sees the machinery of the universe: the cogs and the wheels and the smoke and the fire. That’s what I want art to feel like, and for me it’s always connected with Gleason’s image of stepping outside the spaceship.