I can't remember if the quote above appears in this exact form in Michael Chabon's novel, but Rip Torn delivers it perfectly in the film adaptation. Q, of course, is the pretentious, vocally flatulent writer "friend" of Grady's who gives a speech to an auditorium of rapt students eager to lap up his every word.
No writer has cause for this sort of hubris or even confidence, really. Writing is of very little worth to a practical person—at least fiction, certainly poetry, and most journalism. Sure, writing was the primary driver behind just about every information revolution dating back to the Neanderthal, but when I consider my own forays into the art form, as well as my continuing formal education which revolves around it, I'm struck with a tremendous sense of failure. Not because I'm a bad writer; I am, but that's not the point. Quite simply, I feel that the contributions to be made through fiction are no longer relevant. If they ever were, they assisted social movements at times in which the public opinion could be sufficiently galvanized through such means. The most socially important fiction book of our generation is The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Don't think too hard about this one; you'll depress yourself; but it's probably fair to say that no novel of the past fifteen years has spurred the sort of widespread social introspection that The Da Vinci Code did. Was it a good book? No. Were Dan Brown's arguments accurate? Who cares. Regardless of the latter answer, the post-publication wave of self-proclaimed Gnostic experts who attempted to dismantle the Vatican's very foundation speaks to a perhaps higher-than-normal level of religious reconsideration among the general public at that time.
But that's it. That's all we've got. The most important (mass-appealing) novel of a generation led to little more than an impotent quasi-intellectual orgy and two Hollywood "blockbusters" that were even worse than the books upon which they were based.
Art is fruitless. Its intrinsic value, or worth, is measured only by the effectiveness of its illusion, and on that count, I suppose I'm still trapped by it. I love stories—reading them, watching them, listening to them. Stories help to parse some of the big questions into manageable bite-sized pieces. Of course, this impression is little more than a mirage of understanding, just as perhaps all of our pretenses toward knowledge are.
I don't mean to say art is meaningless, but its benefits are intangible and woefully subjective. A breakthrough drug will save lives; a plasma engine may one day take us to deep space; carbon nanotubes could give us clean, long-term battery power. These contributions are more easily weighed and more important to the well-being of the human race than something as trivial as Moby Dick or War and Peace—the intellectual rigor required to see their success, greater and more demanding. The artistic mind is a disorganized one, a mind that succumbs to its every flight of fancy and one that is often beholden, almost specifically, to its biases, preferring instead to substitute fantasy for reality, folk philosophy for physical reality. Right?
But then I think of Nabokov and Orwell, even Vonnegut, who always struck me as a profoundly humane person, and decide otherwise. I think of Dali and Van Gogh, two artists with almost purely artistic intelligence, and Jimi Hendrix, who likely could do nothing else but play the guitar like a motherfucker. They all did tremendous work that I love.
I suppose that's all worth something, but who's to say what? Love, sadly, is not a good marker of utility.