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bear by san

March 2017

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writing genocide

life is hard. you can't buy happiness no matter what you do.

Art is hard.

***

Art is hard, and what's even harder is maintaining the conviction that art matters. That it's good for anything, that is changes anything, that it ameliorates anything. That we all (artists, I mean) wouldn't be better off filling out forms in the depths of some form-filling establishment, worrying about the ductwork. The world is hard.

And there's a good big chunk of the world that doesn't want art. That doesn't want ambiguity, nuance, contradiction, grayscale. That only wants linearity, clarity, definition.

And the funny thing is--the thing that I think sometimes critics miss--is that that clarity--that accessibility--is a literary value. It is an aspect of art.

But it is an aspect of art that is in tension (I will not say opposition) with other literary values--ambiguity and nuance, I mean. Because the more accessible, the more transparent a work of art becomes, the more the artist limits nuance. The more the artist limits interpretation. The more the artist limits epiphany.

And more: art is about projection. Anybody who even dips into the history of Shakespeare scholarship can see this clearly. The Bard's work becomes invisible under the layers and layers of projections larded onto it. One of the great tragic truisms of criticism is that we can't see shit about the average work of art--we can only see what we bring to it. Art is a series of funhouse mirrors, and it reflects back the concerns of both the artist and the audience through twisted lenses that really, nobody can control.

And yet as artists we have the responsibility to control them. To try to use those lenses to reflect some kind of truth; to coat it in sugar or venom so it goes down without being rejected.

And those things--the accessibility, the clarity, the nuance, the ambiguity--they are not always on one clear axis. And yet, still, the more clarity you introduce, the more you tend to limit nuance, interpretation. This is the problem with didactic art--when you say up front, "This is a story supporting thus-and-such a proposition," you limit yourself to preaching to the choir.

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with preaching to the choir. It's the Huckleberry Finn problem

To wit: Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe were next door neighbors. (Did you know that? Both of their houses are still standing, and both are open to the public. They lived in Hartford.) Stowe's best-known book is Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is an abolitionist parable, a didactic and fantastical narrative about the evils of slavery. It was credited by Abraham Lincoln with being the genesis of the Civil War. And yet, in these modern times, it's somewhat reviled for its portrayal of African-Americans.

And hardly anybody reads it anymore.

Meanwhile, across the lilac hedge, Mr. Twain is hard at work on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A book which also loosely concerns itself with the evils of slavery. And which I was taught in 11th-grade English, as probably many of you Americans reading it were as well, entained with many dislaimers due to its use of "coarse humor" and the n-word.

My point?

My point, if I have one, is that artists have but little control over how we are read, and how posterity remembers us. And that we are probably all just pissing to windward.

And that it doesn't matter. As long as we remember that one human death is a tragedy, and six billion is a plot element. Because we are speaking to the neural systems of east African plains apes, and we're just not wired to understand or identify with the population of an entire planet the way we're wired to empathize with one.

Seriously, what's more horrifying? The death of all those untold billions on Aldebaran? Or Han being lowered into the Carbonite* tank?

Yes. Some people want to be spoon fed. And there are stories for those people.

But by choosing to limit ourselves in that manner, we also deny the audience the possibility of epiphany.

Oh well. Easy come, easy go.

And what the hell is art good for anyway?

No. I'm not doing anything useful with my life. But then, who is?



*not Corbomite, though the fanfic opportunities are endless. 

Comments

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This is a wonderful, thoughtful post. Mind if I link to it?
Sure!
Me, I just make pretty things... And I reckon nature does a better job of that than I do even if some of its pretty things will eat you.

But it beats spending my life banging my head against the walls.
That's because nature values nuance over accessibility....
<3
Also <3.
Applauds.
Man, I love your LJ.
Aw, thanks.

It's just the post-novel ennui talking....
Good thing i'm not an artist and don't have to worry about all that. I just make shit and sell it.
Whatever defense mechanism works for you. *g*
But i will say, after writing 90,000 word reflection on Huck Finn, that MArk Twain was a mondo subtle bastard, who understood his audience perfectly, and knew how to play them like a fucking toy piano.
Yep. He was okay at his job.
The balance between clarity and nuance is making me tear my hair out even as we speak. So nice to know you'e out here in the dark too.

P.
Ooof. Isn't it nice to know we're not alone? :-P

I had done something in a story that I thought was clever and which would be a good click thing, and nobody got it. So I had to go back and actually put it in the story, instead of just in my interpretation of the story, if you know what I mean?

No. I'm not doing anything useful with my life. But then, who is?

Ah, but you are. Whether a story gives someone a space to be in for a while that's not their own life, or gives them a viewpoint from which to see the world that they didn't have, or helps them see a reality that's not theirs, or just fucking lets them escape for a while ... that's *useful*.
Me, I used to help make better refrigerators. Now, I do something between helping some poor soul keep their job and keeping the electric grid from melting down. It's useful... sort of. But the difference I make is short-term, or it's amorphous. What writers do *matters*. To lots of people out there in the dark.
Tiptree let me know I wasn't the only alien walking the streets. (Ok, that was teen years when suicide is so easy.) These days, stories remind me that there's life outside of the job and the chickens and the dogs and the never-ending chores. That even if I never have time to write my stories down, others are making time for it, and the world of the mind goes on.
Why do you think the rest of us bother to get up in the morning ?

Re: No. I'm not doing anything useful with my life. But then, who is?

I love that description of Tiptree....
*wild applause*
I keep on asking myself this...not if art matters. It does.
Does it matter to ME. Is it worth being tied to a chair and PC and the other sacrifices, if it is all a piss in the wind.
Great Post.
Yeah. It's an interesting question. I suppose it's sort of beautiful, though....
The single hardest thing for me about writing is dealing with my (very overactive) sense of Duty. I was raised to be socially useful. I'm not so awed by my own writing that I think it *is* socially useful. I'm not Dostoyevsky, I'm not writing the eternal, I'm just some scribbling girl. It's the worst of my mind traps, and my best defence is just sticking my fingers in my mental ears and singing 'La, la, la' very loudly. Which isn't very helpful. I don't expect to last as a novelist.
My non-fiction, on the other hand, is another matter. There are aspects of that that I still view as useful within my discipline, and maybe even important in certain ways. I have no guilt over it at all. Even though there are those who would say that mediaeval Welsh history is a subject of no social usefulness. IF I ever work out what my head is doing that lets me be confident about this and unconfident about the fiction, I'm bottling it.
There's good news! Nothing is useful. I mean, on that Aldebaran scale--there's a great Peter Mulvey spoken-work piece that more or less boils down to "And then they all died alone in the dark and never even knew each other existed."

Which is pretty much how it goes.

But on that single-individual level, it matters. And it's the only difference any of us can hope to make, really.

Parable of the Starfish.
I think that what you do matters very much, or well, matters to me, which is all I can speak to with authority. But the questions you bring up is just what usually stops me from writing. You've read my stuff - still wobbly and no real greatness. And yet, I can't stop writing.

Clarity and nuance - I think that you achieve a delicious balance. As far as pissing windward goes, please carry on.
Accessibility vs. nuance. Art is hard.

And yanno, you keep doing it, too.
<3
My linearity breaks down when I am confronted with large synthetic ideas. And then I fail to express them well.
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