Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Writer As Artist

"In the twentieth century people stopped just reading novels and poems and started studying them. It was a revolution. Suddenly everybody studied literature. At school it was obligatory. They did literature exams. They understood that when there are metaphors and patterns of symbolism and character development etc. then you have “literature.” They supposed that if you could analyze it, you could very probably do it yourself. Since enormous kudos was afforded to writers, and since it was now accepted that nobody needed to be tied to dull careers by such accidents of birth as class, color, sex, or even IQ, large numbers of people (myself included!) began to write. These people felt they knew what literature was and how to make it.

"In the second half of the century the cost of publishing fell considerably, the number of fiction and poetry titles per annum shot up (about forty thousand fiction titles are published in the US each year), profits were squeezed, discounting was savage. A situation was soon reached where a precious few authors sold vast numbers of books while vast numbers of writers sold precious few books. Such however was the now towering and indeed international celebrity of the former that the latter threw themselves even more eagerly into the fray, partly because they needed their declining advances more often, partly in the hope of achieving such celebrity themselves.

"In the first half of the twentieth century the decline of the gentleman publisher coincided with a rapid growth in the number of writers seeking to storm the citadel. Along with the increasing complexity of book contracts—hardbacks and paperbacks, bookclubs, bonuses, options, sliding scales of royalties, film rights, foreign rights, territorial divisions, remainders, and a host of other niceties—these conditions created and consolidated the figure of the literary agent.

"The emergence of the agent signals an awareness that there is a clash between the idea of writing as a romantic, anti-establishment vocation and the need for the professional writer to mesh with a well-established industrial and promotional machine. Hopefully the agent would reduce the tension between the two. Soon, however, agents found themselves so overwhelmed by pressure from would-be new arrivals and contract complications that they could no longer be seen either as a gateway into the world of publishing, or as middle men who could spare writers from getting their hands dirty. It was at this point, in the 1980s, that the creative writing course took off and the figure of the career writer began to assert itself.

"So then, a would-be anti-conventional public enjoys the notion of the rebel, or at least admirably independent, writer, but more and more to achieve success that same writer has to tune in to the logic of an industrial machine, which in turn encourages him to cultivate an anti-conventional image. This is an incitement to hypocrisy. Meantime the world opens up; books travel further and translate faster than they ever did in the past. A natural selection process favors those writers whose style and content cross borders easily. Success and celebrity breed imitators. Lots of them. Nobody can read everything. Nobody can read the hundredth part of everything. Nevertheless international prizes purport to tell us which is the best novel of the year, who the greatest writer."
[source: "The Writer's Job" by Tim Parks, New York Review of Books, Feb 28 2012 - see]

Now, I happen to agree with everything Tim Parks says in this article. He provides a fine overview of the awkward position of a serious writer of fiction in our culture at this time. Here are some reactions, both general and personal.

1. This, like just about everything, is the result of overpopulation. Our species busy reproducing itself without limits, spreading itself across the globe, consuming all resources like there is no tomorrow. Well, guess what. There might not be one at this rate.

2. We're crushing ourselves. Our culture is both homogenizing and collapsing into itself, which is another way of saying "overpopulation." Thing is, we can't stop this happening, so all we can do is try to survive it and maybe adapt to it in some ways.

3. All of this makes us stupid and silly and robs us of the ability to see above the fray, to see the forest, so to speak. We're diminished and blinded, and I'm here to tell you, we started out pretty diminished and blind. We can't take much of this without self-destructing.

4. I remember, as a kid, wondering what it might be like to be part of that mass of people on other side of the world, the Chinese, who all ran around and thought of themselves as a "society" and poo poo'd the idea of individuality and personal contribution, much less personal greatness. Like a soup made of people, sloshing this way and that, moved by forces too large for any one, or even any small group, to grasp, much less control. And how there was this gang at the top of some non-descript building over there somewhere, six of them I imagined, who were all sweating and yelling and desparately yanking on levers, trying to control the mass of humanity below them, the soup of people sloshing around, and every once in a while one of them would stop and look at the other five and say, "Shit! We just have too many people!"

5. I remember the day when, more than twenty years ago, I looked up and told myself and my family, "Guess what. I'm an artist." I didn't know if I meant that, I didn't know what it might mean if I did, and I hadn't the faintest idea what the repercussions might be. I knew only one thing: my kids were half-raised and seemed pretty independent to me, and I felt gray and transparent, fading into the woodwork, becoming like the dust bunnies that crowded the molding of my kitchen floor. It was a survival statement: I must change, discover and embrace who I really am, or I will die way too soon, sad and unknown to anyone, especially myself.

6. It took a while for this to take effect, this vague acceptance of a new me. Eventually I remembered my original passion: playing with words. Stories. Fiction. That I had actually studied creative writing in college, if such study is even possible. That I had been serious about writing fiction once, which made me curious to find out if I might be serious about it again.

7. Then came the Big Change, in which I found myself no longer burdened with a day job at the same time I was able to retire early and draw a small pension. By getting rid of most of what I had accumulated and living as simply as possible, I found I was able to live a quiet, hermit-like life. With no other demands on my time, I had to confront the possibility that I could practice writing, that whatever artist there may be inside of me could now emerge. It was fish or cut bait time.

8. If only it were so simple.

9. Some part of me holds to the possibility that it should indeed be that simple: just focus on one story at a time and tell it in words on a page. Ignore everything around you that tries to distract you from this task. Finish each story, start the next. Rinse and repeat. Build a body of work.

10. Except too often a story does not come. It does not reveal itself. And in these moments, all moments actually, I deal with a cacophany of voices in my head, pulling my attention this way and that until I, too, am like that out of control bowl of soup spilling over its container's edges and making one mess after another.

11. Not to mention the aches and pains and appetites of my body.

12. All of this, and I haven't even gotten around to saying what I really wanted to say about this writer-artist-in-modern-times thing, which is this: there are things that are very right and great about being an artist. I don't really know what they are, but I know them when I see them, as they say. But there are also some things, depending on your values, on who you are, that are very wrong and twisted and even sad about being an artist and practicing art.

13. An artist tends to be a loner, an outsider, perhaps even an outcast from society. This can be a very good thing indeed.

14. An artist can be thought of as the most deliberately selfish person in the world. Artists may have great politics, be socially conscious, support great causes even. But when push comes to shove and the world rubs up against an artist, who wins? Whose interests come first? No contest. Art wins.

15. Okay then. Let's assume, just for argument's sake, and despite any doubts or misgivings I might have, that I am an artist and that my art is "literature". Stories about real people in possibly real situations making real choices and taking plausible actions. Stories which are driven by, and revealing of, characters, meaning real human beings. Why would I want to write such stories? Why write any stories? Why practice art at all?

16. I can feel rationalizations pouring out of me, and maybe you too, reader. As if we shared a virus that gave us the shits and pukes both at once. You know what? That stuff stinks.

17. So there must be something beyond the obvious, beyond the socially appropriate. Certainly well beyond the "writer's job" explanation. If it isn't obvious by now, my response to Tim Park's explication of the forces pushing writers into the job of writing these days, is this: sure, it happens. A lot. But when an artist is creating in order to feed himself and especially in order to feel useful and part of the social fabric around him, he may be a writer - he may even produce fine work - but he's not an artist. Not. An. Artist.

18. Which suggests that, for me, there's something about real art that's beyond (maybe above) the social fabric in which it occurs. Above feels about right: such art is positioned to look out over the field of human culture and human endeavor, without being caught in any particular strand of the warp and weave. It sees a much larger picture. It's like that book "Flatland" in which we discover what it must be like to experience reality in only two dimensions, while retaining knowledge that there is indeed a third dimension.

19. So. There, I've said it: art is primarly a form of spiritual work. You might think of it as a visible, healing manifestation of spirit, produced by an individual as a gift to humanity, who may or may not experience it at all, much less as a healing gift.

20. Literature, as art, has a particularly hard row to hoe. It paints pictures of human beings with words, when words are more often than not the problem: the very anchor holding down human understanding, as well as that which can lift up and reveal.

21. And it's that tension between words as filters that limit our perceptions and constrain our understanding of ourselves, and words which illuminate and reveal, words as veils inviting us to look between and beyond, that draws me to the art of literature. It's the immense challenge and the ineffible payoff if I succeed, that makes it all worth while, regardless of the material world and my relation to it. An artist loves a challenge, and often the greatest artists cherish the challenge and problem which takes a lifetime to solve.

22. Seen in this light, poetry makes perfect sense. Forever a mystery to me, a puzzle in its own right, poetry IS the veil that hides and reveals at once.

23. For better or worse, I am not a poet, nor likely ever to be. I am allied to the idea that stories, fictional stories done properly, hold not more power or healing grace than poetry, but more accessibilty. Larger numbers of humans will read short stories. They find them both entertaining and potentially enlightening, whereas poetry, most at least, seems merely enlightening. Most of us can't stand the idea of being enlightened. But we can take a bite-sized chuck of story, read and digest it and maybe enjoy it. And if the story is told properly, if it is art, then it will be a pill in disguise. It will gently and gradually open itself in the mind of the reader and even if it has no direct effect, it prepares the ground for the seeds of illumination yet to come.