I’m here by invitation. Lee gives me credit for having an interest in the art side of writing. I think that’s very kind of him, but I’m not sure I’ve ever really considered it in that light.
There’s an old division in the ranks of SF writers. The critics used to talk about ‘stylists’ versus ‘storytellers’. Your man Ray Bradbury, now: he’s the archetype of the stylist. Some of his short work is constructed out of next to nothing, but when he’s on song, his writing is so gorgeously evocative that even a story in which nothing much happens and nobody does anything about it becomes a thing of beauty.
The flipside is the storyteller: the writer whose work is focused on conflict and resolution, plot and action. Want an example? Isaac Asimov is a good choice. His writing style is pretty minimal. If ‘Nightfall’ was submitted today, it would be rejected out of hand, because the language is clunky, the story is overlong, the character names are painful, the characterisation is perfunctory, and there are plot holes big enough to hide a starship. But ‘Nightfall’ has been voted the most popular story of all time – more than once, if I recall – and the wonder of the idea itself sells the story even now.
I’m a storyteller. I’d like to be more of a stylist, but I have to work hard at it. On the other hand, my love of stories and storytelling goes back farther than I can remember. I tell stories. That’s who I am.
This is what drives me. I’m not consciously setting out to create Art. I just like stories. I literally get goosebumps when a nifty idea occurs to me. When I’m trying to work through the details of something interesting, trying to make it come out in a way that says what I think it needs to say, I’ve been known to stop driving the car and sit by the side of the road, staring vacantly into the middle distance until everything sorts itself out. That’s what storytelling does to me.
Art, though. What the hell is that about?
For me, art’s a changeable, mutable thing. When I was a kid of eight, Doc Smith’s “Lensman” novels were the coolest things I’d ever read. They grabbed my head and filled it with wild, wonderful possibilities. They gave me fantastic new dreams. What more can you ask of Art?
I can’t read Doc Smith these days. I’m all too aware of the limitations of his writing style, and I’m uncomfortable with the politics of his work, and his depiction of gender, and with the simplistic good/evil dichotomy he presents. It’s not Art to me any more.
Does that mean it never was?
I read Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ a couple years ago, on the grounds that a writer ought to be versed in the classic works. I’m pleased I can say I’ve read the book, but I didn’t enjoy it. I found it tedious, self-indulgent, and overlarded with intellectual in-jokery of the sort that makes me regret that Hitler didn’t include Post-Modernists on his list of things to do. Despite that, I recognise that the book is expertly, densely written, and its recursive, often self-referential structure definitively laid the groundwork for the English novel to become something far more wonderful and challenging than the nineteenth-century inheritance with which Joyce was working. Kudos to the man: the book is Art.
But it’s not my art at all.
My favourite novel is ‘The Master And Margharita’, by Mikhail Bulgakov. It was written in the mid-thirties in Soviet Russia, and smuggled out for publication. I admire the work because it includes every element that I want in a book: a delightful, engaging story full of clever ideas; vivid, interesting characters; powerful social commentary and strong, thought-provoking philosophy and politics; and a wicked, lovely sense of humour. Though I can’t read it in the original Russian, I’ve read three different translations, and I strongly suspect that the Bulgakov’s language also carries that element of vision and poetry that gives the best works their special shine.
So where am I going with this? It’s simple, really. I don’t aspire to Art. I write stories because if I didn’t, I’d be telling them in other ways. I do that anyway – the shared webcomic I do with my eldest son, simply for the fun of it; the anecdotes at dinner and parties; the blog; my letters and emails, etc. I can’t walk away from storytelling, so it makes sense to try and do it well, I figure.
Do it well. That’s the real challenge. I’ve outgrown simplistic fiction. I would never argue it doesn’t have a place — clearly, Matthew Reilly and Dan Brown are making people happy! — but it’s not my place any more. Therefore, when I create a story, I try to create a story that I’d enjoy reading, which means a certain density, texture, depth, and complexity as well as ideas and action. I don’t always succeed, but that’s okay: rejection letters are useful learning tools.
Is this Art? I write these stories to pose questions to myself, and to frame certain ideas that make me feel strongly. I work at the structure of the piece until it says what I need it to say, and then I carve away everything I can find that doesn’t say it, and hopefully, I’m left with something that carries feeling and meaning, but remains interesting and entertaining to read. Doing that: yes, I suppose it’s an art. Certainly, I get a lot of satisfaction out of a story which comes out right.
Does that make it Art from your viewpoint? I don’t know. Maybe. If the story catches you unawares, cracks your head open, makes you think in a new and different way or helps you uncover an understanding you couldn’t articulate for yourself, it’s probably art. But I wouldn’t know. Once it leaves my hands, I have no control over what it does any more. Beyond that point, it belongs to the reader.
And that’s the dangerous part, right there. Because everyone brings their own baggage to this Art thing, you understand. We look at the famous cave paintings of southern France, and we see beautiful, articulate, energetic, virile depictions of long-gone beasts, and if we happen to be Picasso, we say “Ahh. We have learned nothing!” Yet we really have no idea what that long-dead artist intended. For all we know, those paintings are insulting graffiti, or blasphemous images scrawled in defiance of some neolithic church. We can guess; but ultimately, we have no context, no certainty, and therefore any ‘meaning’ we read into those images comes from ourselves.
This is the paradox which reveals the ultimate ugliness of the Censor. When Kevin Rudd dismisses any possibility of artistic value in photographs of a nude teenager, he’s telling you about himself, not about the photo. He’s telling you that he can’t look at such images without finding something abhorrent in himself, and his own response — and he is assuming that you must be as perverse and weak-minded as he. When Fred Nile starts a crusade against Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, he’s telling you nothing about the work. Instead, he’s telling you that he’s terrified of the thought that just maybe all the stories about his beloved God really are just a bunch of stories, and he’s desperate to prevent you having the same idea.
All of this leads me to my final point. I don’t know if what I do is Art. I’ll never know. That’s all right by me. I do this because it’s who I am, not because I want to be remembered. I don’t even really know what Art-with-a-capital-A is, because it seems to me that it’s always personal, and depends as much on the audience as on any artist. But I do know that art is important, because it demands thought. It uncovers new ideas, and drags old ones out into the light where they can be examined properly. Art provokes questions: often very uncomfortable questions.
And that is exactly as it should be. Because of course, censorship is the diametric opposite of Art, and therefore if we do not have Art, we as a people are forced to live inside the timidity, the narrow-mindedness, and the prurient perversity of Rudd, Nile, and the rest of the censors.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be dead.