So this is it: the final entry in my Treacherous Carrots series of guest blogs. A massive tilt of the glass to everyone who came along with me on this. Here’s hoping you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read. But don’t leave just yet, not until you’ve read what Angela has to say. And when it comes to the subject of art, she should know: Her work has appeared Dreaming AgainStrange Tales II IIILady Churchill’s Rosebud WristletA Book of HorrorsMammoth Book of New Horror #22, and Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2011. She authored two collections in pretty bloody quick order last year– Sourdough & Other Stories (Tartarus Press, UK), was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award for Best Collection, and The Girl with No Hands & Other Tales (Ticonderoga Publications), won the 2011 Aurealis Award for Best Collection. and she’s got yet another one coming out soon: Midnight and Moonshine, a collaboration with fellow carrot Lisa L Hannett, will soon be published by Ticonderoga. Their story “The February Dragon”, won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Short Story in 2011. She also finds time to run her own wide-ranging and always fascinating blog right about here
So here we are. One more carrot before bedtime.

The topic assigned by the boss of the blog is ‘The writer as artist’ and I’ve been thinking about it for a few weeks now, in between other time-consuming and annoying activities (PhD, day job, housework, etc). And it’s been making me grumpy because I can’t put my finger on a specific answer to the implied question. It’s just given me a lot more questions, with no answers.
            Where’s art come from?     
            Is it art just because I say it is?
            Is it not art just because I don’t like it?
            Is it only art only if paint is involved?
            How can words be art?
            Who judges its value, gives a gold star, a mark out of ten?
Is art simply doing something for the sake of doing something?
            If my marks from the Australia Council are low, does it mean I’m a bad writer, a bad artist, no matter how many awards I might win during my career?
            And what’s with this deathless prose gig?
Just because a lot of people buy a book  – just because it’s popular – does that make it ‘art’ regardless of grammar and spelling shortfalls and plot holes the size of the Grand Canyon?
Is art only something no one asked for in the first place? And if it’s something no one asked for in the first place, is it fair to expect to be paid for it?
            And I’ve been wondering, do we ever sit down and think before we write ‘Today I’m going to commit art’?
            I’m a writer who doesn’t even think about things like themes. I don’t think ‘I want to achieve blah with this story’. I just write – it’s brain-vomit all over the page (which begs the question: can vomit be art?). I’m not a tidy, organised writer – I don’t always know how a story is going to end, and sometimes even when I think I do know how it’s going to end I find out I’m wrong at the – well, end.
            Sometimes I know the end but am completely in the dark about the beginning. Sometimes I need to spend ages talking to the main character and coaxing information out of her/him, just so I can find out how the tale starts.
If I’m committing art, it’s unconscious. Writing for me is irresistible – if the urge hits then notes must be made no matter what else I may be doing. This can make boring meetings interesting – ‘What are you writing, Angela?’ – and family gatherings strange – ‘Where is she? Oh, no, she’s writing again.’ At lunch yesterday I was describing the ‘Brisneyland by Night’ novels to my parents, who rolled their eyes and managed to say simultaneously ‘She’s your daughter!’
So a writer, like a prophet, knows no respect. We must get used to it.
The first time my Significant Other witnessed an ‘art attack’ he was somewhat perplexed – understandably, seeing as how I leapt off the couch, shouting ‘Of course! Bleeding the cat!’ and then galloped to the study to write down the story notes before the spark died (and sanity took its place). My stories begin with a first sentence … or an image in my head … or they’re set off by the words of a song … or by looking at a painting or sculpture or drawing … or just by looking at something in a different way and thinking ‘what if?’
Maybe that’s where art comes from: from asking ‘what if?’ when everyone else is seeing what’s obvious. When everyone else is being obediently blind to possibilities. Maybe art is seeing what’s hidden, what’s possible, what’s potential. Maybe it’s writing that questions the status quo, that points fingers, that laughs when everyone’s telling the emperor he looks fabulous in his see-through pantaloons.
Thinking about the writer as artist makes me nervous because then it makes me afraid that picking apart art is like picking apart creativity in general – in playing around in the innards of something to see what makes it tick you risk breaking the very ineffability of the thing. When you utter the secret name of something, it’s no longer a secret and it loses it power – just ask Rumplestiltskin. And always remember: a frog never comes out of a dissection well.
When I read something I want its effort and artistry to be invisible. I don’t want the writer to draw my attention to how they’ve created an effect – if I’m reading to simply enjoy the work, I really don’t want signposts that say ‘Look how clever I am’. Pointing out the magic tends to make it very ordinary indeed. It’s like saying ‘Look! The angels are on wires!’ Equally, I don’t want to see clunky writing where the seams and stitches are there for all to see. I want the ‘art’ to appear seamless and whole. If I’m reading something specifically to examine the craft, then I am reading in a different way to reading for pleasure – I’m looking for the nuts and bolts another writer has used. Their art is how they have hidden these things.
As a writer, the art for me lies in what I hide and what I show – indeed, what can I show when I’m hiding something else. And what can I hide when I’m showing something again. So here, the writer as artist is the magician, the con wo/man, the trickster. The art is in the sleight of hand; the art of the oblique.
If pushed, I think the art lies in the spark – that moment when you’re writing for yourself alone, when there’s no thought of an audience or possible sales. I think art lies in the unfolding of the story, the rush of inspiration, the chatter of all the voices that live in your head and don’t require medication. Later, there is editing, polishing. Later, there is an audience. I think the moment of true, pure, primeval art lies in the moment of ‘what if?’


Lisa L Hannett is quirky, highly talented, and living in Adelaide — city of churches, bizarre murders and pie floaters — so you know she knows all about suffering for your art. Her short stories have been published in venues including Clarkesworld MagazineFantasy Magazine, Weird TalesChiZine, ShimmerElectric VelocipedeTesseracts 14, and Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, and she provided a creepy-as-all-fuck little gem for my issue of Midnight Echo to boot. The February Dragon, co-authored with upcoming carrotter Angela Slatter, won the ‘Best Fantasy’ Aurealis Award in 2010, so you know she’s got chops. 

Her first collection of short stories, Bluegrass Symphony, was published by Ticonderoga Publications in 2011. Midnight and Moonshine, a second collection co-authored with Angela Slatter, will be published in 2012. You can find her online at

In February 1880, William Morris delivered a lecture before the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, which was later published in a book called Hopes and Fears for Art. It was during this public lecture, Morris’s first, that the philosophy driving the Arts & Crafts movement was famously summarised. “If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody,” Morris declared, “this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
Replace ‘houses’ with ‘writing’ and now read that sentence aloud.
What you’ve just heard is the mantra that whispers through my mind every time I start writing a story — and which bludgeons me when I go to read one.
There are more than enough mundane sentences in our world, and we’re bombarded by them relentlessly. Work emails, text messages, TV commercials, ads on bus shelters, misspelled restaurant menus, tax forms, university websites, cereal boxes, DVD cases, instruction manuals, radio announcements, Woolworths flyers… Everywhere, everywhere, words. They all communicate messages to their readers, and most serve a purpose — they do, in other words, what it says on the can — but though they get us semantically from A to B, few people would classify these pieces of writing as Art (with a capital ‘A’).
It isn’t a writer’s job to merely get their readers from A to B, to facilitate their journey from plot point to plot point, from page one to page three hundred and seven. Writers have certainly made a contract with readers that they will do these things — they will provide, to the best of their ability, a story worth spending precious hours of our lives reading — but there is no clause in this contract that states, “I, the Writer, promise to make you, the Reader, forget that you are involved in an Act of Literature.”
Writers compose. Writers conjure. Writers create. These are all words I associate with Art; so my hope, when I pick up a book, is to find Art trapped between its covers. My hope is to spend a few minutes, hours, days submerged in useful beauty.
Beautiful writing can’t be superfluous — long before Shakespeare’s time we’ve been wary of tales “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” — so it must serve a purpose in the story. It must give us extra insight into the characters, their worlds, their plights. But being useful does not preclude being beautiful: a well-crafted phrase, a symbolic image, a perfect metaphor can convey emotion or give us a sense of place far more effectively than half a dozen workaday sentences. In ‘The Wings of Mister Wilhelm’, Theodora Goss could’ve said “The girl was a fine seamstress” but instead we learn that she “could make stitches a spider would be proud of” and so we understand the delicacy of these stitches, how small they are, how many hours the girl would’ve spent practising her craft. Webs and spiders and fine gossamer thread also conjure up images of fairies and Queen Mab and dresses made of spidersilk — all of which add to the magical tone of this story.
When we read “He wants the redness to spill from him like a scent” in the ‘Cranberry Creamed Honey’ entry of Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month, we don’t merely imagine blood spilling from veins, but also the cranberries from the story’s title, crushed and juicy; rich garnet tones and dark forests filled with fruit; love, but equally, danger. This image not only suits the tone of the piece — it also helps to set it.
It might not be surprising that these two authors have both earned critical acclaim as poets — a particular breed of artist that agonises over word choice more acutely than most. The most useful aspect of this beautiful writing is that it succinctly and simultaneously conveys many possible meanings; it slows the reading process just enough to allow readers to bathe in the richness of words.
You needn’t be a poet to convey multiple meanings so effectively. In ‘Dradin, In Love’, Jeff VanderMeer could’ve simply said that Dradin looked out his window at a humid city at night, a sensual city —  a City of Saints and Madmen, if you will — and all of these descriptions would have given us some idea of the protagonist’s state of mind. But instead, he tells us that the city “lay inside the cupped hands of a valley veined with tributaries of the Moth. It was there that ordinary people slept and dreamt not of jungles and humidity and the lust that fed and starved men’s hearts, but of quiet walks under the stars and milk-fat kittens and the gentle hum of wind…” Veins and hands cupped and humidity and lust and people sleeping all convey sensuality and suffocating closeness and tactility and the heat-fever of love, without having to say it in so many words. And if “ordinary people” spend their nights dreaming sweet, milk-fat kitten dreams, then what does that tell us about Dradin, whose insomnia keeps him awake and staring, voyeuristically, out over the slumbering city?
These symbols, similes, metaphors, clever turns-of-phrase, speak to us in a way that straightforward prose isn’t designed to — they speak straight to that wistful, intangible part of ourselves that weeps at the sound of an orchestral swell, or gets goosebumps at the sight of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. This type of writing may not get us to point B without travelling to M and X and Z first, but we need this type of Art just as much as we need an outlet for escape into wondrous worlds. The function of this beauty is to take us out of the realm of everyday language, and to remind us of the mind-blowing power of fine words.
My fear is that too many writers, genre or otherwise, are forced to sacrifice beauty for productivity. Publishing is a competitive business; there are more writers, more editors, more stories out there than a whole world of readers can possibly get to know in one lifetime. People aren’t paid sufficiently for art, they are paid for product. Churn out a series of shit books about sparkly vampires and you’ll likely be able to buy ten houses to fill with Morris’ beautiful things; but write a dozen near-perfect award-winning stories in a decade (á la Ted Chiang) and you’ll probably spend more time working in a carpeted grey office cubicle than you will be surrounded by Arts & Crafts treasures. (But a particular shade of grey can offer a neutral backdrop upon which many fine writers, often masquerading as office clerks, have hung colourful daydreams. And come nightfall these reveries are transformed into awesome books…)
The Romantic in me wishes writers could survive on beauty alone. The writer in me not only wants but needs to be inspired and encouraged by fine literary art, by the perpetual magic of words. The pragmatist in me would love it if we were able to find a balance between commercial success and artistry, productivity and grandeur. Hmmmm…. Beauty and financial stability… What could be more useful than that?


Helen Venn is one of the loveliest ladies in writing, and for a variety of reasons, one of the bravest SF people I’ve met, reasons which include being utterly willing to stand up and call bullshit on anybody in the middle of an illogical or disagreeable rant. Including me on more than once occasion. I love her combination of gentility and steel, the best example of which occurred during Clarion South when, during a patented Battersby diatribe on the difference between ‘jet fighters’ and ‘bus drivers’ she very calmly waited for a break in the action and firmly declared “I like being a bus driver.” She’s fabulous, as you can discover at her blog and the Egoboo collective, but she never set out to write SF. She began writing literary short stories and poems. Now, no matter how hard she tries, she ends up with speculative fiction.
She has placed in various competitions (most recently a finalist in the first Quarter of Writers of the Future). She attended Clarion South in 2007 and was an Emerging Writer in Residence at Tom Collins House Writers’ Centre in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel. 

I come from a family of artists. One brother is a textile artist, another dabbles in metal sculpture and my niece is a professional water colourist mostly painting portraits. Going back further I had a great uncle who professionally created exquisite jewellery. Hell, I even married into a family of artists. My father-in-law was a talented amateur landscape artist. You’d think some of it would have rubbed off on me but no. As far as the visual arts go anything I produce is derivative and, let’s face it, not very exciting, so I really haven’t ever thought of myself as an artist. Until now.
Lee’s question has had me thinking about my writing in a way I had not before. I’ve always loved words and what they are capable of.  I taught myself to read before I went to school partly because words fascinated me and partly because they opened up a whole different world to me. As a seven and eight year old I used to sit on the living room floor (because the giant one volume dictionary that stood on the bottom shelf of the bookcase was too heavy to lift) and read it, opening pages at random for the joy of learning new words. i still get waylaid by new words in a thesaurus whenever I venture into one to the point that, unless I have time to indulge myself, I now use on-line versions  or I’ll find myself hours later wandering through words that are fascinating but have no connection to what I was looking for.
All this is a round about way of saying that, although words always fascinated me, it took me a long while to realise that, yes, I am an artist in my own way. Unlike all those other artists in my family I use words to create my art. I see myself primarily as a story teller – someone who takes words and melds and crafts them into something that is bigger than its individual parts. Those words (whatever their form they are used in – and my writing ranges from fiction, both short and long, poetry, reviews, blogging, articles and non-fiction) are my paints, the word processing system I’m using – might be a pen or a computer. It doesn’t matter  – is my paint brush or palette knife and the paper or computer screen they end up on is my canvas.
This applies to all writers to one degree or another. When I look at the best writers I am struck by the fact that, within the structure of a good story, they do much more. They play with language, stretching it and using it to create images that are as tangible as those on canvas. They don’t set out to preach but they do present the reader with ideas. They explore important issues in society and make us think about them. The best stories will stay in our memories long after we’ve finished them and this is characteristic of all art. It makes us think and expands our knowledge of ourselves, both as individuals and as a human being and this is true of all art.
It speaks to the mind and the heart. It may challenge, delight, infuriate or fascinate us. It doesn’t matter which emotion it provokes, as long as it provokes one. It’s this quality that defines art and it’s as true of writing as any of the other arts.
So yes, I can finally acknowledge I am an artist.


Trent Jamieson is a stylist, as anyone who has read one of his lyrical, poetic stories can tell you. He’s published over sixty of them, as well as the Death Works Trilogy with Orbit Books and the Nightbound Land duology with Angry Robot Books. When not writing, which as far as I can tell, is never, he works at the Avid Reader Bookshop in West End. he lives in Brisbane with his wife Diana, and has a funky website over here.

Art for me is breath. It’s the rough stuff, the rhythms that are life. It’s the truths that come out in even the most fantastical of writing.

I think we’re all art and flawed and wonderful, and all those other things that people are. Art’s the honest and the lying structure that binds the structureless. It’s like those pockets of order that form out of chaos (those pockets that make things like matter and thought possible, we live in one of them).

It’s the pompous, bittersweet lines of a Smiths song, or a poem by Blake, or that scene when the first bear enters the magical (but oh so stifling) world of Margo Lanagan’s book Tender Morsels.

It’s high, it’s low, it’s clever, it’s as stupid as a pulse. And just as vital because it signals life.

I think the moment that you set out to capture something in words, music, talk, drawing, mathematics or whatever, you’re making art.

I think it’s the second most important thing to life, and love (maybe the most important thing, because it gives those other two voice). It’s play, pure and simple, even when it’s the most important subjects that are being discussed (and don’t forget that play is how animals learn to hunt and to flee the hunter and both skills are as serious as life).

Sometimes we’re frightened to say that we’re artists. We’re frightened to commit and be true to our desire for a voice.

I say, fuck that, we’re artists one and all.  Even if we don’t recognise it. We all say and dream things, and, occasionally, we bridge the cruel gap between our skulls and those of others. Art is the tiger burning bright, it is the destroyer and the creator and the double-decker bus. It’s the world that we have made and unmade.
Art is breath. And breath is voice. And sometimes it stinks. Art isn’t always good, but who says it has to be good. Who hasn’t woken up to the love of their life and breathed in their morning breath? And what heartless bastard would stop loving them.

Art’s like that.  Well, at least I think it is, which will have to do.


Tansy Rayner Roberts is a phenom. Winner of the George Turner prize, author of the Creature Court trilogy (HarperCollins Voyager) and short story collection Love and Romanpunk (Twelfth Planet Press). Bloggerer at and at @tansyrr, Galactic Suburbia podcaster, reviewerer of works at and she runs a doll craft business, makes fabric art, raises her two daughters and can type really fast, not to mention I’m pretty sure she’s also a Doctor of something or other historical and she probably solves crimes in her spare time.  Frankly, I think she died ten years ago and was replaced by a robot.

Far too often, writers get bogged down in the art vs. craft divide, as if those who prefer one term are automatically elitist geniuses, and the others are hard-working plebs.  One lot wave their hands and expect their work to magically appear with a swish of their keyboard, while the others are so obsessed with wordcount that they wind up typing gobbledegook and extra gratuitous sex scenes or descriptive paragraphs just so they can hit their day’s quota.

I know all these people. I have been all these people, at varying points in my career.  Most writers have.

It does interest me, though, the hang ups so many of us have over one word or another – it’s like that sticky divide between ‘author’ and ‘writer’.  We all have our own personal, occasionally quite emotional definitions of certain words that relate to our career.  The words we embrace, the words we disassociate ourselves from with flappy hands, and the words we’re totally not ready for yet.  (at least in English we have the privilege of several words to describe people who write – in Swedish there’s only one, which is most closely translated as ‘author’ so if you don’t feel ready to hang that particular word around your own neck, you don’t get a label at all)

I get very impatient with the idea of writing as Art, in the same way I get impatient with the idea of muses – too often it seems to suggest a romantic, film montage sort of life, where inspiration strikes, something moves THROUGH the writer who types manically for 24 hours and suddenly the work is done.

But that says more about my own preconceptions about Art in itself than it does about the (straw) writers who call themselves Artists, Darling.  Do all novelists eye visual artists suspiciously and mutter about how long it takes to fill a canvas vs. how long it takes to produce a novel?  Are we also affected by the film montage view of reality, where we think all it takes is flourishing a paint brush or squishing our hands into wet clay, and magically the work is done, sitting on plinths, being peered at by New York critics?

When I peel back the layers of assumptions that pop culture has apparently taught me about artists, and remember the people I actually know in reality who work as artists, or as craftspeople (or, just as commonly, both at once and more besides) I recall that art is in fact largely about using and utilising techniques.  It’s about practicing, and improving, and while there are elements involving inspiration and all that fancy stuff, there’s also a lot of bloody hard work.  So actually, there’s not that much difference between art and craft at all, as a useful metaphor.  Except maybe artists get paid more, while craftspeople get paid more often.  But not always.

Likewise, it doesn’t matter whether a writer (or an author) thinks of themselves as someone who produces art or craft.  They’re all just words, and writers know better than anyone that they can make words mean anything they want.  We use them to trick ourselves into feeling better (or worse) about our work, into writing more (or not writing at all) and into feeling like the writer/artist/person we want to be.  There are so many elements of a writing career that the writer themselves has no control over. But what we can control are our working methods, our goals, the techniques we work on to improve our art or craft or just plain writing, and the way we present ourselves to the world. 

If we didn’t have our little quirks, our pet metaphors and endless different methods of talking about ourselves, we’d probably dissolve into puddles of paranoia and panic about this unstable, rocky industry we have pinned our hopes on. We’d be no fun at dinner parties. We might never leave the house.

The kind of artist a writer most resembles is a con-artist.  But trust me, that’s a good thing. 


Stephen Dedman has been just about everything in SF over the years: the author of excellent novels like The Art of Arrow Cutting and Shadows Bite, more than 120 short stories published in an eclectic range of magazines and anthologies, editor, magazine head honcho, bookshop owner, international man of mystery, and guru. He’s also my very good friend, and was best man when I married Luscious Lyn. We get together nowhere near as often as we should, due to distance, but with new work constantly appearing (he’s currently due to appear in Midnight Echo #6, Exotic Gothic 4 and Zombies versus Robots, and it’s only Saturday…) he’s always somewhere close in fictional form. He’s always pretty damn close to the top of the list when I’m inviting people into writing ventures, and my League of Treacherous Carrots was no exception. 

Ars gratia artis, pecunia gratia deus
I’ve loved museums for as long as I can remember, but have spent relatively little time in art galleries. Tempt me with a few dinosaur skeletons, a moon rock, a mummy case, some suits of armour, experimental aircraft or even vintage cars, and I’ll walk straight past a load of Pollocks without a second glance. It’s not that I don’t respect visual artists (well, some of them, anyway); it’s more that many are communicating in a language that I have never made much of an effort to learn.
That said, there is one art gallery I visit whenever I’m in London; indeed, if I were pressed for time, I would go there and skip the famous Museum of Natural History just down the street. It’s the Victoria & Albert, and quite apart from its delightfully high weirdness factor, much of it is devoted to design: artistry applied to things that serve a purpose beyond adorning a wall or a courtyard. Things that work.
Which conveniently brings me to the art in writing. The main thing I look for when I write a scene, or a sentence, is whether or not it conveys the information I wanted to communicate – i.e., whether or not it works. If not, I rewrite it until it does.
Of course, tone and style and pace also convey information, so I have to get those right, too. Sometimes I want to suggest beauty; sometimes horror; occasionally both at once. Someone once said that prose should be like plate glass, not stained glass, and sometimes that’s true. Sometimes, however, I need coloured glass, or frosted glass, or half-mirrored glass, or slow glass, or glass that’s cracked and crazed so that it distorts the images, or glass so dirty you only get a vague impression of the shape of whatever’s outside. Or inside. Imagine, if you will, that you’ve come around to collect the rent from an unreliable tenant, a young woman who sometimes calls herself Marie Jeanette though she was actually born in Limerick and christened Mary Jane. The window of the room is filthy, as befits her trade and the area. Spitalfields is a perfect name for it; if there truly was a white chapel here, it would be so besmirched with soot and mud and obscene graffiti that not even God would know his own house. You knock on the door of Mary’s room, but there is no answer. You do your best to peer through the grimy window, and discover that the pane is cracked and can easily be dislodged. You reach in, and push the threadbare curtain aside. What you see, sends you running to the police.
No-one alive knows what sort of blade or blades Jack the Ripper used to mutilate Mary Kelly; one was at least six inches long, but must have been small enough to hide in the clothing of the time – lethal, certainly, but probably cheap and commonplace, deniable, furtive, sly. Now look at this display of katana from the V&A.

Try to see this weapon through the eyes of the swordsmith who took pride in making it beautiful, or the samurai who took equal pride in wearing and wielding it as an ostentatious reminder of the prestige that only comes from generations of loyal service to the emperor combined with the power to kill with utter impunity. Both blades can cut, both can slaughter, both are serviceable tools in that sense, but they are not the same.
Words are the writer’s tools, and our language is blessed with many thousands of them, a vocabulary so large as to dwarf even the V&A’s wondrous hoard of strange apparatus. When I want to tell a story, I have a choice of devices which I can use in different combinations, but as Mark Twain once said, the difference between the right word and the almost right word, is like the difference between lightning and a lightning-bug. Some phrases guide you from A to B, step by step; others transport you without giving you time to catch your breath. Some are subtle and simple as a Zen garden, some as big and brash and boastful as elephant armour. Some of them reshape landscapes, interior or exterior Some of them frighten, or wound, or caress, or tickle. .
And sometimes, it may suit the writer’s purpose to distract you by playing music on a pipe organ shaped like a tiger eating an Englishman.


When I decided I was going to invite other authors to speculate on the nature of writing as Art, Adam Browne was the first person I asked. Indeed, it was the thought of what he might say that prompted my initial desire to spread the question around. When it comes to writing as art, no other author of my acquaintance writes with quite the same combination of style, artistic intent, and outright froodiness. If you’ve read his work, you know exactly what I mean– stories like the Bangkok-as-you’ve-never-imagined-it Heart of Saturday Night, or the Aurealis Award-winning The Weatherboard Spaceship, or Neverland Blues (Michael Jackson has evolved into an immortal spaceship, and needs a boy to, uh, enter him…) ……Once read, they can never be forgotten. Adam is that rare kind of artist, whose works can genuinely change the way you see the universe. If his novel makes the final leap from hopeful to actual Angry Robot publication, placed as it is in the same editorial lottery queue as mine own, then a much wider audience than ever before is going to know what we Browneaphiles have already discovered: he is one hell of a singular talent.

I once heard a painter say, I think it was in The Shock of the New, that the urge to paint is the urge to match the beauty of flowers. He said it’s clear we’ll never come close. Maybe we just don’t have flowers in us. Or if we do, they’re bursts of artillery fire, or the questionable blossom of an earmouse, or an efflorescence of leveraged buyouts branching through the ramifying layers of Sony or Safeway or MGM.
As for representation, I say the Impressionists were closest to getting it right. They represented a flower by not representing it. The same principle works for writing. So many ideas and experiences don’t survive direct contact with words. A friend once said that I work by surrounding an idea with literary ornament – I make Faberge eggs, he said: the fragile shell is scarcely touched, but it’s there for the reader nevertheless (we’re told show, don’t tell; sometimes, though, it’s best not to show at all).

But is all this what I set out to say? I don’t know. Whatever it is I’m trying to say, maybe I’m trying to surround it, orbit in on the flower inside the egg without ever touching i
I know I want to say that I love art. High art and dirty art. The beautiful and the grotesque, far more closely related to each other than the merely pretty or tasteful.
What else do I love?
The merry hideousness of a rundown circus.
The feeling that the acrobats and clowns, no matter how they try to glitz up their acts, belong to something as old as the tarot deck.

Brittle circus merriment, I love that. A bit alarming, like the manic behaviour of someone teetering on the shivery edge of something terrible…

The sacred and the profane… Profound nonsense… The courageous coward in Huysmans’ Against Nature… Fellini telling Nino Rota to compose a carnival tune that’s sad and happy at once… And Rota getting it right…
Lies that tell truths…  
That’s what I’m trying to find, always. That’s art…
What don’t I love? What’s not art?
I’m unmoved by the feats of athletes and businesspeople whose supposed greatness comes from measuring themselves against the achievements of others.
Measure yourself against bigger things, that’s what I say – against the world, the universe – people are afraid that doing it will make them smaller, but it doesn’t, it makes them bigger.
The anxiety that crackles around me whenever I write, I dislike that. That’s not art (not anti-art, which is Dada, which is art). It’s the unvoiced voice of I don’t know who telling me I’ve wasted my life pursuing this thing.
Here I am, struggling for money, in dodgy health, fabulously obscure – and still I keep doing it, hopelessly… Wile E. Coyote, super genius… How many times have I plummeted, whistling, into the canyon this year?
But still I keep going after it, the Roadrunner, the flower inside the egg; because what’s the point of a goal that can easily be achieved?
That’s what I tell the anxiety, that’s how I silence the world that loves athletes and money. And I keep on writing…
The carrot will always be there. The classic target-that-can-never-be-reached, always ahead, drawing me on, mulishly.
I’ll never reach it, and that’s the way it’s meant to be. That’s art…


Laura Goodin is a jet pilot.

Let me explain: I met Laura when I tutored Clarion South back in 2007. One of my major rants was on the difference between artistic styles. There are two types, I pontificated– bus drivers, who always stick to the speed limit, never risk anything, but can be trusted to trundle from spot to spot on a timetable, safely, slowly, and allowing you to concentrate on other things all the while. And there are jet pilots, who may crash every now and then, but make us all look up and shout ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ as they streak past in their supersonic, supercool, brightly coloured sensawundazoommachines.

Laura, a transplanted Amerkan living in New South Wales, takes risks and makes us go ‘ooh’. So far she’s done it in markets like Wet Ink, Adbusters, ASIM, and The Lifted Brow. She’ll also do it soon in Daily Science Fiction and Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, a sale that makes me shiver with unrepentant, blood-spitting jealousy. She’s had plays produced here and in the UK,. and her poetry has been set for performance internationally. All this and she’s pursuing a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Frankly, I’m a little concerned that she may have given up valuable sleep time to compose her post for me. 

The point comes up with depressing regularity:  “No, you must create for yourself!  Not for an audience!  Banish all though of the audience from your mind!”  The idea seems to be that if you create for an audience, you are, by definition, trying to please them.  I would like to assert that the only true art is exactly that created for an audience. 

Before you dismiss me as being either an attention-hungry crawler or a money-grubbing hack, let me elaborate.  I believe a crucial distinction must be made between writing to please an audience and writing to reach them.  If I have something I desperately want people to know, to care about, of course I’m going to write (my art is writing) in such a way as to make that message as clear and effective as possible.  This requires that I think long and hard, with love and with daring, about the best way to say it so that my audience will understand.  This is a very far cry from fawning on them!  Chances are quite good they won’t thank me, particularly if the message is an uncomfortable one.  But my art demands that I try.

If I’m writing with literally no thought to anyone else in the world, and no-one will ever see the piece except me, you could say that that’s art for an audience of one, still created out of love and daring.  In contrast, if I’m writing to lash out at my audience, make them feel shame, make myself feel better at their expense; no matter how skillful I am, that’s not art.  And if I’m writing to manipulate them into giving me their money or their approval, because that’s what I crave, that’s not art.

In his truly excellent address given at the Boston Conservatory, Karl Paulnack makes a distinction between being an entertainer and being an artist.  He says, quite unabashedly, “Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet.”  His practice has led him to realize that art is serious business for all of us, audience and artist alike, and everything depends on it.

A work of art, true art, reminds us of the best that’s in us, and calls us to claim it: “Remember what you are, O human being:  glorious in power, magnificent, brave, kind, wise, beautiful, and very, very good.  Remember.

When any woman, any man, any child experiences art and becomes thereby more truly themselves, the world is healed just a little bit.  Artists have a wonderful and terrible job, the best job ever, the scariest job ever:  healing the world.  And that’s why true art demands an audience, and why the world demands true art.


Dirk Flinthart is as close to a polymath as anybody I know. I first met him over a bottle of wine at a room party at a con in Canberra five years ago, where his first act was to subject me to a rib-cracking bear-hug that lifted me off my feet. and let’s be honest, folks, I ain’t no bantamweight…. He’s been one of my favourites ever since. Right now, in his own words, he’s currently at work on a Masters Degree, two novels, five short stories, a heroic poem, a libretto, his 2nd dan in Ju-jitsu, a black belt in Iaido, three children, a cantankerous wife, fifty rebellious acres of Tasmanian countryside, and a bunch of other things even less relevant to the question of ArtHe’s written for quite a range of publications now, and has the distinction of being the most-nominated non-winner of all time at the Aurealis Awards (at least, so says Wikipedia. Dirk can’t confirm the claim, but does find the idea amusing as hell.) as well as sharing a Ditmar with Margo Lanagan. He says he’d like to be a writer, but his life is complicated with children and… stuff. But when Dirk does stuff, he does stuff very well indeed. A fiery intellect, a stunning turn of phrase, and ideas that fly off the page with careless abandon– all Flinthart signatures, and all present in the article that follows.

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. 
– Show quoted text –


Karen Miller is in serious danger of contracting word poisoning. She’s been writing professionally since 2005, and since the publication of her first fantasy novel The Innocent Mage has written 17 novels.  They cover epic historical fantasy, media tie-in work for Star Wars and Stargate SG-1, and the Rogue Agent fantasy series under her pen name K E Mills: there’s simply too much Karen for one name, and not even in a He’s-Fred-but-on-Friday-nights-calls-himself-Jessica kind of way. Her work has been short-listed for both the James Tiptree Jr award and the Aurealis Award, so you know she’s damn good at what she does. When she’s not busy at the computer, Karen enjoys acting and directing at her local theatre company. Before she realised her dream of becoming a professional writer, she studied for and was awarded a Bachelor of Arts (Communications) degree and a Master of Arts in Children’s Literature, and worked in a wide variety of jobs, including: horse groom, college lecturer, PR officer in local government, publishing assistant, and owned a specialist science fiction, fantasy and mystery book shop. She’s one of the people I seek out to sit next to at cons: literate, intelligent, bawdy and always, always thinking, not to mention unfailingly kind: my first serious contact with an agent was because Karen bumped into her at an airport and thought she’d be a good fit for me. Karen’s website and LJ are always highly readable, and so is the article that follows.

To be honest, this one’s got my head in a bit of a tailspin. And as a result it may well be that what I’m about to say is going to ruffle feelings, which isn’t my intention. But it is what it is … so …

I am not comfortable  with the notion of framing myself as an artist. And I’m not comfortable with the idea of seeing myself as someone who has important things to say, whose purpose is to enlighten the reading public with the brilliance of my insights about … whatever. I don’t think it’s my place. I don’t think it’s my job. I think the audience, the reading public, gets to decide what is or isn’t important about my work, or works of literature in general.

First and foremost, I see myself as an entertainer. A yarnspinner, a storyteller, someone who’s been blessed with the gift of the gab.

Does that mean I don’t have opinions, thoughts, feelings, about a whole range of subjects? Hell, no. I’m about as opinionated as they come. I have more opinions than I know what to do with. But should I use my fiction as a vehicle to parade my various thoughts and opinions?

No. I don’t think I should. Because as a novelist, a writer of fiction, I believe I’m making a promise to the reader who picks up my book … and that’s not the same promise as would exist if I’d written a work of  non-fiction, or autobiography.

And I say that being fully aware of the fact that a writer’s life experience informs all aspect of the writing, that we all proceed using a road map of conscious and unconscious assumptions, beliefs, prejudices,  points of view and perspectives. For example, one reason why I write fantasy is because I really do believe in the concept of good and evil. I believe that power can corrupt. That greed is poisonous. That weak people do terrible things to compensate for their failings. That good people can make a difference in a sometimes dark and dangerous world. And I think there is a style of fantasy fiction that allows me to explore those beliefs. So as far as it goes,  yes, it’s true. My opinions are informing my fiction.

But I also think there’s a fine line that writers walk , a line that when crossed leads us into writing thinly-veiled polemics, into riding our personal hobbyhorses into the realms of non-fictional lecturing. And when we do that, I think we’ve let down the readers. I think when a reader walks into a bookshop and starts browsing the fiction shelves, they’re looking for a great story. Yes, they might also be looking for a story that makes them think, gives them a chance to see the world in a different light, to reconsider their world viewpoint. All of that. But mainly, I think they’re looking for great entertainment.

That’s why I’m wary of falling into what I think is the trap of defining my own work. I don’t think it’s up to me to decide that I’m writing something  ‘special’ or ‘important’ or ‘socially relevant’. I’m afraid the minute I start thinking that way, I’m going to lose my connection to the reader. I’m going to cross the line from entertainer to pontificator.  Most fatally of all, I’m afraid I’m going to start thinking of myself as superior to my readers, that my purpose is to point out to them all the ills of the world that I understand so much better than they do, and that their purpose is to  receive my wisdom with awe and gratitude.

So how do I, as a writer, try to walk that fine line?  To keep my focus on reader engagement, and not reader enlightenment? Thinking about it, I’ve come to this conclusion. I think that if I start a story from a place of polemics: I believe that unbridled capitalism is evil and I’m going to write a story showing that, then chances are my story isn’t going to please a lot of readers, because my primary purpose for writing isn’t to connect with them and entertain them with a rattling good yarn, it’s to lecture them and prove my point.

On the other hand, if I happen to think that unbridled capitalism is evil, but can explore that idea as I investigate the lives of a cast of characters in an engaging way, then I can make my point effectively and subtly, while never making that point more important than the needs of the reader … which is, more often than not, to be entertained.

There’s an argument that gets made that says not to address matters of social importance in fiction is to support the status quo, to give tacit approval to the ills of the world. There are writers who rail against the complacency of audiences who only read so they can have their narrow views of the world  comfortably confirmed. There are people who feel that writers have some kind of obligation to challenge the status quo, to shake the tree, to rock the boat.

My feeling is that while there’s merit to that argument, at the end of the day it’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it.  If we let ourselves become strident and condescending, if we’re so busy shaking our fists and stamping our feet and demanding that people pay attention to what we’re saying because we’re artists – and by implication better and special – that we forget  about the person who picked up our book in the first place, and why they picked it up,  then  I think we’ll most likely lose any chance we have of making a connection that will let us ask questions and challenge preconceptions and  encourage people to see the world through different eyes for a while.

Let the readers decide if the books I’ve written are art. My job, I think, is to do my best to see they’ve not wasted their money.


Jason Nahrung is one of the most stylish fellows I’ve ever met, both in person (he has the best shirts ever), and in his writing. It’s always a massive pleasure every time we cross paths, and I couldn’t have wanted a more fitting and pleasurable person to present me with my Aurealis Award. Jason is everything I’m not: cool, laid back, laconic, and able to look good in black. He grew up on a Queensland cattle property and now lives in Melbourne with his wife, the writer Kirstyn McDermott, who will be joining us a bit later. His stories are invariably darkly themed, perhaps reflecting his passion for classic B-grade horror films and ’80s goth rock. You can learn more about him at but we’ve got him for the next few minutes, so sit down and listen, all right?

‘I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.’
It’s a quote from Oscar Wilde that has seen other iterations. If it makes you laugh, or grimace, or perhaps do both, then chances are you’re a writer.
Watching the statistics for the burgeoning self-published e-book market, I can’t help but wonder how many of these literary entrepreneurs have spent the day staring at their work seeing no symbols other than a dollar sign. In the rush to make a buck out of the new frontier, where the only gatekeeper is a bank account and access to a print-on-demand facility, is the focus on the art and craft of writing being lost?
It isn’t just an issue for self-publishing, of course. Those two aspects of writing — the art and the craft upon which it is based — have always sat uneasily side by side, dissing each other with genre aspersions, digging each other in the ribs with sales figures and literary awards. Legacy publishers are guilty of making available poorly edited, structurally unsound and otherwise poorly executed stories; copy editing is the most visible victim of decreasing investment in the finished product.
The situation is made even murkier by the general low regard for writers, and writing, within society. You published a book? You must be rich, now. You wrote a book? Wow, how hard can it be, then — Publish it yaself, didya? You wrote a book? You must be a snob, a geek, a layabout. No ticker-tape parade for you!
Arguably, of all the arts, writing is the one most accessible: the material requirements are low and the perception is that, to practise it, the skill set amounts to being able to hold a pen, or type, even one-fingered will do. We all have a story in us, we’re told; the understanding follows that we are all equally capable of telling that story through the written word. After all, most people in the western world write every day. They learnt it at school. How hard can it be? Yeah, I’ve always thought I’d knock out a book one day, when I get a spare moment …
Indeed, the craft can be learnt. Here’s a noun, here’s a verb; here’s where the commas go. Talk to anyone who’s read a slush pile, and you’ll hear how even those most basic of grammatical instructions can prove mysterious. Almost as mysterious as the professed writer who declares they do not read, or read only their favourite author, or read only one genre. I’m not feeling the love, there.
Which leads me to the art. I don’t consider myself to be particularly artful when it comes to stringing my words together. I don’t consider that I’m a great stylist. I’m aware of gaps in my literary education. But I love my words. I love changing them around to see what difference it makes. I love taking out the comma, and putting it back in again. I am, I think, a proficient craftsman — a wordsmith, if you will. But an artist? Hm. Grey areas and accusations of snobbery abound.
I’m not sure the art can be taught, although I suspect a voracious reading appetite matched to critical awareness is part of it; so, too, an ear for nuance and rhythm; a degree of pedantry might also help. Passion not just for storytelling but forlanguage: most definitely. No, I‘m really not sure that these things — this innate, even arcane, talent for using the right words in the right order — can be taught. 
It’s the coming together of art and craft that makes a good book into a great book, and there’s no formula for it. It can’t be mechanised. It can’t be measured in sales figures, either. A technically sufficient, artfully deficient story can tap the zeitgeist and go gangbusters. The artist’s sculpted vision may languish. Go figure.
Of course, not all writers want to be artists — as long as their story is out there, they’re happy — and among those who don’t, money isn’t the only driving force. We write, and we seek publication — to have our stories made available to an audience, through whatever channel — for myriad reasons. Financial and critical success will fall where it will: that’s the mystique of the publishing world, the lottery element that stokes the desire of so many aspirants. Accepting our limitations and shaping our aspirations accordingly makes good sense, to me.
The thing is, regardless of what we want from our writing, the vocation deserves respect: if not from the broader community, at least from its practitioners. That respect begins with acknowledging the craft: learning the tools and the materials, finding a voice, making the finished product as good as it can be. Writing is not just the fallback position for those who can neither play a musical instrument nor paint; it is unlikely to be the best paying job you can do in your pyjamas.
Maybe it’s in the commas that the benchmark of the writer lies. If you’re a writer, the commas matter. 


In the wake of my ranty ranty art post, I thought it might be interesting to ask some of my more artistically inclined peers– writers whose art I admire, and/or whose approach and way of thinking has inspired my own thought processes– to give us their views on the writer as artist.

First to join us is the lovely Thoraiya Dyer. I first came into contact with Thoraiya when she emailed me to ask some searching and incisive questions regarding the Aboriginal spirituality portrayed in one of my stories, and to discuss her misgivings about the difficulty in portraying that spirituality in one of her own works. That story, Night  Heron’s Curse, published in ASIM, is frikkin’ fabulous, and was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award in 2008, proving beyond all doubt that she has no need to ask the likes of me for advice about anything. Since then, over a dozen of her short stories have appeared in such places as Cosmos, Aurealis and Zahir. her novelette The Company Articles of Edward Teach was winner of the 2011 Ditmar Award for best Novella/Novelette, and Thorayia was awarded Best New Talent in the same year, making us New Talent Buddies or something. Her urban fantasy short story Yowie, from the Locus-recommended Twelfth Planet Press anthology Sprawl, was joint winner of the Aurealis award for Best Fantasy Short Story of 2010. Twelfth Planet Press will publish a collection of her original fiction as part of their Twelve Planet Series in 2012.

I finally met her in person at this year’s National SF Convention, and she is as lovely in person as she is in electronica. You can learn more about her at her website, but for the moment, if you would be so kind, I give you Thorayia Dyer:

There are all sorts of parallels between writers and visual artists, and it’s a fun way to explore my taste in books and in paintings. Why do I like what I like? How can I try to write things that other people will like?

My very favourite paintings meet three criteria.

First: I demand outstanding technique. I want to feel like the artist’s fingers have bled, that they have stayed up til dawn to master techniques that a novice couldn’t dream of.

I want to see the evidence in a painting’s composition, movement, colour, brushwork – anything! – that those facets have been studied, that they have been considered, that they have been deliberately applied, that it isn’t all just a happy accident like patterns of moonbeams or rain. Not only because the results are stunning, but because dedication to a skill makes me feel respect and awe for the artist and prepares me to absorb the message.

Second: The message. I want a topic or theme that challenges, moves, informs, or – yes! – even entertains me. As long as it incites some sort of memorable response.

The final criteria, tied in with the message, is the ability for me to understand that message, and here’s where the visual artist has a choice.

To communicate clearly with symbolism that most people will understand (paint a big gold halo around the head of that saint!) and risk being scorned by critics?

Or, to communicate, perhaps with more complexity and depth, with those who are students or lovers of art (the tree in Van Gogh’s Starry Night connects earth and sky; the element is repeated in the church steeple which connects people and heaven, the message is the beauty of nature as a facet of Creation), but to risk having the message missed by many or most people?

Written works follow the same pattern, really.

There are books that have clearly been written in an oblivious, rapturous way by authors who were struck by a good idea, but, even if they did read other books before they started writing, they did not think critically about what they read and how they might apply the techniques they encountered.

There are books that have great technique but no message; nothing to make me think profound thoughts or feel some powerful emotion.

There are books that have messages, but I don’t have the skill to decipher them. (I often like to call this “poetry”! When poetry is self-referencing, the meaning is lost on me because I haven’t read enough poetry, which makes me sad and also feel a bit stupid. But I did choose Veterinary Science and not English Lit.)

Then again, when a message is too transparent, I don’t like it either. I like to earn my supper, when I’m in the mood, and when I hear people complain about a science fiction story that they hated, but that I loved, it can be because familiarity allows me to decipher conventions that they don’t have the tools to decipher.

Sometimes being able to understand a dense literary novel makes me feel clever, and that’s rewarding; who doesn’t like to feel they are good at something they have practiced? The skill to do that is no different to the skill my husband has, which is to take mechanical gadgets apart for the pleasure of seeing how they work and then have the ability to appreciate and applaud some clever engineer’s innovative solution, while I’m staring at it and wondering exactly what it’s for.

Am I difficult to please? Yes, but so is everyone, and everyone has their own criteria, and all criteria are valid. Just because another person doesn’t care for technical excellence doesn’t mean that what they love isn’t art.


I meant to post in the wake of my guest speech at the KSP SF Awards a few weeks back, and commit to blog those thoughts I had spoken in person. I’ve got a few minutes. Let’s do it now.

For the last decade, I have been a writer. I’ve been writing a lot longer than that– my first publication was back in 1989– but for the last 10 years my writing has followed a discrete career arc, with ambitions and learnings completely separate to my day to day existence. I am a writer. I have never considered myself an author, and I delineate the difference thus: an author is one who publishes large works, and plays out their dramas as much in the public sphere as behind the desk– think Rowlinson, James Clavell, Stephen King; a writer simply writes, and works to create art, and tries to build good fortune along the way without utilising ones self as part of the message. It’s not a real solid definition, and it doesn’t imply a value judgement to one side or the other, and frankly, you could pick holes in it for fun any time you like. But it works in my mind. However, there’s one word in there that people seem to struggle with when I mention it in the same breath as writing, or speculative fiction, and that’s art.

I’m not going to argue the relative merits of SF as a genre. You like it or you don’t, and either is fine by me. I don’t even consider myself an SF writer: I’ve written poetry, plays, film scripts, stand-up comedy routines, jokes, reviews, interviews, articles, educational courses, and sundry other forms along with SF. So no, I’m not going to argue over whether SF is any more or less worthy than poetry or lichrachoor or dirty limericks. But I will argue that writing is as much capital-a Art as sculpture, or painting, and what’s more, I’ll even define what type of art it is:

Writing is abstract art, and I can prove it.

Take a look at this picture.

I’ll give a nice, yummy e-Freddo to anybody who can name this picture, without looking it up on the net, or asking an art historian friend.

Truth is, you cannot define this picture just by looking at it. It’s non-representational. It doesn’t look like anything, except for those subconscious links and images we ascribe to it from within our own experience. To you it might look like lit roads at night. To the person next to you it might resemble a micro-chip in action. That guy over there might see a cubist playing Pac-man. It’s abstract art, designed to push past the immediate emotional responses of representational recognition (“It’s a tree, I like trees, I have a nice memory associated with a tree, I am happy, I like this painting.”) and strike emotional triggers from deeper within the viewer’s subconsious.

And for the record, it’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, by Piet Mondrian. Have a Freddo.

How is all this related to writing? Like this:

Let’s pretend there are thirty of us in the room. If I hold up, say, a carrot:

Let’s all pretend this is real, shall we?

Everyone in the room sees the same carrot. From different angles, perhaps, but still, the same carrot. Now, if I hold up a picture of a carrot:

Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Ou une carotte.

Again, whilst we aren’t viewing an actual carrot, we’re all looking at the same image, and the agreement that the image does, indeed, represent a carrot, would be implicit. However, let’s now take a look at the word itself:


If I ask everyone in the room to draw the carrot they see when I hold up this word, what odds would you give that every image is exactly the same? What odds on any two of them being the same? What odds on even you and the person sitting next to you producing exactly the same image?

The word ‘carrot’ only signifies the orange, conical, stick-tasting root vegetable in question because we, as writers and readers, engage in an unspoken compact that this is what that particular arrangement of letters signifies. The word itself, and the letters that make it up, hold no meaning whatsoever outside those which we agree upon. Should any individual member of our little cadre stand up and say “That word does not mean carrot. It means Nose-emancipator”, we have no moral right to tell them they are wrong, other than the fact that we have all agreed upon the word’s meaning.

Cut a carrot up, boil it, mash it, whatever you like, and it remains, inherently, a carrot. Cut a picture of a carrot out of its frame, glue it to the Mona Lisa, cut it into strips and stick them around a door frame, and it remains, inherently, a picture of a carrot.

Cut the word ‘carrot’ into its separate letters and place them in a different order, or distribute them throughout different words, and the word ‘carrot’ disappears. Hell, turn one letter upside down, and the word disappears.  An ‘arrcot’ is not orange, nor does it taste like a stick, even though it contains all the necessary letters. Unless we all agree upon it, and even then, we’d have to persuade everyone who speaks the language.

Meaning, agreed upon only because of the unwritten contract between artist and audience, eliciting an individual emotional response determined purely by the sum of experiences the viewer brings to the task of viewing the object. Abstract art, magnified by the fact that we, as writers, choose the order and weight we ascribe to each individual abstract element (Letter? Words? Punctuation? what are these things?)we use to create that emotional response.

How many of you, reading this post, heard my voice in your heads? How many heard your own?

Art is not comfort food. Art should never be comfort food. Great art does not reinforce that which we already hold to be true. It challenges the status quo. It undermines belief. It forces us to consider questions about ourself, and our perceived reality, and our place in the infrastructure of our society and culture, that we may never consider otherwise. Truly great art changes the viewer: the experience of viewing alters the audience, so that once the world is perceived in a particular way it can never be un-perceived. The audience, having come to this new state of mind, can never go back. The world is not the shape as it once was. The mind is not the same place it used to be.

Artists have a responsibility to change us because it is the nature of art to show us reality, not as we wish to close our eyes and see it, but as it could be, whether that be for good or bad. Artists look into the abyss and report back what they find. Writers are guerilla artists, because what we do is never representational: by the very nature of the art form it cannot be representational. It can only be aspirational, can only speak to those layers of emotion and reason that exist below the surface. Writers create new meaning with every choice of word, or phrase, or simile: love is not sex is not shagging is not rape is not ‘doing it’, and each time we choose one description over the other we steer reality in a new direction of our choosing.

Writing was the last of the classic art forms (writing, sculpture, theatre, music, painting) to directly reach the mass audience, and the first– and most brutally– to be suppressed, because its audience needs to be taught a set of skills simply to receive it and to form an emotional response, but once those skills are learned, and once that emotive response is formulated, it can never be removed. The mere act of reception forces intellectual and emotional advancement on the part of its audience in a way that other art forms are simply not designed to do. Writing is the only art form that inextricably ties intellect and emotion into the mere act of reception.

To be a writer is to force your way of thinking onto the world in a way which can never be undone. And that, to me, is the greatest aspiration towards which an artist may reach.