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 Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, ChiZine, Shimmer, Electric Velocipede, Tesseracts 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 http://lisahannett.com.
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.
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.
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 http://tansyrr.com and http://ripping-ozzie-reads.com/, Twitterer at @tansyrr, Galactic Suburbia podcaster, reviewerer of works at http://aussiespecficinfocus.wordpress.com/ and http://lastshortstory.livejournal.com/, 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.
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.
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 Art. He’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.
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.
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 www.jasonnahrung.com but we’ve got him for the next few minutes, so sit down and listen, all right?
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:
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:
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:
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.