The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

On Creating Art, Mass Entertainment, Truth, and other Trivialities


This will be one of those long (very long), rambling posts where I try to figure things out as I go. Danger. Do not read if your mind is easily numbed.

This came out of a discussion on Twitter (of all wretched places for a discussion) among Jonas Kyratzes, Will Shetterly, David Byers, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and (until crashing early) your humble host.  The subject was: being successful in the arts, telling the truth, making a difference in the world through art, and mass entertainment.  I found the conversation fascinating because I’m the sort of person who finds such conversations fascinating, and I make no apologies.  Okay, I make few apologies.  Well, all right, I’m very sorry.

Defining terms wouldn’t be any fun, so I’m not going to, except for one: we’ll define “success” for this discussion as being able to support one’s self through one’s art to the degree where one need not have another source of income.  I will not define art, because I don’t want to.

The foundation is, it is the artist’s job to tell the truth. Not because of any moral issue, and certainly not because of a political one, but quite simply because art that lies feels false, and those who view it (gonna say “readers” from now on, because, you know, I’m a writer) tend to find it off-putting.  One good example is Spider Robinson, who has a lovely way with words, understands deeply what “story” means, and is very good at making you care about his characters.  But when he gives us the catharsis of a beloved character dying to make a worthwhile sacrifice and then takes it all back by having the character come back to life, we feel cheated, we no longer believe the sacrifice was worth it, and, in general, we find it depressing.  It rings false, and the more engaged we are, the more that hurts.

So the why is established.  I’ve also said before that, by the very act of telling the truth, one is being subversive.  I’ve used Tim Powers as an example before:  personally, a right-wing Republican, but his stories have an underlying foundation of truth to them that is subversive simply because we are living in an era when the truth is subversive. By which I mean, objectively, this is a society ripe (indeed, over-ripe, rotten-ripe) for overthrow; if you’re being honest, you are in some measure showing society as it is.

The problem I see in some of the discussion is the desire to make this relationship mechanical. In other words, the feeling of, “I want to write something that will show some of the problems in society in an effort to inspire people to work to fix them.”  One can only admire this desire.  But that doesn’t mean one must agree with it.

An artist’s approach to art: subject matter, style, technique in general, is a complex thing.  Mostly, I have no real understanding of how it works in me or anyone else; what I have are heuristics, rules of thumb that lead me to produce stories I’m happy with.  And the bottom line is passion.  It seems to me that if I start from something (a character, a concept, a situation) that I feel passionate about, then I can hope some of that will carry over.  The notion of starting from, “Here is a problem in the world that I want to inform everyone of,” I find utterly repelling.  Yes, we admire Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck and Theodore Dreiser &c ; but it seems to me they were writing less from a perspective of “talk about this to inspire change,” then from, “I really really need to show this.” I’m not saying this well.  Let me try it this way: writers who write effectively about social issues do so because it is organic to them.  Because they can’t help writing about that.  It is not about, “I will use this vehicle–my art–to inspire social change,” as much as, “I have to tell this story.”

I’m having some trouble expressing this, which is generally a sign that I don’t understand it as well as I think I do.  Where is David Walsh?  Anyway,  I guess what I’m saying is that for an artist to take the approach of subverting the needs of the art to the desire to create social change will tend to result in art that is stilted, formal, and unconvincing on any level.  Look at the Libertarian sf writers for plenty of examples.*

Okay, moving on.

Now we get into the closely related subjects of success (as defined above) and mass entertainment. On the one hand, I get very impatient with certain criticisms of the relationship between art and economics as if we’re now living in the first era where that conflict existed.  But on the other, it is is valid to say that, in a number of ways, things are worse now than they’ve been–certainly, if I were an independent film maker, I’d be hailing kickstarter as my savior and hoping desperately it was enough, because otherwise things are awfully grim.

But the question becomes: Does one compromise one’s art in order to make it acceptable to mass entertainment? Well, insofar as publishing is mass entertainment, I can say that I’ve never had the need to do so, but that is pure luck. It happens that I’ve been able to make a living doing exactly what I want. This does not reflect on me in any positive or negative way, it’s just how things broke in my case. But because of that, it gives me kind of a lopsided view of the question. I want to say, “You never compromise, and if that makes your work unacceptable to the mass market, then tough.” But, because of my circumstances, that is awfully easy to say. As for more success (which, frankly, I don’t think I’d want in the first place; it sounds horrible), I have enough trouble getting the stories to the point where I’m happy with them–if I then had to adapt them to my vision of what was commercial, I couldn’t, no matter how much I wanted to. I’d still be programming computers. Or, by now, probably working at MacDonald’s.

All of which brings us (at last) to what is the real heart of the question: By quite simply telling the truth as I recommend–that is, by being honest in one’s storytelling–how are we affecting society, as compared to creating work that is frankly tendentious?  Or, to put it more simply, what is the relationship between art and social change?

Well, the most important factor is one that I haven’t mentioned up until now: the actual conditions of society.  Brecht was right: art is, indeed, a hammer to shape reality; but he was wrong, too: it is also a mirror to reflect it.  The betrayals of the Communist Party during World War II, combined with the post war economic upsurge, combined with very deliberately fostered anti-communism, created a situation where George Orwell could become enormously popular, and, in turn, have an effect on broad layers of a terrified middle class.  Contrariwise, the tremendous upsurge of the working class in the 30’s are what permitted Dreiser to gain attention, which, in turn, resulted in masses of people gaining new understanding of the conditions of the American working class.

How does that effect us as storytellers? Well, the most obvious way  is, we are part of the same society, feel the same pressures, respond to the same events, as everyone else.  We feel the same outrage at the murders carried out in the name of “anti-terrorism,” the same fear as we see our democratic rights eroded, the same worry as more of us are thrown onto the economic scrap-heap, and we’ll feel the same inspiration as the masses begin stirring and expressing their wrath and power.  But the real key to it all, for an artist, is understanding. The more we understand the root causes of events, the more that understanding becomes a part of us, and the more it will inevitably show itself in our work.  And those who read it will respond.  I like to say that our goal should be to be epiphanizers.  We’re hoping for that moment when the reader goes, “Oh my god, that’s true! That’s how that works! I’d never realized it before!” But to get there, we need the epiphany ourselves; and to get that, we have to always be fighting to deepen our understanding of the world.

And I think, after all of this, I’ve been able to figure out some of what I believe: our job is not to be concentrating on creating work to inspire social change; our job is not to worry (any more than we must), about the corporations that control the media.  Our job is to strive to understand our world, and to tell stories that will move and delight and terrify our readers, confident that our understanding of the world will, inevitably, make their way into the backbone of some of them.

You know what will actually have an effect on society in terms of art? Programs to fight illiteracy, and work to prevent libraries from closing.  But that, you see, isn’t our job.  Our job is to tell stories, and, in those stories, to tell the truth.


*And, yeah, I’m inconsistent   In The Incrementalists I couldn’t resist the temptation to kick a few of my favorite targets.  I had to. They were just sitting there. I hope I kept it under control.


Author: skzb

I play the drum.


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