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

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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.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

24 Comments

  1. Putting aside truth and Truth for the moment, addressing this:

    “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. ”

    This is what I think John Gardner calls an “error of soul” in a writer. it has two forms. One is not respecting the humanity of a character or characters, and whimsically or abusively destroying them in what seems to the reader to be an unfair or casual way that has no justification within the world of the story. This happens all the time to supporting characters throughout Stephen Donaldson, by the way. He’s a master of creating a wonderfully appealing character in a mere page of description and narration and then killing them off in the most painful and distressing way simply to highlight a fault in the protagonist’s character.

    The other form of the error, however, is what I think you describe here. It’s the reverse, when the author cares too much about the character, and either rescues him or her from deserved or poetically appropriate ruin, or puts the character on a pedestal of such heroic and godlike status that they can literally (ha ha) do no wrong. Series characters are always running this risk of this happening to them. I think one of the worst examples in a series was what happened to Spenser and Hawk over the course of Robert Parker’s books. That series started out very well, but eventually got to the point of being little better than self-written fan fiction.

    Anyway, when this happens, as in your example of the Robinson story (and he really does a great job of making his characters appealing and sympathetic), all the value of the character’s loss, sacrifice, or death is undercut, and the reader is left with an empty feeling, not merely having to do with that particular event in the story, but with the whole world of the story, which seems to lose its meaning and value.

  2. “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.”

    Have your read Homage to Catalonia? I recommend it highly. It explains Orwell’s hatred of abuses done in the name of socialism.

    But do you really think a popular misreading of Orwell caused or heightened the red scare?

    I try to think of art that’s affected society, and I come up with a mighty short list. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a great book, but Lincoln’s bit of flattery shouldn’t be given too much credence. And as I noted when tweeting, all artists should remember Upton Sinclair’s comment about the effect of The Jungle: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

  3. One of the reasons Truth is subversive is because truths are conclusions based on experiences, not the experiences themselves. Little ‘t’ truths are lies: always at least a step away from reality. Big ‘T’ Truth goes back to the original source material.

    Art works with the foundation on which little truths are based. It allows people (readers, viewers) to draw their own conclusions; and is therefore more authentic to their own experience of the world, more engaging, more likely to succeed in establishing an understanding.

    And that ‘s a definition of success that doesn’t necessarily pay any bills.

  4. So what are you saying here, Will? Are you just being contrarian, or do you actually disagree with what Steve is saying? Please expand…or expound.

    I think Steve is right, which is probably not surprising to those of you who know me. Many artists write to create a world that they and their readers can escape into, but the best of them write the world they see (even in imagination) and somehow illuminate the world we share.

  5. skzb

    Miramon: I should have pegged you as a fellow Gardner fan. Yeah, what you said.

    “Have your read Homage to Catalonia? I recommend it highly. It explains Orwell’s hatred of abuses done in the name of socialism.”

    Yes. It is breathtaking and beautiful and powerful.

    “I try to think of art that’s affected society, and I come up with a mighty short list. ”

    This is probably the essence of our difference. I have trouble coming up with art that hasn’t affected society. To me, it isn’t about a formal, “X book created Y effect in Z readers.” It is more general, more vague, more nebulous, more powerful. We affect the general culture. We leave little footprints. We generalize experience. We introduce doubt or clarity or fear into the backbrain of readers, and, if done well, we help them discover a little bit more of what it means to be human, of what the role of the individual is in a complex society. We do that by making our stories true.

    Naomi: Nicely put.

    “Many artists write to create a world that they and their readers can escape into, but the best of them write the world they see (even in imagination) and somehow illuminate the world we share.”

    Oh, that’s lovely.

  6. Cynthia, I think artists and their fans tend to give themselves more credit for social change than they deserve. Art comes from society, not society from art. Art may be used to rally people who already believe something, and I completely agree that there are times when the choir needs to be preached to, but I see little evidence that art changes people who aren’t already prepared to change.

    This isn’t to knock art. Art’s great for its own sake, and I’m not going to knock any artist who makes a living in mass entertainment, no matter what I think of their politics—though I’ll knock their craft, of course, but I’ll do that regardless of politics too.

  7. Huh. If a piece of art has an effect on me, and I’m part of society, then that art had an affect on society. Q.E.D.

    Seriously, not to take sides here, but I’m with skzb on

    “It is more general, more vague, more nebulous, more powerful. We affect the general culture. We leave little footprints.”

    Yet, as a doomed iconoclast born to social species, I’ll add that when an author puts things in that hit me in my brain, heart, liver, spleen, mouth, and sundry other parts, my behavior changes. Every time I read a Vlad Taltos novel, for example, I spend more time cooking (to the benefit of my health and my family) than had been my norm before, and that lasts ten days on average. No matter what of Jacqueline Carey’s work I read, the cumulative effect of each work and each rereading makes me more courageous about taking emotional risks. After the effect it had on my the first time, I’ve re-read Ellison’s “The Other Eye of Polyphemus” on the same day every year as a reminder.

    There are more grand and obvious effects, historically, as the aftermath of Goethe’s Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers suggests.

    It’s the so-called butterfly effect, Will. When we experience art, that art resonates (hopefully) on a variety of truth frequencies, and we are changed whenever a part of us resonates in return.

  8. I do generally agree with what you’re saying, but I think it’s become harder than it was before to talk about certain things – even for purely artistic reasons. I recently watched an interview with Frankie Boyle, one of my favourite comedians, and he said that the kind of edgy, often very political material that he does has great trouble finding a venue nowadays. The crisis of capitalism seems to have produced a panic in the powers that be, and they’ve taken much tighter control of the media. The changing role of the BBC, from mildly progressive and vaguely objective to right-wing government mouthpiece, is a good example of that. Yeah, you can go out and say whatever you want on the internet, but who’s going to actually hear it?

    I approach art much like you do, but the result inevitably contains directly political and philosophical parts, simply because those are the kinds of stories I tend to tell (it must be because I’m Greek), and I think those parts make people more nervous than they used to. I mean, it’s gotten to the point where just defending the constitutional rights of a people can make you be labeled a terrorist sympathiser. Just mention Wikileaks and watch the madness begin.

    On the other hand, I think mass entertainment may almost be the better place for this kind of material. I have become very suspicious of “activist” art, which seems to consist mostly of identity politics and cliquishness.

    I may have to write a blog post of my own.

    Fun fact: my game The Sea Will Claim Everything (which is a fantasy story, but also about austerity, the economic crisis and the Arab Spring) was praised by two different reviewers – by one for being so explicit and obvious in its politics, by another for being so subtle and allowing players to think for themselves. That was a strange moment for me as an artist, to see just how differently people can perceive this sort of thing. Especially since both of them liked it and weren’t using the politics to bash it.

    I guess context matters. Political content in a book is treated differently from political content in a film, and very differently from political content in a game (or a comic). The history of the artform matters, as does the cultural and economic situation.

  9. It’s always interesting reading SF by authors with strong political views, because even when they aren’t deliberately pushing a barrow, their views are often strongly apparent in the way the world works.

    Are characters who trust others strong and confident characters who have their trust rewarded as the story goes on, or are they weak and ineffectual dupes? Are church-goers more trustworthy than non-church-goers, or less? Are heads of businesses (or politicians, or academics) likeable and clever by default, or are they all self-serving? Is progress achieved through individual action or through mobilisation of a collective? No individual character or plot event is evidence of the author’s political views, but the way the world *tends* to work in the background probably is.

    If you write to reflect the world as it is, your mirror will be made of different stuff than another writer with the same goal, but with different political views. I guess this is what you are getting at?

    The comic book, Fables, for instance, has an overwhelmingly right-wing vibe — at least, it does from my lefty perspective. Last time I picked up a copy of Analog (over a decade ago), it was still dripping with libertarian stories, in which the well-prepared hero acts in his (almost always *his*) own interests and those of his immediate circle, and everything turns out for the best.

    I’ve long been intrigued, skzb, that I don’t see your politics in your work unless I look closely for them. I wonder what this means. Is it:
    a) The authors in whose work I notice a certain political perspective in the way the world works actually *are* trying to push a barrow and put this world-view in deliberately; or
    b) The reverse: The authors in whose work I notice a political perspective are less conscious of their own politics and how it might come out in their work, so they are writing naively; or
    c) I notice it in those stories because they differ so much from my own understanding of the way the world works. Although I am merely left-leaning and not a communist, perhaps your world-view is not too far from mine, so I am blind to it. (I tend towards democratic socialism and tend toward pacifism, but believe in the power of market signals and that we should make use of them).
    ?

  10. Perhaps, as Mr. Shetterly says, “Art comes from society, not society from art.” Yes, I see where art can be a reflection of society. I also see it as an illumination of society & when you start to shine a light into some of the darker corners, change is not only made possible but is inevitable. The changes that art provides need not be Earth-shaking. Subtle changes are as valuable & perhaps more far-reaching & long-lasting. Alberto Manguel, a writer for whom I have a great deal of admiration, put it quite beautifully in his book Into The Looking-Glass Wood:
    “For me, words on a page give the world coherence…Words tell us what we, as a society, believe the world to be…I believe there is an ethic of reading, a responsibility in how we read, a commitment that is both political and private in the act of turning the pages. And I believe that sometimes, beyond the author’s intentions and beyond the reader’s hopes, a book can make us better and wiser.”

    This speaks only to writing, but I think it can be an equally valid point for other art forms as well. I & many others I know, have had perceptions & outlooks irrevocably altered by a piece of music, a play, an object of visual art or a film. Perhaps this hasn’t changed (big S) Society but my little corner has changed & with the ripple effect, who’s to say where the change has stopped?

  11. I’ll repeat what I think I said on twitter: my mind isn’t made up, and I’m working through issues of my own about art, truth, and commercial success.

    That said, if art mattered as much as some people say, I would have to be more sympathetic to rich people who would rather give their money to promote art than help people. I would have to support censorship, because it would mean art is a battlefield that matters enormously. I would have to side with identitarians who only care about the characters who share their social identity, or who only want to enjoy art about characters of their identity.

    I think of Dickens’ claim that A Christmas Carol, which I love, would challenge capitalism, and see instead one of the key moments in the Victorian commercialization of Christmas. I think of Les Mis, with its tickets priced outside the reach of half of the US. The power of mass entertainment is that it turns everything to its purpose. I think it’s easy to argue that mass entertainment in the US has become much more progressive in the last four decades–neatly overlapping the widening of the wealth gap.

    Ah, well. I love well-made art that has principles I share. But I think the argument for the ameliorating effects of art is no different than that for the ameliorating effects of religion. Which, for many folks in general and fans especially, art is–Buddhists will happily point out that you don’t need deities for a religion.

    Stories, songs, and images that make you feel good are grand things for their own sake. Shouldn’t that be enough defense for them?

  12. skzb

    Jonas: I really, really want to read that blog post!

    experimental error: As you say. I work very hard to keep my politics out, because I have an abiding hatred for fiction that preaches, and keeping it out is the best way I know to combat that. But, yeah, my worldview is all over the place. Bottom line: I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything, but I am hoping to bring the reader through an experience; and that experience is shaped by how I think the world works.

    Kieth: Lovely quote. Thank you.

  13. First off, I fundamentally agree.

    Yes, a horrible flaw with much of Spider Robinson’s work (and a lot of David Brin). Especially wrapping up at the end, providing an artificial happy ending for every one of the good guys. Here’s a stereotypical lesbian character, so she gets a stereotypical lesbian happy ending. Etc. Jarring.

    “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.”

    Those libertarian sf writers do find an audience who likes that kind of thing, though. There is a market. They can be successful. They aren’t successful with readers who want better story and less preaching, but some of them are successful enough.

    “if you’re being honest, you are in some measure showing society as it is.”

    I was tremendously impressed with Michael Kurland’s _The Princes of Earth_. What he did, was to describe a society that actually worked. He had to make some unconvincing cardboard villains who got away with unlikely exploits, because in a society that actually worked well he would not have exciting plots where people shot at each other. But he gave a sense of what it would be like to live in a good society. James Schmitz did that some in his Telzey Amberdon series. And I found it incredibly subversive. I found I simply had not had a concept of a functional society as opposed to a dysfunctional one. They weren’t at all showing society as it is, but I found myself thinking — why couldn’t it be that way?

    ‘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!”’

    That’s a fine goal. And yet, maybe all you have to do is tell the truth. I remember getting that sense from some things that Samuel Delany wrote. And then he described how he did it. He sat in the Port Authority of New York and watched people and wrote down what they did. Then he changed the details. He called it the Bridge of Lost Desires, and he made the white characters black and vice versa, and a few things like that. Somehow the way he wrote it made it seem like there were tremendous implications just waiting to be understood. But he did not need to have any of those implications in mind. He just needed to write what he saw in his special style, and I found myself grasping for meanings that might have been there, but that he might easily not have seen himself.

    Joanna Russ said she used to be impressed when people came to her and told her that her writing changed their lives. But she listened to them talk about it, and what they were getting didn’t have much to do with what she thought she wrote. She decided that when people were ripe for having their lives changed, it could get triggered by pretty much anything. She figured that if she could publish a laundry list probably somebody would decide it changed their life.

    So here’s something else you do. When you write things that encourage people to think in particular ways, the people who like that will start to find each other. They’ll communicate, they’ll bounce ideas off each other, and who knows where it will lead? If you can get compatible people to find each other who otherwise might not, that will have unforeseen consequences. And it can do that even when your writing has no overt politics in it.

  14. Was there a particular Spider Robinson incident you were referencing? I’ve enjoyed a lot of his work, but haven’t reread any for a while, so I’m not sure if I’m forgetting the reference or haven’t come across it…

  15. Great social change comes from great upheavals, but the roots lie always in small, subtle shifts — new thoughts, new actions. I agree with Keith, ” Subtle changes are as valuable & perhaps more far-reaching & long-lasting.” And that quote is wonderful.

    I was lucky enough to read a late draft, and you all need to order “The Incrementalists” now — it’s going to rock your world.

  16. skzb

    Cynthia: Awwwwwww.

  17. “Was there a particular Spider Robinson incident you were referencing?”

    I was thinking of _Mindkiller_ in particular. I may not remember it all that well. The main character’s ex-wife was dissatisfied with him because she was a lesbian at heart. At the end of the book Robinson tried to wrap everything up so that everybody got what they wanted, which was particularly hard that time because the mind-control inventor who was taking over the world had done terrible things to people who inconvenienced him, and he tried to present himself as a good guy who had good intentions but just happened to have done terrible things while distracted.

    I’m concerned that when I looked up Robinson’s novels, one that I remembered wasn’t there. After the industrial collapse, people running an eco-commune face attacks from radicals among many other plot elements, and at the end when all the misunderstandings are cleared up the leader of the radicals winds up running their human-waste-to-fertilizer plant.

  18. skzb

    J. Thomas: Yes. Also Stardance.

  19. With regard to your kicking some of your favorite targets because they were just sitting there — I think it’s probably equally misguided to distort your storytelling by seeking out stories to tell where you can kick those targets, or by seeking out stories to tell where you won’t have to.

    P.

  20. Pamela, without disagreeing, I gotta argue for the right to tell stories you think need to be told. When I made Rifkin, Witch Blood’s protagonist, dark-skinned, I was choosing to kick some targets. But I hope I wasn’t too obvious about that.

  21. I think I’d tweak what you’re saying just a bit. To me, the work of an artist is to see, rather than to understand. An artist who sees the world differently — and can say so convincing — can indeed change the world. An artist who sees the world the way most people do, or want to, may create popular, commercial, entertaining, even uplifting art without changing anything other than a few moods. Artists who distort what they see to conform to popular, commercial views are hacks– and usually still not successful because people smell dishonesty. Every good author’s worldview is all over the world they write, but that’s not preaching. Preaching is interpretation, not seeing. I don’t think it’s our job to tell people what things mean. That’s their job — and hell, maybe someone *can* find life-changing meaning in a laundry list [or story structure anyway 😉 ] Our job is to to see as clearly, with as few biases and as little dogmatic distortion as possible, then to say what we see with all the skill, grace and transparency we can muster.
    Oh and Cynthia? kiss you!

  22. skzb

    Pamela: Good point.

    Skye: Now that is interesting. I have to think about it.

  23. Awwww, thanks.

  24. skzb said: “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.”
    Now I understand why I don’t like Neal Stephenson’s fiction! (Though I do like his non-fiction).

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