On Art and Commerce and Pseudo-Activism

Let’s talk about art and commerce.

To get the obvious stuff out of the way, first, I am using here a very broad definition of art, so we can simply skip the arguments about what is and isn’t art. Second, those of you who want to make Garfunkle jokes, or any of the other oh-so-original cracks playing off the word “art,” please feel free to do so in the privacy of your own blog.

It is obvious that art and commerce are intertwined, and have been since class society has existed, and will continue to be so as long as class society exists. That does not, however, mean we have to be pleased about it, nor that we cannot do what we can to fight it. Simply accepting it, is to accept money as the measure of quality of a work of art, and I am unwilling to do that.

And yet, here is the problem: among so many people today, particularly people who call themselves progressives, there appears to be a conviction that the most important thing about a work of art is not if it moves the audience, not if it shows us something about life, not if helps us understand people who are unlike us, not if it challenges our beliefs, not if it helps us work through moral issues that perhaps we haven’t considered, but, rather money. Because I keep hearing things like this:

We cannot support this person, he gives money to bad causes. And this person has been accused of having done terrible things, so we must deprive him of money. That person is clearly evil, and must be punished by having his income reduced. This person over here is much more deserving of reward, and therefore the money that would go to someone else should go here instead.

Have you considered that, when you say that, what you are really saying is, “The most important aspect of a work of art is what the artist does with the income it generates”?

That’s it, that’s what you’re saying. This is such a complete capitulation to the values of capitalism, an utter surrender to the most loathsome forms of commercialism, that it astonishes me that anyone who expresses it could consider her- or himself anything but an utter conservative.

There is one writer—I shan’t name him, because I fear some of you would stop reading him—who is, or at least was, a conservative, right-wing Republican. As a writer, he has a sharp eye for detail, a deft hand with touching one’s emotional buttons, and an outstanding ability to express human interaction. I consider his work to be among the most subversive in our field; it takes a real effort to read him and not have one’s view of society called into question, to not see how capitalist society degrades and tries to crush the human spirit, and how we are capable of heroism in resisting it.

To get personal for a moment, I consider myself a red, a revolutionary. If I had the talent and skill to do one tenth as effective a job of calling the status quo into question in my books as he does in his, I’d be satisfied indeed.

Would he agree with this analysis? Hell no. I don’t care. What I care about is that his work challenges society as it is, and encourages everyone who reads it to do the same. If he then takes the money he’s paid and gives it to causes I consider vile, that is more than made up for by the truth he reveals; his work is a thousand times more progressive then the philistines who would attack him.

You are not standing on the moral high ground, it just looks that way because your vision is impaired.


The Critic and the Writer

A chance comment suddenly helped crystalize my thoughts on something I’ve been looking for a way to talk about for at least thirty years. It has to do with the way a book is analyzed after the fact, versus how it is constructed.

The comment was on my novel, Dzur, and it discussed how the food described at the beginning of each chapter commented on and interacted with the events in that chapter.  And, yeah, I did that.

After the fact, from the point of view of the critic or the reader, that was a complex bit of layering, where the reader is invited to  consider additional depths of the work.  Sounds pretty nifty, right? Also, probably, pretentious and maybe affected.

But from my perspective, as I was writing it, it was utterly prosaic and practical. Those “additional depths” were hooks to help me figure out what happened next. That’s it. I’d start with the description of the food, then, if I got stuck trying to decide what happened in that chapter, I’d read that description to see if it gave me any ideas.  And, as I was describing the action, I might go back and tweak the description of the food a little, because by then it had become a game I was playing with myself.

I was well aware that this would have the result of a work that had more depth, more texture, more of what Emma Bull has called the “chewy bits.” And that’s great.  But at the end of the day, to me, it was a bit of business I was using to help me figure out what happened in the story.

The analysis by the critic is every bit as valid as the remembered experience of the writer.  I love a good critic for the insights into a work he or she can give me. But the analysis by the critic has little in common with the experience of creation.

Harmonics and Correspondence

Some time ago I distilled some of what I’ve figured out about writing into the phrase, “The art of writing reduces itself to the craft of manipulating correspondence; the craft of writing reduces itself to the art of finding the right word.” I’ve been letting that float around in my head for a while now, to see if I could explain it in terms that might be useful to someone. The tricky part is that word, “correspondence,” and what it means and how I’m using it about writing.

I’ve just been re-watching “Doctor Strange,” and going to school with the script. I was noticing some bits with Wong: having a single name (“like Adele….or Aristotle,”) and whether he ever laughs, and how the writer (C. Robert Cargill)  used that, returned to it—the exact moments in the film when those came up again, the release of tension, the sense of a callback, the completion of something we weren’t aware needed completing. That last is a lovely thing to pull off. Season 6 of Game of Thrones did a lot of it: paying off things we didn’t even expect to pay off (“Hodor!”).

When I talk about correspondence in writing, that’s the sort of thing I mean. Cargill uses it, as I said, to relieve some tension, to control the pacing, to amuse us, and simultaneously add a bit of depth to a character. But look at the setup for it: we’re at the point where our protagonist is trying to come to terms with his new environment, and the interaction with Wong tells us a great deal both about Strange and about that environment and how far he is from anything familiar. That is all it needed to do. That it then turns around and unexpectedly pays off is a special kind of elegance.

But here’s the thing: that technique can work with amusing bits, and with powerful thematic statements; with word play, and with subtext; with trivialities, and with profundities.  In all cases, it is establishing a correspondence between disparate elements or moments.  It is how symbols—images in which extra meaning is concentrated—can tell their own story simultaneously with the one being told “on top” if you will.  Done badly, it is why that symbolic story gets in the way and makes us feel we’re at a lecture rather than reading a story; done well, the symbolic story reinforces, comments on, corresponds with, the incidents.

Now set all of that aside for a moment, because I want to talk about music.

On the guitar, there are things called “voicings” that are important to better musicians than I am. That is, there are numerous ways to play the same chord, all of which will work with the melody, but each of which is different. For me, if I can find a way to play a chord that’s good enough to not sound horrible, I’m satisfied; but a good guitarist will be aware of the different overtones and harmonics* that each chord formation will have, and will use different voicings to add to the overall effect of the song. The unsophisticated listener (like me) will often be unaware of those choices, but it will nevertheless affect us; if done right, the music will be more fulfilling, more elegant, more lasting.

So now we get to the part of this that I’m struggling to express, because it is simultaneously the most abstract part, and the most practical. Let’s try it this way: Every scene is a chord, every sentence is a string. The string has a note that contributes to the chord, but it also has harmonics.  These harmonics might be the exact metaphor used to express a thought, or the rhythm of the sentence, or the generation of a symbol by infusing an image with extra meaning, or the sound of the words, or a bit of semi-accidental worldbuilding, or a sensory detail, or an extra hint of characterization, or any number of other things.

When you’re aware of those harmonics, you can use them, so even as the melody resolves, you return to the harmonic, you can find correspondences and resonances that deepen the melody, provide a counterpoint to it, or suggest other melodies that are implied but never played.  What I’m saying is that these harmonics are already in the sentence you’ve written.  You just have to look for them.

Maybe this is something you look for in your second draft, maybe for you, you can find it as you’re creating, but it comes down to this: that sentence you’ve written that contributes to the scene, that in turn serves the story: look at it again, and see if maybe there are some harmonics there you can come back to.

* For you mathematicians,  a harmonic is a sound wave that has a frequency that is an integer multiple of a fundamental tone. For the rest of us, a harmonic is a secondary tone generated by the vibration of a string that harmonizes with the dominant note.

On the SF “Canon” and the Development of Art

John Scalzi has, as is his wont, produced a thought-provoking post.  This one is about the SF “Canon” (I’m finding it difficult to type that without quotation marks, which may tell us something).  You can find his remarks here.  He was kind enough to mention me as an influence, for which I am duly flattered.

I’m writing about this for two reasons, neither of which have to do with the question, “Is there actually a science fiction canon, and, if so, should new writers study it?”  The reasons are, first, with all that is going on in the world right now, with all the difficulties and challenges in both understanding it, and in communicating that understanding, it struck me as a relief to pull my brain away from that for a few minutes, and talk about art as if it existed apart from everything else—which, although clearly nonsense, can be treated as true for a short time.  The second reason is that it struck a chord with some things I’ve been thinking about, and I want to see if my thoughts will come together coherently (the answer is either that they will, or you’ll never see this post).

Strictly speaking, I disagree with John to some extent (did I qualify that enough?), but for all practical purposes, my disagreements are trivial.  I’m going to immediately move away from that, and talk about what all of this made me think of, and then pull it back.

Every form of art (art, in this case, being given the broadest possible definition), every sub-form, every genre and sub-genre, develops by contradiction, that is, in dialog with and (to a greater or lesser degree) in opposition to earlier forms.  The breathtaking changes in the world around us (ha.  I should have known I couldn’t stay away from that) strike artists as well as everyone else, because, you know, artists live here too. Our familiarity, whether deep or shallow, intense or casual, with the earlier works that made us want to create this stuff, is a huge part of what drives us, what gives us, consciously or unconsciously, our sense of, “this is good, this is bad, this is what I want to accomplish, this is what I want to stay away from.”

This means that every time something significantly new comes along—in painting, in music, or in science fiction—it involves a rejection of what went before.  One can almost hear the earliest punk artists, or the realist painters, or the “new-wave” science fiction writers, screaming at the past, “How come you didn’t do this?”  The rejection of what went before, of its assumptions, aesthetic, ways of addressing the viewer, are exactly what gives the new form or approach its dynamics, its energy.  I think this is a good thing, but that’s beside the point too, because it is also inevitable.

But here’s where it gets interesting: As we reject the old in order to bring in the new, some will carry it deeper.  The most serious and dedicated will inevitably, at a certain point in their development, find themselves going backward, looking to those who came before, studying them, learning, and sometimes rejecting them at a deeper level, and sometimes finding important elements that they can incorporate in their work.  As before, that I consider this a good thing doesn’t matter, because it will happen in any case.   As for what should and should not be considered “canon” within our sub-field, I think time spent arguing about it is time wasted.  Those writers who, in their drive to create what is new and exciting, will find themselves exploring what is old, will determine that on their own, find what is valuable, reject what is not, and move forward.

Criticizing the Critics

Back in the early 50s, when fear of Communism was becoming pathological among broad layers of the middle class intelligentsia, science fiction was flooded with stories about the evils of group minds, or hive minds.  Theodore Sturgeon had a response to this: it is called More Than Human and it is a brilliant work that is a delight as a story, fascinating in its examination of what it means to be human, and insightful in its response to the then-present paranoia.

Art exists for many purposes, and does many things. At the simplest level, it can give us a brain relaxation, the way a few minutes of rest can relax our bodies. At its most profound level, it can reveal to us important aspects of how life works, of what it means to be human.  It can do none of those things when social pressure or puritanical moral outrage is permitted to decide who can say what.

Anyone who reads any story is free to express an opinion about it, and its moral or political aspect is at least as important and worth discussing as its craft.  Where I have a problem is with the deep, profound sense of entitlement that accompanies certain forms and subjects of criticism, that carry the implication, “you must hear me.”

Let us be clear: If you are saying, “You shouldn’t create art that hurts me,” you are, for all practical purposes, saying, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt me” which is but to say, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt someone who is vulnerable,” which, given that nearly everyone is vulnerable in some way, becomes, “you shouldn’t create art that might hurt someone,” which in turn, reduces itself to, “You shouldn’t create art that deals with more than trivialities.”

No, I am not exaggerating.   Based on five years of teaching at Viable Paradise writers workshop, and considerably more years helping to run craft-oriented conventions, I can testify that we live in an era in which a great deal of what defines writers—especially new writers—is fear.  “What if someone says I shouldn’t have written about that kind of character?  What if someone says I should have written about that kind of character?  What if someone says I wrote about that sort of character in an objectionable way?”  We have learned—we have had it amply demonstrated—that anyone who is determined enough to take offense can claim the moral high ground and generate enough internet outrage to crush the spirit of new writers, and in the process keep many in a state of terror lest they be the next victim.  It should be obvious that the newer and more insecure the writer is, the greater effect this fear will have.

Even state-sponsored censorship by overt tyrannies rarely creates the sort of terror that the threat of the Internet Outrage Machine does.  It is utterly toxic and destructive to art.

So, then, what is the answer?  One cannot say, “You have no right to express your opinion of someone’s work if it might hurt the writers’ feelings.”  In the long run, that is also destructive; criticism is a part of how we struggle to find our way from craft to art.

I don’t have an answer, I can only make a few points: first, when the Internet Outrage Machine is gearing up, stay out; if you’re part of the mob, you’re helping to make things worse.  Second, insist on, demand the right of the artist to create freely, and without fear, especially if the creation is something you object to. Third, remember that criticizing a work of fiction based on its failures of technique, or on what you consider its moral or political failings, are identical in the sense that under no circumstances, whoever you are, do you have a special right to insist your voice be heard, especially by the author.  Last, if the substance if your criticism is, “A story shouldn’t say such things,” then we will all be better served by you working to write something that enters into a dialog with it; “a story shouldn’t say such things” should sound a warning tocsin in your head.