the A-word

I want to say a word that I haven’t heard much since I started writing genre fiction: art. Literary writers aren’t afraid to cast their own writing tropisms and sensibilities in terms of their service to art. In my experience, this is never done among SF or fantasy authors or aspiring writers. 

I’ve listened to podcasts interviewing Ted Chiang, Kelly Link, Margaret Atwood, Neal Stephenson, Jeff VanderMeer, Jo Walton, China Miéville, William Gibson, and plenty of others.  But I’d be hard-pressed to cite a single instance where any of these used that A-word in reference to their own or others’ works. I’ve heard Gibson talk of Naturalism (though in speaking, he may not have capitalized it.)  Ursula Le Guin often writes about Craft, as does Stephen King. Most SF authors talk very specifically of Story, which is the closest and most hardworking surrogate I’ve found.

There are author interviews written every month, in Locus, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. Some of the SF greats (though far too few) are interviewed in Paris Review – and those interviews are all available online at no cost

Here is something that really stood out for me: an essay in the SFWA bulletin entitled Ten Reasons to Write Short Stories Even Though the Pay is Peanuts, by Daniel H. Williams and John Joseph Adams.  It’s declared intention is to list reasons why – why you should do it, why you should stay up late nights, or rise before your family does, just to bang away at the keyboard.  The word ‘art’ is used exactly zero times in the entire essay. (Neither do the authors say that ‘short’ is the natural and correct size for many stories – that’s a separate question.)

This incensed me – and I’m a pretty easy-going guy. Maybe the authors thought it was obvious, yeah, sure, “art”, or maybe that it was assumed by all thereaders already, but I felt the essay and the list were incomplete. 

What is art, and why could it be valuable to think of your own work in such terms? I don’t have the answers here, and it’s clear that any set of them would be incomplete.  It has something to do with struggle, it’s clear by the necessarily open-ended nature of it. It has something do with glimpsing or capturing in some way the relationships between people, between a person and the world.  It has something to do with aesthetics, about making judgements about what is beautiful or pleasing, and this brings us around again to what is common between people.  What has been ringing for me lately is this DFW quote: “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”

Maybe saying it out loud, “I’m making art,” is a step towards clarifying goals, and opens up a richer toolbox for thinking about the qualities of your work.  What its intended effects are, how it should address the reader, what emotions its meant to evoke, or could, if that’s part of it. What it says about the world.

I get the sense that this is too specific, too emotionally open or touchy-feely for some writers to just blat out. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.” That’s Stephen King, and he wasn’t talking about zombies (probably). SF writers want to tell you about the goblin invasion, or the armada from Rigel, and not think too much about what it all means, or how it might make you feel.  

Entertainment, you’re thinking, what about the entertainment? Even a Matisse water-lillies painting has to have some power to entertain viewers, at least for the duration of a glance. Art could also have something to do with getting to the root of understanding what is entertaining, and why. Readers want to be surprised, they want to be amused. They want something new to think about.

Contra to that, they want to solve mysteries or anticipate answers that the characters will come to in the text — in some sense they want the text to flatter them, for them to be able to encompass and navigate it. They want the stuff they read early to have some value or meaning later on. They want the world they are reading about to have some coherence, some rules, to be believable. They want those worlds to transport them away from their own. Fictions have to be more believable than real life, for some meanings of the word believable. And on and on. Some of this bleeds over from art to craft.

At every level from selecting individual words right up to the choice of whether to write at all, art is the underlying current, the sea itself we float on, in selecting among courses (it’s really hard to escape Le Guin’s boat metaphors.) 

Maybe contending that art is being made is useful to the genre vs. lit arguments that will continue grinding on for far longer than this blog will exist. Maybe if you were writing earnestly in SF, you could apply for an get an art grant, maybe even a MacArthur Genius Grant! Probably not – there have been, as of this writing, something like fifty writers who have won that award (exclusive of poets) and none of them has written science fiction, by my reckoning. These maybes lie outside of my interest in writing this. 

Saying what we are doing approaches art gives it the dignity it is due, it makes clear what our goals are, and that they no less honorable than those of realist writers and artists of other media. It shows we are engaged with the larger world as well as what is going on in our own heads. Ultimately, when we say that what we do is art, we are telling a truth, maybe one that is not so obvious or widely agreed to. A writer should strive to unveil the truths hidden in their own experience. 

Edit: I discovered later that Octavia Butler was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant, in 1995. I’m embarrassed at this oversight. Her work is surely worthy of that level of recognition.