Yesterday, two rather fractious commenters, one on this blog and one on a friend’s post on another blog, made me think over a) the whole purpose of this blog and what I post here b) what is art, and what is the purpose of art c) the whole point of meaning in books and blog posts ranging from the meaning that can’t help being in it to the “message” bit d) the importance of politics to meaning and to art.
I know I’ve covered this territory before, but clearly I’ve not done it well enough, since it came up yet again. Or perhaps what brought it up was a determined attempt to change/dismiss the conversations that go on here. I’ve seen the same thing done to books.
So, pardon me while I try to explain again. Warning: some of this is going to get all philosophical, but I’ll try to be clear and plain, nonetheless. Note that these are not the answers for everyone, and I would not presume to dictate to other artists – I’d say other craftsmen – how to do their thing, but they are the answers for ME and in a way the only way I can function.
First let’s start with the purpose of this blog and what I post here. I’ve called it a writer’s blog, and it is that. I’m a writer. Necessarily the way I’ve occupied my time the last twenty some years has left a mark on how I view life, the world and the metaphysical. (I realized this, when I found myself at a very difficult time in my life, looking vaguely skyward and asking “What made you think that was a good plot twist?” I could also go into how the way I read books is not the way I read books when writing them wasn’t my job. Or the way life has become a way of researching, but I won’t. All those are subjects for other posts and this one is going to be very long as it is.) It also affects the things I’m interested in.
Some of my posts will be about how to write. I know they’ll be of limited interest to pure readers. Maybe. Even in the days I thought I’d never write for a living, I liked knowing how the sausage was made. Your mileage may vary, though. A lot more of my posts will be about how things work/history/the mechanics of what we’ll call, with some poetic license, the human heart. These too are part of my tool box and my stock in trade. You have to understand others in order to write others convincingly. Otherwise all your characters are yourself. Yes, we know writers like that. Most of them fail to sell. I suspect the ones who do sell do so by virtue of that magical “push” that publishing houses are finding is less and less effective.
And then, because we live in interesting times, some of my posts, at least, will be about the future and where the industry is going. Because I’m a science fiction writer, some of them might even venture into where the world is going. It might startle you to know that I have opinions about that too, and I can see trends that few people are talking about. Part of this is that, I think, most people are only seeing the upheaval tech is bringing about in their own little sector. Because of my specialty, I read EVERYTHING and talk to any expert who will stand still long enough, so I’m more of a generalist, and I wonder how many other people see that what affects them is happening ALL over, much less realize what kind of a world this will create.
If by now you’re going “But that leads you with both feet into politics. And you say you don’t like politics or religion on your blog!”
Of course a lot of that leads me straight into politics, if by politics you see “the way things are organized” or “the way we view the world” or “the way we arrange economics” or “how we view the individual.” Of course it does. BUT that’s not the politics that’s banned on this blog. You are allowed to comment on “That’s not how people work” or “Consider that altruism has a function in the human life.”
The politics that I don’t want on the blog are the same I don’t want in my books and work very hard to keep out of my books.
Sigh – this is going to be complicated, so hold on tight, okay?
I came over here for in time for the 80 election. (And then I went back to Portugal for years, to finish my degree. Never mind that.) At the time Heinlein had just exploded in my own mind as the lodestar of the authors who guided my thinking. Up until about two years before, I had had several influences, but as I got close to 18, Heinlein seemed to make the most sense to me.
As we neared the election, and I got involved in one candidate’s campaign, one of the questions that worried me was “How would Heinlein view what I was doing?” And another “Who was Heinlein voting for?” (Years later, talking to Ginny, I found he had voted for the candidate I’d worked for. But that was through private knowledge. I couldn’t have GUESSED otherwise.)
Now, no one, not even the least attuned of the fans could say that Heinlein’s books were completely apolitical or that he had no MEANING to his stories. However, as far as his meaning applied to then contemporary American politics, I – a zany fan – was in the dark.
This is sort of what I aim for with my own writing. It’s what I aim for in my blog too.
Yes, I do realize if I’d been in the con circuit I’d probably have KNOWN Heinlein’s political affiliation – or even if I’d heard the spiteful comments of some of his colleagues. In the same way, my politics aren’t very hard to find out in terms of “who is Sarah voting for?” Heaven knows I’ve written about it enough in the last few years, though never on this blog. They aren’t as easy to DEFINE, as far as “what political philosophy does Sarah hold?” but they are still easy enough to find out. I contribute to a couple of political blogs. Most of you know this.
But then why the double-life? Why keep myself innocent of politics here and in my books? Why not reference current candidates, excoriate the ones I hate, laud the ones I approve of and generally talk here as I do in my political persona?
Well, see, that has to do with the nature of art. At least art as I understand it.
Most people know art when they see it, which means most people have a different view of art. (I still rather like the Terry Pratchett explanation that art has either urns or columns. I’d guess in writing, art has descriptions of urns or columns? Um… I’m falling down on art, if so.)
At least, most people who think for themselves have an individual definition of art. A lot of the public who is not particularly interested in the art form being discussed – be it music, visual art or writing – just assumes whatever the experts say is art must be so, since these are “the people who know.” (This is why even as the reading market fractures and “push” no longer works for your average, run of the mill bestseller, you’ll get more and more mega bestsellers and those will be the “pushed” ones. Think Twilight or Hunger Games. Those will succeed because the publicity around them is so extraordinarily massive that it will get people who don’t care much for reading to buy them on the principle that “everyone is saying these are really good.” If you see the power of the mega-push decline, it will mean, paradoxically that MORE people are reading for entertainment. This is because) Most people know what they like. But a lot of them are vaguely embarrassed by it, because it doesn’t agree with the experts, so it can’t be “art.”
One of my family’s favorite pastimes (we have mentioned we’re bad people, right?) is to go through the modern art section of art museums and do unvarnished critiques of “installations.” Because a) yeah, we know how to evaluate lines b) if something is a crock of pretentious baloney we don’t care what the “experts” say. We know how the sausage was made.
Anyway, for me art – real art – be it in writing, music or visual art is by definition something that transcends its time and place and both holds a mirror up to the person experiencing it, by touching something so basic in his human experience that it tells him what it is to be human, and allows the person experiencing it to momentarily escape the prison of his brain and see what it’s like to experience the world as someone else.
In books, this is literally so. We have the advantage over movies in telling stories, because movies can only TELL the story while we can have the reader BE someone else for the duration of the reading experience. Or at least that’s what we aim for, and approach in varying degrees, (sometimes in the same day). [This is one of the reasons I despise the minimalist style of story telling that aimed for the stripped-down camera-eye. Why should we put down our superior tools and take up the inferior ones?]
The great books we read become a part of us and we use them as references in our own lives and emotions.
So, why not let contemporary politics leak in? Aren’t those important? Don’t we live through them? Aren’t I a political animal who often sees the next election, the next issue, the next cause celebre as a vital hill to die on?
Okay, let’s talk about Shakespeare. Take a deep breath, it connects and it will all become obvious in a moment.
Shakespeare has, I believe, stood the test of time. The fact that we can still emote with and “experience” his characters despite the fact that a) his art was closer to the script writers of today (though not quite) b) our world is so different from his he might well go mad trying to process it, means that he did indeed touch something essential about – that inadequate term again – the human heart.
Shakespeare lived at a time of great ferment, when the modern state was literally lurching forth out of the womb of the renaissance. And yet most of his plays are apolitical – at least with reference to the personalities of the time, or the time immediately before him.
Those that aren’t… Well, I know many more of you than I’d like to think about like USING Richard III. We won’t go into that. Richard III, the play, has become a pawn of modern political thinkers who push it this way and that to attack their enemies. Stage it just SO and it is an indictment of fascism. Turn it around the OTHER way and attack whoever you don’t like in politics today.
That is because Shakespeare was a genius, and when geniuses turn their minds to mere political hackery – which Richard III was for him – they still create a superior work that can be used as a weapon centuries later.
But it is a weapon and, as such, it is not as much art as it could otherwise be. The reality of Richard III intrudes in the minds of those who have studied the history. Beyond the fact that he was not a hunchback, he was a complex man and in many ways no viler than anyone in his time. Richard III the play is political hackwork, written to curry favor with Shakespeare’s patrons.
Had all Shakespeare wrote been those “history” plays he would now be an obscure Elizabethan playwright, maybe as good as Marlowe, maybe a little better, studied only by those of us who have a jones for that sort of thing. And had he, instead of Richard III written the Tragic and Faithful History of Sir Roland Octone, King of Fareeans, the play would likely be superior, because, unmoored from the need to appease his patrons and justify the rather icky Tudor reigns, he would have made the tyrant more human and touched more of that universal humanity that is life to writing.
Why would that identification with current – for any time – political parties/affiliations blunt art?
Because humans are tribal creatures. Yes, I know I keep telling you that. Listen, though. Humans are tribal creatures and as such are predisposed to identify ours/not ours. Writers are human. (Well most of us. At least when the writing is going okay. You don’t want to place any bets when I’m blocked.) If you start using labels and use the labels you identify with, you exclude other people. Writing from the point of view of the label means, by definition, that the book is going to deal in caricatures. Caricatures are very well in their place, but the Mona Lisa is not a caricature, nor is every portrait ever painted supposed to be a caricature. In the same way, though one or two books one reads and likes (when it pulls for one’s side, at least) can be caricatures, we don’t always want to read caricatures.
Part of the issue with writing – particularly science fiction, to a lesser extent fantasy, but to a greater extent (weirdly) mystery – is that the publishing establishment – a very small group of people, most of whom either agreed with each other or were afraid to dissent – collided at high speed with boomer ethos [not to be confused with boomer Athos, which is either a time travel story or a reincarnation thing]. Boomer ethos demanded “message” in their books. (Don’t ask me why! It just seems to have been true in every art form all over the world for that particular generation.) And most people – certainly publishing establishment people – THINK message means “current politics” either in the form of echoing a cause celebre du jour, or in the form of naming party affiliation.
This became such a touchstone and a demand, that – before indie came and set everything on its ear – the establishment was busily making regency romances as unreadable as everything else by demanding political rants in the middle of those. These political rants were usually about things that are VERY well decided in our days, and which frankly don’t need defense. They made of every romance heroine a vocal supporter of woman rights (before she gives it up to the hero after one kiss… Don’t go there) and every “good” character a vocal opponent of slavery or child abuse or whatever the publisher’s hobby horse was.
Let alone that this was in most cases a-historical (yes, it’s possible that most women thought they had a raw deal back then. They did. But they wouldn’t think of their rights in modern terms, which these books portrayed. And yes, an amazing number of people at the time were publically or privately opposed to slavery. But again, very few of them would think of racial – or social – equality in modern terms. Humans are tribal creatures and the ‘consensus’ of the time was elsewhere. Yes, there’s ways of making it convincing, but most writers can’t/don’t know how. And besides… every book? On subjects that are a “duh” in modern times?)
That type of demand for explicit political allegiance is the death of art. All it creates is an endless succession of … not even Richard III, more like Henry VI. You read them, you flinch past the bad parts, and then you never pick it up again. And that’s if it doesn’t take flying lessons because it says something that amounts to an insult to the group you see yourself as fitting in.
Freeing us from that type of nonsense, expanding and fracturing the book market is one of the best parts of the ebook revolution.
Another good part – beyond creating what I consider better “art” – is that not having to identify and label yourself allows you to talk to readers who might otherwise disagree with you. As much as I love Heinlein, I – of course – don’t believe as he did in everything. For one, I find keeping a “group marriage” going, human nature being what it is would require WAY more emotional effort than most humans can muster. (And yes, I realize there are group marriages that work. I just don’t “believe” in them, and from the outside it seems a dicey endeavor, needing exceptional people.) But there are other points, minor or major. I can still read him and love his world and his characters, because his characters are internally consistent AND convincing.
This is partly because he didn’t tag them with contemporary politic tags, which would both hold me at bay and in a way allow him to – almost without noticing – create caricatures, instead of real people.
And that’s the other reason I don’t allow politics – or at least political identification tags – on this blog. Oh, I’ll ignore it once or twice, but I will NOT allow the blog discussion to be diverted to current political tagging (most of which are deceptive, anyway, let alone that one of the sides changes names more often than a Chinese restaurant with a bad menu) or the current cause celebre because to do so means that the stuff that interests me, like futurism or ethics becomes diverted to a flood of tribalistic name calling.
Allow me to tell you, too, that if you what you identify with is the label, you are not thinking through any of the underlying issues and you’re dehumanizing your opponents – and yourself.
I’ll make an exception to this when talking of the ideology Heinlein called Red Fascism and its blinkered economic theory. Like stupidity as referenced by Heinlein, there is no way to “try it” that it will work. Not for human beings. Not on Earth. To quote Heinlein, “the result is always death; there is no reprieve.” That it is considered bon ton and bien pensant in intellectual circles today only shows that education, like publishing five years ago, has become so confused it needs a revolution. But that’s a post for another time.
My goal for the discussions in this blog is to discuss the real issues and the real causes, without recourse to touch-stones that call out to group identity and close off thought.
And my goal for my writing is to create stuff like Romeo And Juliet and maybe, one day, if I’m very lucky, Macbeth and even perhaps, in the fullness of time, King Lear and NOT an endless succession of Henry VI.
If that doesn’t interest you and that’s not your notion of the writer’s art, so be it. In the end, I write what I have to write because it’s what someone like me CAN write interestingly (or even competently.) No artist, not even the great ones, ever pleased every one. And no one EVER liked every story he heard or read. However this is my path and the only one I can walk.