RES (Whose real name is the Reverse Etymology of Science Fiction) has
ordered requested us us to stop writing treatises on what is science fiction, or what science fiction should be. Fortunately, I don’t need to because I ran across a rant that fits my ideas of “art and literature” exactly.
I didn’t remember this rant, as it’s found in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land which I’ve not re-read since shortly before my older son was born. There were too many resemblances there to sixties strangeness (mostly through no fault of Heinlein’s) and besides it is flawed — in my opinion. Don’t kill me — by Heinlein having set out to prove one of his oddest ideas — that plural marriage is better for everyone — and then arranging the book so as to do just that. Though of course, the principal purpose of the book was to show that humanity in its expression is learned. Or not. To explore, yet again, the enmeshing of body and for lack of a better word spirit which becomes obvious in books like I Will Fear No Evil.
I don’t want to initiate a Heinlein pounding fest, first because even though he had some odd notions (and which of us doesn’t) my best story doesn’t compare to the worst of his. Second because that is not at all the purpose of this post.
The digression is merely to explain why Stranger (And Job, which I read only once) are not among my “Heinlein rotation” and to point out that I don’t think I got my idea of what is art (including literary art) from him. Instead I think I came to it slowly and painfully, past the horrible period right out of college when I thought I MUST be “literary” and “highbrow” and that only in the last three or four years have I come to realize that emotion in literature is not a detriment (think of how romances are treated and you’ll see why I thought so) and have I started slowly pushing past my own barriers on inducing emotion in my readers. (Though I still feel guilty about it.)
Only in the last few years have I come to the conclusion that the canvas we paint on might be words, but the medium is emotion itself. For it the story and characters and all are just the means and the carrier. If I could do the same work with a poem that it takes a novel to do, I’d absolutely do it.
Now, of course, perhaps it’s possible that Heinlein programmed me to come to this conclusion…. but I don’t think so. If he did, it was d*mn slow in acting.
Now, before I quote extensively — first one bit about art, then a bit by the character Jubal Harshaw — more specifically on literature, I’d like to point out that like Jubal I dislike calling myself an “artist” a word corrupted by being applied to things that are either incomprehensible or unpalatable or even indigestible. But in the sense of “real art” I should hope I am at least on my way to being an artist.
“”…. Jubal, why isn’t there stuff like this around where a person can see it?”
Because the world has gone nutty and contemporary art always paints the spirit of its time. Rodin did his major work in the tail end of the nineteenth century and Hans Christian Andersen antedated him by only a few years. Rodin died early in the twentieth century, about the time the world started flipping its lid… and art along with it.”
“Rodin’s successors noted the amazing things he had done with light and shadow and mass and compositions — whether you see it or not — and they copied that much. Oh, how they copied it! And extended it. What they failed to see was that every major work of the master told a story and laid bare the human art. Instead they got involved with design and became contemptuous of any painting or sculpture that told a story–sneering, they dubbed such work ‘literary’ — a dirty word. They went all out for abstractions, not deigning to paint or carve anything that resembled the human world.”
Jubal Shrugged “Abstract design is all right — for wall paper or linoleum. But art is the process of evoking pity and terror, which are not abstract at all but very human. What the self-styled modern artists are doing is a sort of unemotional pseudo-intellectual masturbation… whereas creative art is more like intercourse, in which the artist must seduce — render emotional — his audience each time. These ladies who won’t deign to do that — and perhaps can’t — of course lost the public. If they hadn’t lobbied for endless subsidies, they would have starved or been forced to go to work long ago. Because the ordinary bloke will not voluntarily pay for ‘art’ that leaves him unmoved — if he does pay for it, the money has to be conned out of him by taxes or such.”-Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land.
(Needless to say, typos are all mine. Also, note the above and note that subsidies sometimes come in the form of university salaries, and sometimes in the form of reading lists, too.)
“…. Most of these jokers don’t even want to use language you and I know or can learn… They would rather sneer at us and be smug, because we ‘fail’ to see what they’re driving at. If indeed they are driving at anything — obscurity is usually the refuge of incompetence. Ben, would you call me an artist?”
“Huh? Well, I’ve never thought about it. You write a pretty good stick.”
“Thank you. ‘Artist’ is a word I avoid for the same reasons I hate to be called ‘Doctor.’ But I am an artist, albeit a minor one. Admittedly most of my stuff is fit to read only once… and not even once for a busy person who already knows the little I have to say. But I reach the customer… reach him and affect him, if possible with pity and terror… or, if not, at least to divert the tedium of his hours with a chuckle or an odd idea. But I am never trying to hide from him in a private language, nor am I seeking the praise of other writers for ‘technique’ or other balderdash. I want the praise of the cash customer, given in cash because I’ve reached him — or I don’t want anything. Support for the arts — merde! A government supported artist is an incompetent whore.” – Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land.
You can’t hold it against me, because it’s not my treatise — but this he said and this I believe and this sculpting and reaching of human emotion into catharsis is in fact the essence of human wave fiction at whatever level it’s practiced. And it is what I’m aiming for, even when I fail.