Thursday, February 18, 2010

I am a Part of the Writing Continuum

I wish I was a better artist.

I wish I woke up in the morning to find that my pillow was coated in colorful, fantastic dream-spill that had leaked out of my ear in the night, and that I could strip off the pillowcase and ring the nectar out onto my desk and transcribe what I saw into what would eventually become a brilliant book.

I really do. Writing is hard.

Writing borders on art, but in many ways literature--at least scribblings that can be sold at a reasonable return--is as much technical and business venture as it is the creation of something new and interesting. If you want to sell a book in the standard model (and, in many ways, in any model), it has to fit readers' expectations for what a book should be; or, at least, be palatable to enough people to make it worth your time to do it. And, as with most media, the business part tends to squeeze the artsiness out of the work to appeal to a wider audience.

Robert Swartwood linked to a great article a while back where the NYT followed James Patterson around for a day to see what the life of a hated-and-vaunted bestseller-machine looks like from the inside. It's pretty much what you would expect: he writes a lot (longhand, and has someone transcribe), he plans new books, he farms out work to co-authors, and he works on his breast stroke in a swimming pool full of fifty dollar bills and Scores Girls (note: that last part is probably a lie on my part).

He says one of the things he learned--and one of the reasons he is successful--is that people don't want colorful writing or deep meaning in airport books; they want formulaic plots and familiar characters and books of a uniform size and density. It made him rich, and single-handedly saved his publishing house from the brink.

Another example: I just read an article in Esquire talking about a company working on the technology to do near-real-time focus groups on dailies (the raw edits of a day's worth of shooting in a movie that the director reviews at day's end) wherein the dailies would be shown to a group of people whose neural reactions would be monitored and correlated to the on-screen action, and a report would be given to the director telling him what turns us on and what doesn't. The net result: if you think Hollywood puts out formulaic assbombs now, wait until they can keep your brain's "on" button pressed for 2 hours straight with explosions and boobies and car chases, with nary a plot in sight.

Which loops back around to the question: is it more important for literature to be commercially viable or personally fulfilling for the writer? (Assuming that it can't always be both). Who is "right": the kid writing emo poetry on the sleeve of his jacket and the guy posting Avatar fanfic to his blog, or is it James Patterson and his ilk? Should it be business or art? If it's all business, will the art die? If it's all art, will it kill the industry?

I go back and forth on this almost daily--especially on my current novel attempt, which is probably a mixed bag of fancy wordplay and purple-ness mixed in with some chase scenes and some hand-holding under the sunset. I worry constantly that I'm writing it for me, and not to be sold.

But, ultimately, I don't think I care. I think that I can create what I want--and what I want is to make a living as a writer, telling stories that I enjoy--and I can call it art if I want to. If it sells, great. If it doesn't, hey, I tried. And I'll keep trying, probably until I am physically or mentally unable to. As I get older, I feel more strongly about art being there for it's own sake--and I don't feel the need to qualify art based on success, or even necessarily the intentions of the artist.

Sure would be nice to only have one job, though.

Anyway, here are some thoughts on art from Amanda Palmer. Even if  you have issues with ukulele music, the lyrics are pretty much how I feel about art at this point in my life. In her song, GaGa is James Patterson, but it's the same result: art is still art. As I type this, it seems like I may have posted this before, but the message remains: call it a masterpiece, call it a urinal...


katey said...

I agree with you entirely-- it's just what you do. It's art!

The dilemma is a product of humanity's need to label things as right and wrong. That's hard to do when there's no real indication of which is more useful to us as a society, as wrong normally means sociopathic and right generally means helpful to the orderly reproduction and continuation of our species.

Ah well, if we have to have problems, we've come really far to have this one!

Cate Gardner said...

If I had to write to a formula, I probably wouldn't give up, but I would be rather bored.

Natalie L. Sin said...


I'm sorry...had to get that off my chest (no pun intended). As for writing, all I know is I want what I write to be joyful, in a blood, gore, and humping sort of way. If I get a kick out of writing it, surely someone else will want to read it. Fingers crossed! : )

Jamie Eyberg said...

I am going to write what interests me and hope that it will sell. If it doesn't my kids will have lots of fun trying to figure out what there crazy dad was thinking when he wrote all that stuff.

Jeremy D Brooks said...

Katey: good point...we are a groupthinking species.

Cate: true...I thought about that once, as a writer or musician: how boring would it be doing the same thing day in, day out. But then it occured to me that I already do that with DayJob™, and would much rather do it with something I enjoy.

Nat: True...there is always someone out there who will share an author's tastes. (Also: wasn't that a Meatmen or maybe Bloodhound Gang album? Hooray for Boobies?)

Jamie: my oldest daughter wrote one of my stories and got a kick out of it...the rest of my family thinks I'm nuts. My mom won't let her mom know I'm writing, she's afraid she'll want to read Billy Don't Like Clowns and have to read the EFF word a dozen times.

Aaron Polson said...

Man, I'm an Amanda Palmer fan just because she nailed it. She nailed what inspires and frightens and frustrates about art.

"...then sometimes some artists try to everything which is impossible I think those people are brave..."

Right. On.

Jeremy D Brooks said...

Aaron: yeah, I thought it was spot on, too...

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