May 9, 2015 / 5 Comments

In The Words of Zefram Cochrane…

            Geeky Star Trek reference.  I’ll explain as we go along…
            But first, a story…
            Back when I was a young man in college and our country had just won its liberty from the British Empire, I took a class on early American literature.  There were only two books to study, both from earlier that month.  It was considered an “easy A” course.
            Okay, that joke died pretty quick.
            Anyway, I was in my early American literature class and we were discussing Wielandby Charles Brockdon Brown, first published in 1798.  It’s considered an early American classic, the first noteworthy American novel, and its author died penniless and drunk in a snowbank.  Story is, his own mother wouldn’t even buy his books.  He was pretty much unknown during his lifetime outside of a small circle, which shrank rapidly after his death.  It wasn’t until the 1920s that he became kind of known and retroactively entered into the canon of great literature.
            I asked my professor about this.  Why was this book now being considered great literature?  It had failed then, and barely anyone knew about it now, how does it qualify?  Surely is it was great, people would read it on their own.  Why should we consider it relevant nowwhen the author’s own mother didn’t even consider it relevant then?
            Rather then telling me to shut up or tossing me out of his class, said professor congratulated me for bringing up a good point.  What’s considered “great literature” changes all the time.  Every time someone publishes a new paper on Longfellow, Irving,  Melville, or Dickinson… the canon changes.  A lot of what we consider “classics” were either ignored or thought of as populist crap in their time. A fraction of it was literature.  Almost none of it was art.
            Back in 1989 (just around the time I was questioning my professor about Brown’s book), Robin Williams gave an interview where he talked about a production of Waiting for Godot that he’d been in with Steve Martin the year before.  “I dread the word ‘art,’” Williams told the AP.  “That’s what we used to do every night before we’d go on with Waiting for Godot.  We’d go, ‘No art.  Art dies tonight.’  We’d try to give it a life, instead of making Godotso serious.”
            Believe it or not, the play sold out every performance.  People loved it.  They lined up every night hoping for no-shows and cancelled reservations.
            Williams knew something a lot of folks just can’t wrap their heads around.  I can’t make art.  No matter how much I try or how long I work or how many guides I follow, art isn’t up to me.  It’s up to everyone else.  And how they define art changes all the time.  With every new paper or critique or review, what’s art now becomes shallow and tired.  And the hack stuff that stands the test of time?  Well, suddenly that’s art.  Or maybe not.  Nobody knows.
            Y’see, Timmy, art doesn’t suck, but trying to make art really does.  And usually (not always, but usually, in my experience), the results of trying to make art suck.  It feels forced and pretentious.  There’s so much message there’s no actual story.  It’s so busy trying to be art that it doesn’t feel alive.
            Before I worry about art, I need to worry about my plot and my story. Do I have believable characters?  Will my readers identify with them and want to see what happens to them?  Do they have arcs?  Do they have good dialogue?  Are there interesting challenges for my characters to overcome?  Is the outcome ever in doubt?  Does tension build?
            If I don’t have a good story, art is irrelevant because no one’s going to read it.  I can have the most magnificent sentence structure and vocabulary ever committed to paper, but if my characters are boring it doesn’t matter because the reader’s going to put the manuscript down in six or seven pages.  Because boring characters are… well, boring.  That sounds painfully obvious, I know, but you’d be surprised how many people ignore that simple fact in the name of art.
            Somebody once said “don’t try to be a great man—just be a man.  Let history make its own judgments.”  And the same goes for my story.  It just has to be a story.
            Someone else will decide if it’s art or not.
            I shouldn’t be worrying about that.
            By the way, before I forget, there’s still about a dozen galley copies left in that pre-order promo deal I mentioned a few weeks back.
            Next time, I’d like to talk a little bit about talking a little bit.
            Until then, go write.

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