Friday, October 14, 2011

On Writing: Part Eight

Is literature art?  Is writing art?  Are you an artist?  Put simply: yes, no, and no.  Whenever a writer first loads up Microsoft Word and stares at the blinking cursor* I feel like they imagine that they are the only person around the world who has ever done so.

That sums up the last question in my eyes, but the first two are more complicated.  You can define art however you want to (no, really, you can, according to the “Art World”, the definition of art has, apparently, become as amorphous as the pink ooze beneath New York City) but literature has always existed in a strange little zone of its own, so we will go back to that question in a moment.

More important is the issue of whether “writing” is art.  I steadfastly maintain that it isn’t.  I enjoy reading Jackie Collins or Katie Baker, but I would be hard-pressed to claim that either produce much in the way of “art” unless you have a gun to my head**.

My general rule is this: count the number of adverbs that appear in the text in question.  If the number is more than 0, it probably isn’t art (this does, sadly, mean that almost all of my work falls into the “not-art” category). 
I’ve read well over nine thousand books, and several thousand (honestly, probably millions) more articles, poems, funny photo captions, and back-of-the-DVD enticements, and I can say that only Finnegans Wake strikes me as being an artistic work of writing.  I’m exaggerating.  But only slightly.

The most explicit point I can make is that writing is an activity that almost everyone can do.  For that reason, almost everyone cannot produce something that I would consider art.  I’ve been critical of the kind of writer who attends workshops, or posts their writing on their “blog”, or prints their novel through Xlibris (I may not have mentioned that yet), and the reason I am so critical is not that I don’t enjoy the writing (although I very rarely do) but instead because it allows criminally inept hacks to indulge the illusion that they are artists. 
I have actually published stories, poems, and articles, and yet, I never, ever, make the mistake of claiming to be a writer in public (except when someone forces me to, usually by paying me). 

If this makes you wonder why I have a daily column about writing, so be it, but keep in mind that the website still isn’t “live” (after almost four months) and they’ve given up on editing my parenthetical asides.

When you get down to it, very few people engaged in the business of constructing sentences for money are even writers.  Less than 1% of them are artists.  That shouldn’t stop any single person from trying, as my goal is to encourage more people to write better, but it is meant as a realistic “shut-the-front-door” for anyone believing, just because they own a beret and know the difference between a cappuccino and macchiato, that they are producing “art”.

*How incredibly depressing is this sentence?  I asked three writers:

“So fucking true.  Damn.  It’s pencils and cassette tapes.  My kid has worse handwriting than I do, and I’ve worked for fifteen years to perfect my scribble.”

“I don’t know if this is depressing.  I doubt anyone cried when the typewriter was invented.  Do you think typewriters are somehow better than word processors?”  (My response to this was: “Who the fuck uses the term, “word processor”?)

“The cursor haunts my dreams almost as much as everything that seems underlined in squiggly red or green lines.  Why doesn’t it know that I am writing dialogue?  It’s horrifying.  I don’t need your judgement, Bill Gates.  And yes.  I can spell judgement with an ‘e’, no matter what you tell me.”  (This is true.  MS Word prefers dropping the ‘e’, but really, it’s a judgment call ::drum roll and cymbal crash::)

**Note: the number of things people will not do with a gun to their head drops 100% in the actual situation of having a gun to their head.  Writers, please keep this in mind the next time your character refuses to do something they don’t want to do out of principle even with a loaded 9mm pointed at their temple.  Real human beings will do whatever it is 999 times out 1000.  (Exceptions include sociopaths, psychopaths, and other forms of severe mental disease, only very rarely including “love”)

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