Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Writer's Responsibility

     Two blog posts ago (in the post entitled Reflections on Writing and "Buy Indie Month") I mentioned that writers are inherently selfish. Some who read the post took minor issue with this statement. I, of course, did not mean that only writers are selfish and that compared to us the balance of the world's population is dripping with the milk of human kindness. No, not at all. I consider myself to be a rather generous person, actually, as long as I don't inconvenience myself in the process. And every human being who ever walked the Earth has been selfish in one way or another. Anything we do for our own sake is selfish. Whenever we spend time pursuing things that bring us pleasure rather than working to end hunger or prejudice, for example, is selfish.

     But this did set me thinking more about an issue I touched on in that post. I wrote that those with a voice to which the masses listen, those who are able to reach a great many people, should ask themselves what their voices are contributing to society. In a writer's selfish pursuit of writing--whatever his reasons for writing may be--shouldn't he endeavor to ensure that his writing results in a net positive to society?

     I believe that art is anything that is done for the sake of art. There may be additional motives (such as fame or fortune) and there is, of course, a vast difference between "good art" and "bad art" but I have found that works which are broadly defined as "good art" or "great art" possess a few common features.

     1. It is done for the art first. Of course, many of the greatest artists and composers had wealthy patrons but were they artists because they believed it would make them some scratch? I'm sure more than one skilled artist hoped to become the darling of a particular court or city but if the driving force was the art itself, then I believe by its very nature it will be superior to art which is done for other reasons. Commercial art, for example, is produced to sell products. The work of Thomas Kinkade, I am certain, is driven chiefly by profit. There is nothing wrong with making your art commercially viable, of course, but to create truly great art the impetus must be the art itself.

     2. Good art is attractive. Note that I do not say "beautiful" but "attractive." This means that good art must attract the attention of an audience. To do this it can be exceedingly beautiful, of course, or it can be exceedingly ugly and disturbing, it can be terrifying or saddening. But without the attention of an audience, it will fail, no matter what its other merits may be.

     3. Good art is meaningful. For me, this is the high bar. I enjoy a pretty picture or a catchy song as much as the next person but if there is no meaning I will quickly lose interest. If there is no meaning, I will not remember it much beyond my initial viewing/reading/listening. In music, this has led to a personal shift from the rock and pop music of my younger years to classical and jazz. I still like rock and pop and listen to it on occasion but classical music is what you will almost always find on my stereo. As an aside, I will point out that there is meaningless classical music as well. For the same reason, this music doesn't stay with me for long.

     4. Good art has staying power. A work of art may take the nation by storm for a summer--think of films or pop songs or mass market thrillers--but who will remember it a year from now? A generation from now? In two hundred years the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, will still be performed. Adele? Probably not. MC Hammer? Certainly not. Often a lack of staying power is the result of a lack of meaning, but not always. Sometimes it is simply not attractive enough. Dadaism was certainly attractive when it came about and it certainly had meaning--although some would argue that point--but the problem was that it created a spectacle for a few short years and, aside from freshmen studying Art History 101, no one gives it any thought these days. It was too rooted in its time and place. Great art has to transcend those boundaries and be as meaningful for a person a hundred years from now and a continent away as it is for those who were around when it was created.

     Now, I'm sure that many will be able to object to and pick apart my criteria for great art. But I would emphasize that these are my criteria. Others are welcome to disagree; in fact, I would love to know (in the comments section below) what you all think makes for great art.

     As is often the case when I write, Point A has to be informed by Point B before I can continue. So, now that you have my Point B (the makings of great art) I can return to Point A (a writer's responsibility).

     So, my main query is this: does a writer have a responsibility to attempt to create great art? I answer with a resounding maybe. As I've mentioned elsewhere there is a place for everything. People need catchy tunes to dance to in nightclubs just as I need a composer like Marjan Mozetich to carry me away on the wings of bliss. But you can only bump and grind for so long. Eventually, a person needs to feed his mind and his soul with something of substance, something that will expand one's consciousness. And it pains me to think that so many people in this world go through their lives and have very few of those types of experiences. With all the beauty and wonder in this world, it is saddening that so much of it is ignored by the majority of humanity.

     Again, I am sure that some will argue that a teen-aged girl can find as much meaning in a Justin Bieber song as I do in Beethoven's 9th Symphony, as much profound realization in Twilight as I do in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I also suppose that some will say I am a cultural snob. Perhaps I am. But pop culture can only go so far toward feeding the artistic desires of a society. At some point, we must move past the banal and realize that these things which seem so important, so profound today, will be fading memories come tomorrow and beyond.

     So, does a writer have a responsibility to create works that will transcend this time and this place, works which will be read a hundred years from now? The "maybe" I gave in response still holds. Some of us do. Some of us will. Others will write good, enjoyable books that will fill a particular need in a particular time and place. There is no shame in that. I feel that my own current series, Sullivan's War, walks a line between those two extremes. I am satisfied, for now, with providing an entertaining story that has some meaning and speaks to the human condition but by no means contains any great, original, profound realizations. But I will not always be satisfied with that. I yearn to create a work that will meet my own criteria. I want--in my selfish egotism--to create a work of lasting significance.

     I believe that I will fulfill my responsibility to society some day. And I hope that you all, whether you be writers, musicians, painters--any of you who are creative in any way--will join me in attempting to achieve the goal of leaving a legacy that will enrich our culture and carry on to generations yet to come.


  1. You may want to take a look at Sarah Hoyt's notion of Human Wave SF. It is a response of writers of a certain age who realize SF isn't as much fun as when we were all kids. Maybe the future need not be dystopian and we've a responsibility to show the light side as well as the dark. My scribblings are in the same vein, but Mrs. Hoyt's manifesto is a better starting-point.

    1. Thanks, Steve! I'll definitely have a look.


  2. I would say that a writer has a responsibility to TRY to create great art. It may not be possible; it may not fall within that writer's talent. But if one is going to write formula novels for a living, one should have already tried and failed to write a great work before that time. It's also possible to work towards a great work of art, attempting to perfect the craft through intermediate attempts, including formula or genre writing that may not have the cachet of snootier literature. All art is inherently deceptive, including writing. Good art illustrates a simple truth (or several); great art illustrates a universal truth (or even many).

    I like your list of requirements for great art, especially the need for meaning. A book doesn't have to have a moral in the Victorian style to have meaning. Reading a novel is the closest you can come to seeing the inside of another mind--actually getting a view of the world from another set of eyes. The medium of language is unfortunately clumsy in the translation, but it's the best approximation we have. I think every writer has a duty to attempt to show--not tell--his readers whatever truth he can, putting every bit of his understanding into the picture (of course, it's more likely HER, but the same rule applies). Not every maxim or bromide possible, but what morals, values and virtues, observations and extractions apply to the story and characters at hand. Even Jesus taught by parable; saying "be excellent to each other" garners a laugh, not a thoughtful meditation as does the parable of the Good Samaritan. What's hilarious is that there was a great debate on the subject in the middle 1800s--many claimed that Jesus must have been telling the literal truth, so his parables were not fiction. Personally I come down on the other side; they were fiction, and art, and great art at that, because they still cause people to stop and think to this day. That's a high standard, but shooting for the moon will at least get you a chance to reach higher than your own rooftop.

  3. Van Gogh created some of the most evocative works of art known to the modern world but that was hardly appreciated by the world of his time. Maybe I'm just romanticizing it but I think he simply painted honestly--and desperately.

    Inasmuch as what good as great art changes from one era to the next, what counts as great literature changes over time. I think it's pointless to get hung up on notions of whether what we write will be worthwhile to posterity.

    If I write a book, I would like to write the best book I can write. I'll make a point of remembering that what defines my characters in their worst and finest moments are the same things that define humans in our wrist and finest moments. I'll endeavor to write it as honestly and unpretentiously as I can.

    From where I'm sitting, writers merely bear witness to the machinations of our world--no matter what form our works take. In every story, we are constantly reminding ourselves of what it means to be human. That's all.