“Artist” Is Not A Dirty Word

Just a few thoughts today, since true to form, the feast part of “feast or famine” has just hit and I’ve more work than even I know what to do with. This is a happy state of affairs, however, and one I wish to continue. So it’s time to put my head down and chew away at the problems one at a time.

* Slushpile.net on Outdated, Stodgy Ivory-Tower Attitudes That Cripple Writers:

But, if you’re a writer who wants to be taken seriously by your peers? Then you’d better not do a damn thing other than put words on paper. And you certainly better not expect to earn any income from it. And in some ways, we hinder our own profession with that antiquated notion.

Yes, you have the choice to maintain complete focus on your writing if that is what you choose to do with your career. Take the Cormac McCarthy or JD Salinger route. Be “pure” and “unsullied.” That is a perfectly reasonable and respectable decision.

But don’t criticize another writer for diversification. (Slushpile.net)

I wrote my Hack Manifesto partly in response to this. I also wrote the Speshul Snowflake Bedtime Story partly in response to this dynamic. We have this ongoing assumption that writers don’t deserve to get paid for what they do, maybe because every fricking celebrity or chef can “write a book.” There is very little understanding of the hard cold fact that bringing an actual book (as opposed to a celebrity PR exercise) from original idea/inception to finished product is WORK. Lots of work, plenty of it thankless and drudging.

I’ve grown to hate it when people say, after finding out I write for a living, “Oh, that’s neat. I’ve always wanted to write a book. When I have time someday.” The assumption is that all they have to do is sit down and vomit up a few thousand unconnected letters, sentences, and paragraphs, and fame and fortune will inevitably result. I know they mean well, and I know they have no bloody idea. But I often want to reply, “What do you do? Oh, you’re a dentist? I’ve always wanted to come to a dentist’s office one day when I have time and mess around with the drills. How hard can it be?” I almost always restrain myself, and content myself with quietly pointing out that it’s hard work and I’ve been doing it for years, and only recently (by the grace of Steve, no doubt) have reached a place where it provides a decent, if not terribly steady, income.

The Slushpile’s point is slightly different, of course; I’ve yet to attend a group of writers where the implicit assumption that if you make money you’re not very good or dedicated or truly deserving to be called an artist doesn’t rear its ugly head at least once in some way. This assumption, that artists don’t deserve and shouldn’t sully themselves with cold hard cash, is endemic in our society. Personally, I blame the Puritans and their “anything that is a luxury is SINFUL, and writing is a LUXURY so it is SINFUL FRIPPERY” attitude.

Perhaps it’s just knowing what side my bread is buttered on, but I agree with Mario Vargas Llosa that writing, literature, etc., is not a luxury:

They earn my pity not only because they are unaware of the pleasure that they are missing, but also because I am convinced that a society without literature, or a society in which literature has been relegated–like some hidden vice–to the margins of social and personal life, and transformed into something like a sectarian cult, is a society condemned to become spiritually barbaric, and even to jeopardize its freedom. I wish to offer a few arguments against the idea of literature as a luxury pastime, and in favor of viewing it as one of the most primary and necessary undertakings of the mind, an irreplaceable activity for the formation of citizens in a modern and democratic society, a society of free individuals. (Mario Vargas Llosa)

I’m not saying I’m George Orwell or anything. But a vibrant literature holds a place for me to make a living, and my refusal to give anything less than my best to any project I sign a contract for is my implicit and explicit agreement with my Readers. From that agreement we both draw strength and sustenance. It’s bloody hard work that I do with a song in my heart because I believe it’s important.

* Stacia Kane approaches this from a slightly different direction in a wonderful essay:

But I do think there’s a weird kind of pressure on genre fiction writers to not let on that they see themselves or think of themselves as artists. There’s a definite pressure to act like their art means nothing to them, like it’s an entity completely separate from them.

Think of it this way. If a painter has a gallery show, and a critic ravages his work, does anyone frown and kick up a fuss if the artist gets upset about it? Does anyone remind him that reviews don’t exist to make him feel better, but to inform art lovers whether or not his work is worth their time? Not as far as I know. People expect the artist to be upset about terrible reviews. They expect him to be temperamental; hell, we all know what the phrase “artistic temperament” means, don’t we?

Now, I am NOT, absolutely NOT, implying in any way that reviewers don’t have the right to say whatever they want about books, or that reviews aren’t for readers and not writers–they absolutely are–or that writers should be allowed to freak out all over the internet and threaten people or name crack whore characters after people who gave them bad reviews or whatever. No, no, no, I’m not saying that at all, not one bit; you all know how I feel about that. This post isn’t about reviewers or reviews, except insomuch as they can be another example of what I feel is the expectation that genre fiction writers not consider themselves artists, not think or talk about themselves as artists, and not act as though their art is important to them. Like caring about your work has become synonymous somehow with freak-out rants and threats, instead of just…caring about your work. I’m not implying in any way that this sort of pressure comes solely from reviewers or readers, either; it comes from other writers just as much if not more. (Stacia Kane)

The implicit assumption that genre is filthy, “disposable”, and that only the idiotic hoi polloi read it as escapism is just as damaging as the assumption that artists don’t deserve to get paid. And you can tell just where I like to suggest people stick both those assumptions.

Later in the essay, Kane asks “We’re all so worried about being professional, about being easy to work with and seeing our work as a commodity and ourselves as commodities and all of that…have we become so focused on publishing as a business that we’ve forgotten about the magic of it?”

Which I think hits the nail squarely on the head. There is magic. The writer’s job is to show up consistently to help that magic birth itself, in a variety of ways. The reader plonks down hard cold cash because they like, want, and need the magic. Both invest time (in the form of money or effort) in the magic, and both get a reward from it. The difference is the writer’s reward is often implicitly denigrated, or it’s even suggested that the writer deserves no reward at all because they should be Just Doin’ It For The Arte And The Luv.

I don’t like this. For obvious reasons, I think it’s unfair. I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep or cry into my coffee over it, but neither do I have to put up with any shit over it. It’s about the best one can do in this situation.

* Which is why I love Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and think it’s so valuable. Cameron unpacks this dynamic and the various ways the stereotype of the self-destructive artist and the idea that art is a useless frippery are both used, by artists and against them. And if you want a productive long-term career in the arts you could do a lot worse than the exercises she suggests for catching that dynamic and kicking it in the balls before it messes up your head, your workspace, or your life.

That’s pretty much all I have today. Now I’ve got to turn my attention to Perry and Jill and some very interesting implications of gifts and imputed obligation. Plus there’s the structure of the Essay of DOOOOOM to rip apart and put back together, and a couple edit letters to plug into and start thinking about. Never rains but it pours.

All else aside, I’m very happy about that.

Over and out.

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