Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Contending With The Myth of "Art For Art's Sake" (Interview)

James Curcio: ....Some people get the sense - like it seems you did - that I'm about “art for arts sake” or that I need to grow up or get more hard-minded about business. The truth is, I've written plenty of proposals and business plans in my day, I’ve been involved in quite a few media businesses, and profit is a worthwhile means to certain ends. But those ends are an increased sense of play and creative exploration - and struggle - rather than more profit. Drucker's maxim holds true: “profit is a means, not a motive.” Many people in this world have lost sight of that and it's plain disastrous. I don’t mean figuratively. I mean it’s destroying the planet, or at least, our place in it. 

Elizabeth Craig: I did get that impression about you. That's because you're a serious artist and I was making an assumption - the writers I tend to meet who consider themselves Artists (usually writing in the lit fic vein) give genre writers flack about commercial fiction. That's merely an observation, since it doesn't bother me...to me, writing is about serving readers and literary fiction and genre fiction both serve an important purpose.

JC: That's a fair assumption to make, about literary fiction and genre fiction. And you were probably reacting to a rant I put out about genres - but my gripe isn't so much the usual resentment I think some “literary” authors feel because genre fiction often outsells them and it's “crap” - it's with the idea that genres and the categories that we apply to things actually have any kind of reality.

Don't get me wrong, genres and categories serve a purpose. They can serve an absolutely necessary purpose. But they're still invented. It's the same thing you get where a discipline will take an issue and consider it “off limits,” as if it somehow doesn't apply to them because “that's a matter for anthropology, not psychology!”

I've been wrestling with the genre issue a little with my most recent novel, Fallen Nation: Party At The World's End, which I'm now looking to shop to agents and publishers. It falls somewhere between “dystopian near future sci fi” and “urban fantasy.” I wonder at what point these labels just become so absurd that we can let up with it already.

I know when I start talking like that some people think it must be because I'm unfamiliar with marketing or business, but quite the contrary, I've spent altogether too much time reading marketing reports and niggling about demographics. I think it is a potentially dangerous thing because as you said it's about serving readers, and there's a point at which publishers may think they know what people want more than they actually do when they're overlapping these genre ideas over what is actually motivating people.

At the same time, I know not to write any of this as the lede in my query letter. And if past experience is any indicator, it won't ultimately be a query letter that gets me talking to the right person at the right time. It'll be a random conversation at a party or even an interview. I've never had much luck painting by the numbers, though for some odd reason I find myself trying from time to time when things get rough, as if that approach is suddenly going to yield new results.

Let me give an example, to really reply to what you said. I agree that one of the primary purposes of writing is about serving readers. But you can't undervalue the value of writing itself, in terms of self discovery, in terms of its therapeutic benefits. What's interesting to me is that many authors say that if you're just writing for yourself, that's fine, but don't publish.

However, the times where I've tried to write for an audience and focus on that, a lot of people tell me that it doesn't ring as true to them as some of my other stuff, which I may have produced with no intent of making it public at all. It's a very odd thing, to me. In fact, I try to keep up with agent and publisher and writer blogs as much as possible but I'm finding that I really can't intentionally follow any of their advice, or if I do, I do so at great peril to my own work. Because people can tell. It sounds cliche, but it shows. Yet again the most important thing ultimately is to be true to yourself, whatever the hell that means.

Yet, at the same time, audiences want something that's familiar enough that they don't feel like they're being taken too far out of their comfort zone all at once. It's a very odd dance, and I will say that if I'm going to err on one side or the other I'd much prefer to err on the side that leaves them feeling uncomfortable rather than bored.

 Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011. (Or sign up to be notified of its release on Amazon.com)

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