Thursday, October 6
You Gotta Have Art: Why Do You Write?
I once had a conversation with a writer friend about writing and art as it applies to the publishing world. We have different views on this, so it was a good debate. I was still thinking about it when I came across a link on agent Janet Reid's blog.
In a nutshell, this link is an author who feels literary agents are killing books as an art form, because all agents want are blockbuster books they can make money from.
I had a couple of thoughts about this woman's post. The first...are books an art form at all, or are they a product? The second...if someone is writing purely for art, why go the traditional publishing route, which is about making money?
My formal training is is art and design. I went to college for it, and have worked in the design field for almost twenty years now. I admit I probably have a skewed view on this, but maybe I'm in a unique position to see both sides. I make a living off my creativity. But I don't do it by painting or sculpture or illustration. I do it by creating a creative product. I don't consider it art. Just as I don't consider my writing art. Books are a product to me, not an art form. Anything you create for the purpose of selling is a product.
To me, art is something that transcends. It inspires, captures emotion, causes emotion in others. It makes us think. It's goal is simply to be. (And I understand not everyone will have this same definition)
A painting can do this. So can music. We can look and listen and take something from the experience. But writing? I'm not so sure. We take things away from a story, but a story is different from plain writing. How many read to experience just the beauty of words on a page? Perhaps poetry is writing's art form. It does everything my definition of art does. It's not so much about telling a greater tale, but about evoking emotion.
But going back to the "agents killing art" post...
With the vast technologies available to us today, I found myself thinking about writers who just want to create art. They can put up blogs for free and start creating, making their work available to everyone to read. Nothing is stopping them. Agents aren't killing their art because art can't be stopped when you can display it where millions can see it for free. (of course, getting millions to come see it is another story).
If the sole goal is to create art, then why is it necessary to get an agent and sign a deal with a major publisher? Isn't the goal of getting an agent and signing with a big publisher so that you can make money? They are, after all, a business, and the goal is to make money by selling books that are commercially viable. By selling product, not art. Just as I don't try to sell watercolors to my design clients, I wouldn't try to sell something to a publisher that wasn't a commercial product--a sellable book.
If you're complaining that agents won't take you on because you won't make them money, isn't that admitting that money is what you're really after? Not the distribution of art? Because you can publish without an agent or a big publisher if you aren't in it for the money. Or the prestige of being with a big publisher. Or the validation of having pros in the industry say "yes, we think your work is good enough to sell."
Commercial art has awards and bestsellers and prestige, all for the commercial products created by the artists who work in the field. Fine artists have their own avenue for fame. Very rarely, the two sides touch, but they pretty much play at opposite ends of the pool. Movies have blockbuster films and indie gems. Music has pop songs and sidewalk musicians. One side focuses on the product, the other the art form. Why should writing be any different? Commercial writing = books. Success in commercial writing = bestsellers = money. The artistic side = ...honestly, I don't know. Poets maybe.
It might not be a bad idea to think about why we write. Why we try to sell our work. What we want from our writing. Because writing and books, like art and business, are two different things. If what you really want falls in the art side of the pool, you might make yourself crazy by diving into the commercial side. And vice versa.
And if this writer truly hates the commercial side so much, then why are they trying so hard to be part of it?
One thing I want to clarify. I do feel that writing itself is an art. My question is more about where books stand and if they were indeed an art form in and of themselves, or a product and thus the commercial application of an artistic skill.
What do you think? Is writing an art form? Are books products? What do you feel is the balance between art and business for writing?
ETA: This post inspired another, so here's one more take on the topic for those curious.