Thursday, October 06, 2011

You Gotta Have Art: Why Do You Write?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.


  1. I read that article awhile ago and I have to say, the Mary woman named her blog correctly because she definitely came off as militant. The comments were even more interesting, especially what Nathan Bransford said. I agree with what you've written though, if she only wanted to create "art" than she shouldn't be so obsessed with a publisher,etc. The thing that bothered me the most though was her knock on commercial fiction. Not only the writers but the readers. For the most part, she claimed that authors and readers of commercial fiction were not on her level intellectually and she never addressed those authors who commented on her blog saying so. She never apologized and that, was so uncool, for lack of a better pg word :) Anyway, great post Janice!

  2. Shorty, Mary claiming that readers and writers of commercial fiction are below her is something that sadly isn't new. She's the epitome of most literary writers out there who look down on genre writers as if we're dumb and don't understand anything about writing.

    To her and likes of her, we're everything that is wrong with the industry.

    Even the top people in the industry, book reviewers, etc probably think like her.

    That's why the important awards, the big advances, starred reviews, etc are reserved for her ilk.

    A damn shame, if you ask me

  3. I actually have very little patience for the "art as a higher plane of being" folk. But, like you, my background is in design.

    I'd love to say that I write for the sake of writing but my writing, like my design work, is intended for consumption. I'm not out to change lives, I just want to tell a great story and keep people entertained.

    But, then, as far as I'm concerned, the Sistine Chapel is an advertisement.

    As far as the "agents killing art" bit, agents need to make money. They pick projects which they can sell to the publishing houses. It's a lot like music. I don't like Celine Dion but there are a heck of a lot of people who buy her albums. If there weren't, they wouldn't be stocking them in stores.

  4. Writing is art.
    Getting people to see your art is business.

    That's how I see it. The two are undetachable. There's no question in my mind that writing is art: you can't write solely for money. I don't think agents and authors take up projects solely for money: they take up projects because they think they see something beautiful and they want it to be seen. And they think it *can* be seen, and enjoyed, and appreciated. The fact that being seen makes money. . .

    You mentioned getting the millions to come was another story. I think it's a lot more connected to this story. It's the agents and the publishers who are able to get a book out to where readers can see. It's what the readers expect. Honestly, I never look for something moving posted on blog for all to see (however, I just did this morning, which was a surprise. O.O )

    Would you paint a masterpiece if you knew no one was going to see it? I don't think I would. I don't need therapy that bad. XD I make art so I can touch others, and in this medium at least, touching others happens to bring money. It's how people who want to touch others afford to live. :D Society is kind of pretty this way.

  5. I love what Kathrine said: "Writing is art. Getting people to see you art is business."

    I was going to post longer thoughts, but that pretty much sums it up. Even the great literary writers of the past -- Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen -- were commercial writers. They communicated something with their art, so people were willing to pay for it.

  6. Janice, first of all, know that while it may not always show, I have high respect for you and the honesty you instill in your blog, and like you, and I know full well what it's like to be one of the lone right wing thinkers while the majority of the conversation veers left.

    That said, my feelings about art and commerce are different, but I will try not to get too paranoid today.

    For me, books are not a product only, they ARE art.

    I feel this way for so many valid reasons, but staying on topic to the post, I feel anything that requires you to up your game and push beyond your limits, even when (ESPECIALLY when) they don't work out, you become better for it.

    I just can't put books in the same category as toothpaste and makeup, they are products, but there's a difference between what makes bad toothpaste and makeup, and why some books work for some not others.

    Food's the same way.

    The reason I want to achieve commercial success for my writing is simple-

    It's the only thing I'm really good at, and unlike other professions I've thought about, it doesn't require decades in school or meticulous specialty knowledge you'd need to be a doctor, lawyer, banker, etc.

    This is really the only thing outside cooking and baking that I've been able to stick with and love, despite the times I've failed, made mistakes, and feel trapped in a revolving door of inferiority.

    I agree that poetry in particular has art to it, but I need to point out that there's more to poetry than "Expressing emotion."

    Poems have to be shaped, refined, and slaved over the same as prose, whether fiction or narrative nonfiction.

    I know you're not implying this, but I'm speaking in general, not just your thoughts on the subject of this post, because I never want another writer to feel confused as I was when I had my emotional collapse last year, and you (As do any writer whose query letters make them feel like weaker writers than we really are) knows what I mean.

    I know this because since summer 2010 I've turned to poetry when my last MG novel wasn't coming together, and I was too afraid to write another book and face another "Good, not Great enough" lecture, and never wanted to face writing another query letter that's doing me no favors.

    People kept suggesting I go into poetry thinking conveying emotions are all that matters, but that's just not the case.

    First, poems on average are about taking concise writing to the ultimate extreme.

    Despite what some writers tried to jam down my throat, the shorter I have to write something, the more the piece suffers, even after months, even YEARS of revision.

    I'm trying to have a more open mind these days, and truthfully, I enjoy attempting poetry, but I'm still a novelist at heart and there's no substitute for that.

    I sincerely hope I wasn't trying to be mean, because as I said at the outset, I have high respect for you, Janice, and all writers who don't let past failures and frustrations halt their growth.

    If I can be half as resilient as you can one day, it will be a TRUE improvement for me as I am now.

    Anyway, here's a toast-

    "To loving who you are, what we do, and finding hope wherever and however you can."


  7. Wow, Mary sure had a lot to say. I have the feeling that if I disagree with her she may come and burn me at the stake.

    I completely agree with you Janice, if all you are interested in is art than give it away for free. You can do that now with social media and self-publishing.

    If you don't want to give it away, then you must play by the rules of the game. Mainly, write something people want to read.

    And don't bash other writers who do what you can't. It just comes off as ugly. Writers especially should be appreciative of different kinds of stories.

    I think in one rant Mary may have gotten herself banned from the literary world. Yikes.

  8. Kathrine, that's a great way of looking at it, and it does split the ideas nicely. The thing about artists is that they create because they have something to say. The goal IS for people to see it. The question for me is, if they create for people to *buy* it, does it stop being art and become a product?

    MK, true, but didn't a lot of the classic authors become famous long after they were dead? It was never about the money when they wrote. Maybe Shakespeare did (which is ironic). He wrote plays for the working folks, so for him it was indeed a job as much as a passion.

    Taurean, you can disagree with me all you want :) I won't take that as anything but you having a different opinion abut a topic. No worries there. I don't know much about poetry except that it strives to convey a much stronger emotional impact than typical fiction, and that it's not as commercially viable. There's certainly a lot of skill and structure that goes into it.

    To me, poetry seemed more of an art form than fiction. Books are meant to entertain. Poetry seems to be about more, mostly evoking emotion and having something to say. Sure, books can do more than entertain, but that doesn't appear to be their primary function. I guess that's why it's hard for me to see books as an art form.

    Angie, she did ruffle a lot of feathers, didn't she?

  9. What I find most hilarious about this entire debate is the fact that the philosophy, the definition of art, is something that changes constantly. Our idea today of what *art* is is vastly different than, say, back in Plato's day, or even 50 years ago.

    Until very recently in our long human history, artists (as in, those who made their living from their work) were paid to create a painting/sculpture/etc EXACTLY conforming to what their employer asked for.

    Kathleen hit it spot on when she said the Sistine Chapel is a giant advertisement. It is.

    Most of what we view today as *masterpieces* were essentially just that... a way to *sell* an idea to the illiterate masses.

    Literary fiction, just like vampire-romances or sci-fi adventures are all the same in my mind. Each is geared to sell to a different kind of audience with a different set of deliberate criteria, depending on the audience. Just like candy and toy commercials are interspersed between episodes of Spongebob and The Fairly Oddparents. Know thy audience and sell to them.

    Even those who make those commercials are proud of their work. They devote a lot of time and effort into producing the most effective (best) result.

    As far as I know, people are writing what they want to read. Every writer believes in what he/she is doing for that reason.

    What we care about, as people, as a society, that is what influences art, which then influences the kinds of products created through art. It's the *chicken-and-egg* argument. New art forms always replace old ones as the ideas and ideals of our culture changes.

    I would wager that there are dozens if not hundreds of reasons why literary fiction is not as popular as it was in Kafka's time (to use one of her references), but look at how different our society is from that of Franz Kafka's...

    We're comparing apples and oranges.

    For the writer of that article to not only stomp on readers, but of the writers of commercial fiction... all that is showing is how narrow-minded she is and how little she respects writers who toil just as hard as she does (or perhaps more) to sell their material to those who want to read it.

    Sorry, that got a little ramble-y, but I do come from art training, worked for a video game company and later in marketing. So I'm not shooting out thoughts that are unjustified or un-researched.

  10. Ramble away :) The whole of this is to discuss it. I know what I think, but that doesn't make it the right answer. If there even is a right answer here.

    Art does change, and you're so right about that. It is funny. And everyone has their own definition of what art is.

    I think for me, the reason I first wrote this post was because I think this ambiguous line is where a lot of writer frustrations are born. If you create "art," and someone wants you to change it to make it a better product, where does that leave the artist?

    Maybe we have commercial writers and fine writers like we have commercial art and fine art? Maybe literary fiction is the fine art of the fiction world?

    I'm certainly not saying there's anything less about a commercial side vs an art side. Both can be beautiful and inspiring, whatever their form. Both take skill to create. But are both still "art?" And should they both be approached in the same way?

  11. @ Janice

    Well, out of all the art philosophies (and seriously, almost every philosopher over time has touched on the question of *what is art?*) Plato's theory of what is *beauty* has probably hung around the longest. The idea that we create art while holding our creation up to a spiritual *Ideal*, something perfect with no flaw.

    We aspire to this Ideal, yet can never reach it.

    I think any creation that aspires to greatness, aspires to perfection is art.

    And any *artist* who seriously wanted to pursue perfection, the ideal, has to not only forgo their ego, but they have to ask themselves what Ideal are they pursuing.

    A writer should know the heart of their story better than anyone else, but that doesn't mean that their craft at creating that Ideal, that *heart* in written form is perfect.

    When considering beta-reader feedback or (if at that stage) feedback from agents/editors, I think a writer should always look back to the heart of their story. That Ideal they were striving to create and who others, that is the plumb-line they should use to verify if the changes will reduce the number of flaws in their creation, or if it will ruin or change the Ideal that was originally imagined.

    Personally, I don't mind cutting entire chapters, re-writing characters from scratch, etc, but only IF it means my story will get one step closer to my Ideal.

  12. Interesting. So for you, the editorial and revision process is part of the art creation, not something that happens after the art is created? It doesn't "become" art until it's done and out there, whatever that process entails?

  13. Of course! No one can attain perfection, but we can learn ways to be more efficient and more effective. Our Ideal will never mesh exactly with someone else's Ideal, because everyone has different things they find important to them, but we can always learn from those around us.

    Also, a fresh eye will often see what we have missed.

    Even da Vinci re-painted/changed his masterpiece the Mona Lisa... so even the *masters* understood the idea of revision.

    When the finished product is handed off, only then is it truly judged as to whether it is art or not... the moment it leaves the creator's hands... up until then, we have the chance to refine it to the absolute best of our abilities.

    One must be so passionate about the heart of the story that they can cut away anything that interferes with the clearest expression of that imagined Ideal.

    well, but that's only my opinion :)

  14. And an interesting opinion at that. I agree completely about the revision stuff and how it improves our stories. Still not sure if that makes a book art or not :) But including that process is intriguing to think about.

  15. Again, it all depends on your definition of art ;)

  16. Hi Janice. I'm going to have to disagree with you, I'm afraid. In fact, I recently posted about how I believe that books (especially novels and narrative non-fiction) are definitely art, and therefore authors are artists.

    My reasoning is simple and uses your own definition of art:

    "Art is something that transcends. It inspires, captures emotion, causes emotion in others. It makes us think."

    Now, I have to admit that I haven't actually read your books (they're on my "to read" books), but I follow your blog and respect you and your writing greatly, and have picked up a fair bit about your writing and characters just by hanging out here. And I find it very difficult to believe that your books don't cause emotion in your readers. Or inspire girls to embrace their own abilities, whatever they may be, or stand up for themselves. And I certainly think that your books cause teens to stop and think. So, by your own definition, if you are causing your readers to think, feel emotions, connect with the work, and be in some way changed or inspired, isn't it art?

    Also, re: if you're creating art, why try to sell it.


    Because even artists need to eat.

    My sister is a visual artist, and I've had a lot of interaction with the visual arts community through her. (She's a big name in her part of the world.) I can assure you that even the most artsy artists still want to put on exhibitions, sell their work, and get paid in some way - even if it's through Arts Grants or the like. Does putting on an exhibition of work somehow diminish their street-cred as a real artist?

    Yes, there's a difference between an impressionist painter and the "commercial artists" who reproduce 20 versions of a "bright pink flower on green background" painting and sell them online. Just as there's a difference between the author of a series of inspiring YA paranormal fiction and someone who sells 300-word content-articles online. But taking money for art does not, in itself, make you less on an artist.

    Writing stories is definitely about creating art. Novels inspire, educate, and allow readers to experience characters, situations and emotions that they otherwise wouldn't. Thus, they are art.

  17. Did a quick search about their particular at least for these two:

    Austen: During her time, her books did well, with Mansfield Park selling out in six months. The Prince Regent liked them enough he got her to dedicate Emma to him. Apparently she made some decent money. Later decades disliked her, and then the books resurfaced.

    Charles Dickens: I will never forget my English teacher telling me that it was okay for Dickens to write inflated sentences because the newspapers paid him by the word (I did not like "Great Expectations" -- sorry everyone).

    His novels have never been out of print, and apparently he had -- during his lifetime -- more fame and popularity than any author previously. His childhood looks bleak financially, but he did well enough as an author to set up a home for "fallen" women where they learned literacy as part of their reintegration into society. He also made good money off of public readings, and at least in one case, donated the proceeds to a hospital, which allowed them to nearly quadruple their number of beds.

  18. 1000th Monkey, this is true :) I do think of myself as an artist, yet somehow, not what I do as "art" in the pure form. That even applies to my design work. It's quite possible that's the reason I can't quite see books as an art form, much as I love them.

    Jo, disagree away :) And what you say does make sense. Everyone has made very good points. Maybe I've just been a commercial artist too long. To me, the creative process has become more business. I put creativity into say, a travel guide, yet I don't consider that a piece of art. So why would I consider my novel art? It's the business application of my artistic skill.

    I've always agreed that writing was an art form. My question was about the books themselves. When I draw for fun I'm being an artist and creating art. When I design for a client, I'm producing a product. Although now that I'm writing this, I don't have a parallel for writing. What I write for fun is what I put out there for public consumption. Maybe that's the difference? Maybe the line for writing isn't so clear cut as it is with design?

    MK, thanks! That's interesting. I always thought most of those classic greats struggled and starved. I had it stuck in my head that Dickens died in a debtors' prison. I must be thinking of someone else. Or maybe one of his books?

    Well, everyone has made very good arguments and I do agree with so many points. I still have trouble with it though, but I'm going to chalk that up to over 20 years in the commercial art field. I suspect my take on this is a bit skewed. It is nice to see that so many do consider it an art form, though.

  19. Janice, thank you for posting the article again. I wasn't following your blog at the time when it was first published. There are some thought-provoking comments here, and this is my two cents:

    Books are both a form of art and a product, just like every other art form. I agree with your definition of art as "transcending, inspiring, capturing emotion, causing emotion", and many books have that (especially fiction). That they have to follow a certain structure, appeal to a target public, be sold as a product doesn't make them less of an art form.

    Without talent, one can't craft a book, so even popular books like Twilight have some art in them. It's the art ("transcending, inspiring, capturing emotion, causing emotion") that touches people.

    Writers and artists must learn the business side of their professions, just as they learn anything else related to it. This is the often bitter and boring aspect of the profession, but then, all other professions have theirs.

    As for creating art for selling, the dream of every artist is to live off their craft. One shouldn't expect to become as wealthy as JK Rowling, but why not wish to leave once and for all the part-time/full-time jobs so many have to earn their bread? The problem is when artists let their financial needs compromise the quality and integrity of their work.

    As for agents killing art for money, one shouldn't generalize. There are certainly many agents who care about the artistic quality of books, still, as others have commented above, it's their business to sell books, so books have to conform to certain guidelines.

    Conforming to those guidelines shouldn't feel threatening to writers, if what they have in mind is a "bigger message" i.e. art. There are a thousand ways to convey the message. If following those guidelines is what it takes for the book to reach a larger audience, then it should be welcomed. More people will be inspired. Isn't that the purpose behind art?