On Tuesday we discussed whether or not writing was art, and how much of ourselves writers should put into their work. And it kind of struck me, as the discussion ran along similar lines at Romance Divas, as I was writing the post, and as I was preparing this one, that if we’re going to accept books as art and writers as artists…are writers the only artists who are regularly expected to completely distance themselves from their art? To act as if it has nothing to do with them?
I think this perhaps happens a bit more in genre fiction. I do believe there’s a sense that literary fiction is more artistic, that it’s deeper and more expressive or whatever. I think literary fiction writers are allowed to “get away with” stuff genre fiction writers could never even attempt.
But why is that? Is it because we think genre fiction is easier to write? Anyone who’s tried to write it can tell you it’s not. Is it because we think since the stories have certain general tropes that they’re not as original, or again, that they’re easy to write? Maybe. Maybe there is a sense out there that genre fiction isn’t art because we’re just putting a bunch of elements together in the same way as everyone else does, and that it doesn’t require any real depth from the writer. Which, as we discussed a bit on Tuesday, I think is frankly bullshit. In order to create a fully fleshed-out character you have to do some digging. In order to create a real and complex world you need to do that. If you want to make your story mean anything to readers, elicit any emotion in readers, you need to elicit that emotion in yourself, which means digging deep and–again–being honest. You can’t hide or lie to readers in your work.
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.
Let’s take the “book as baby” cliche. Now, I am 100% in favor of the “Your book is NOT your baby,” reply to that one. I’ve had two babies. I’ve written over a dozen novels. I can tell you they’re entirely different.
And yes, you should be able to distance yourself from your work to some extent. Your work isn’t you. People are going to have differing opinions about your work; some may love it, some may hate it. Just like some people like you and some people hate you, and we try to learn from an early age that a lot of peoples’ opinions just don’t matter, that the only people whose opinions we should care about are our families and close friends, our bosses, whatever. You know what I mean.
But at the same time, as we discussed a bit on Tuesday, when you write you do put a lot of yourself into the work. And a lot of people will decide from that work that they can judge or define you as a person; that they somehow know you because they’ve read your books. And as I said, maybe they do. I don’t know what people think of me after reading my books, or what sort of person they think I am, or what clues to that they’ve found in my work. And this sort of judgment has always taken place, and still takes place, everywhere from the largest newspaper in the country to the smallest review blog. People always want to analyze the writer through his or her work, and they always want to analyze the work by connecting it to what they know of the writer. That’s normal; it’s just the way it goes. But again, that seems to be the case for literary fiction and not genre fiction.
I don’t believe genre fiction is any less artistic than literary fiction. I don’t believe genre fiction writers put any less of themselves into their work or expose themselves any less, at least not good genre fiction writers. I’m tired of fantasy or science fiction or romance being treated like they’re not “real” books. But I also wonder, at what point does that become, not a self-fulfilling prophecy, but one which we ourselves contribute to?
See, every time we as genre fiction writers huff indignantly that our work isn’t that special to us, that it’s not our baby, that it’s not ourselves, maybe we contribute to the idea that genre fiction isn’t art and shouldn’t be treated/considered as such. Maybe we contribute to the idea that we haven’t put anything of ourselves into the work, that we haven’t actually written anything of depth or truth.
It comes into the “professionalism” argument as well. 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? About the art? Have we tried so hard to be seen as professionals, not as silly women writing silly things or whatever, that we’ve stripped away some of the joy, and turned art into drudgery? We don’t want to say our work matters to us because that’s not a professional attitude; but you tell me in what other profession people are expected not to care about their work? Why can’t we be professional and still deeply invested in what we do?
It seems sometimes as if that attitude, the “Oh, my work is just what I do for a living, it doesn’t really mean that much to me, I’m totally cool, yo,” attitude, is expected of us. And I’m not sure why. Is it because we do see the occasional stunning online meltdown, with ranting and name-calling and “Wicca curses” and the ever-popular “I’d like to see you write a book, mean girl!” and we all want to distance ourselves from that as much as possible? Maybe. Is it because in some ways genre fiction feels more like a popularity contest than literary fiction, by which I mean we’re expected to network with our readers and interact with them; we’re expected to be accessible and friendly and open, in a way I don’t think litfic writers are? (I could be totally wrong about that, it’s just the impression I get and something I’ve noticed). Litfic writers get on Oprah; genre fiction writers get on Twitter.
I love interacting with readers, I honestly do. I don’t mind the expectation that I promote and Tweet and blog and all of that other stuff, because I enjoy doing all of that. But again, I wonder if the desire to be liked by readers, the desire to be popular, to not offend them, to make them want to support us, has made us deny our art? Has made us put it down or act like it’s nothing special or important in order to seem like just one of the gals, as it were? If we say our work is important, or imply that we’ve done something special that only we can do (by which I mean expressing our own individual truth and telling our own individual story, not writing in general; certainly neither I nor any of my friends are the only people who can write) then we’re not implying to our readers that we think we’re better than them. We’re equalizing with them. We’re being careful not to let a hint of ego or arrogance leak into the air around us, because if they think we’re an asshole they might not buy our books. Hell, even just talking about what our goals were or what we hoped to accomplish with our books can be seen as pretentious or entitled or whatever else.
And I do think that’s part of it as well. Sometimes it feels as thought the denial of genre fiction as art is really writers being told to get the hell over themselves, they only wrote a fantasy novel, you know?
I admit part of that is true. As proud as I am of the Downside books and as much of myself as I put into them, I don’t think they’re WAR AND PEACE. I know they’re not.
But they are art. They are my art. They are an expression of something deep inside me and the way I see the world. That’s what art is; the expression of something to elicit an emotional reaction, remember?
I’m happy to distance myself from that art when necessary; I don’t show up screaming on review blogs if someone didn’t love my work. I don’t reply to Amazon reviews or whatever. That’s not my place. I will freely admit that my books are not my babies, and I will let them go, and let people interpret them as they may. All of that is fine, and expected, and right.
But what I will not do any longer is pretend that my books aren’t part of me, and that they don’t matter, and that they aren’t art. Because they are.