Writing Art

Eyes sketch © Ann M. LynnI’ll start with an apology. This may seem like a bit of a rant.

While reading From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, by Robert Olen Butler, I came to the following passage and nearly threw the book across the room:

Nonart, genre writing, entertainment writing, is typically filled with abstraction, generalization, summary, analysis, and interpretation.


Genre writing is nonart? Criminy, I’ll admit there’s plenty of poorly written genre stories on shelves across the world, but even those contain some amount of art.

What is art but a non-practical action or product intended to induce an emotional response?

Nonartists . . . before they write a single word, the nonartists know exactly the effect they wish to have on their readers, whether emotional or intellectual. Stephen King wants to scare the hell out of you. Jean-Paul Sartre [as a novelist] wants, well, to scare the hell out of you, but also to convince you of the cosmic verities inherent in the existentialist worldview. These writers know these effects ahead of time and so they construct an object to produce them.

But the artist does not know. She doesn’t know what she knows about the world until she creates the object.

Here, Butler argues that an intent to produce results in nonart; an intent to create, but not produce, results in art.

This is ridiculous, meaning the most beautiful, complicated, and truthful piece of fiction you ever read during your lifetime isn’t art unless the author didn’t consider during the writing process how it might affect you.

Every mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance (modern and medieval), and western story you might have read isn’t art, because everyone who writes in these genres has some purpose in mind for his or her work. Authors’ knowledge of craft and ability to tap into their personal cores of experience and feeling don’t matter in the decision of what is art.

Nonsense, I say.

Returning to the first quote, what fiction contains neither abstraction, generalization, summary, analysis, nor interpretation? That would be a story containing no thoughts of a character or narrator and no inherent meaning. Perhaps my definition differs from Butler’s, but aren’t all fictional stories abstractions? Certainly, I could write–without any intention to create symbolism and simply for the joy of writing–about a spoon on a table and then call my writing art. It wouldn’t be a story. It wouldn’t mean anything.

My guess is that Butler used a definition of art that could justify an irrational hatred of genre fiction.

I will continue processing the lessons in his book, because some of what he says strikes me as truth. After a while, I’ll forgive him for insulting some of my favorite artists.

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6 thoughts on “Writing Art

  1. I think it’s important to be respectful of other writer’s work. We are all creating in one form or another. We all have our own individual tastes when it comes to reading and to writing..Thank goodness for that!

  2. Laura, I’ll admit I’m not a big reader of mainstream/literary fiction. About 95% of the novels in my personal library are genre fiction. Yet, I admire non-genre writers as much as genre writers. Anyone who can recreate the visions of his or her imagination in the minds of others is an artist, in my opinion.

  3. Argh. As a writer with a degree in art (not English or Literature) I’m irked x2.

    First, he’s just plain wrong in his assessment of so-called genre fiction. There are definitely bell curves of artistic merit, or creative content aimed at eliciting a response, but so what? It doesn’t make any of it less artistic. That’s entirely for the individual reader to judge.

    And secondly, his idea of “art” being non-planned, non-directional, is really a hypocritical way of dancing around what “artistic” writing really is–performance writing. Writing that’s less about story and more about the writing itself–essentially writing for other writers. That kind of dense literary writing is created with just as much affectation, it’s just aimed at the hearts of critics, not readers.

  4. Yes, I agree with all comments!
    Really, all statements that are only judgments should not be bothered with.
    Art is defined by each individual, and I believe that can and should change continuously.

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