First and before I go into this post, I want to make it clear that I don’t believe in writing-with-a-message. I am in full agreement with whoever said “if you want to send a message, use western union.” Since everything became infused with “message” which somehow always comes down to politics and since everything local became political, (it never was the other way around. Or at least they never believed it.) they’ve done their best to politicize that most localized of personal events – the thoughts in your head. Which are supposed to be worthwhile and useful and... socially relevant.
The obvious problem with “message literature” is that it requires the message to be open and obvious. It also requires it to be in full accord with the visions of the gatekeepers. In fact, message-literature only invaded the field when the publishers and editors themselves started believing literature should send messages. Since, of course, most of the artists doing message-art nowadays view themselves as counter cultural, there’s a delicious irony there. It’s just that it hurts when I laugh.
However, I also want to point out that of course every piece of REAL art HAS a message (or several). The message might be as simple as “I’ve got a serious Jones for Greco-Roman tradition” (which in itself was fraught with all sorts of subtexts for the culture of the Renaissance, including the implicit assumption that the human body was beautiful) or as complex as “this is how humans grow up, with a foot in reality and one in myth.” (I’m thinking of The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents – though many other books fit this “message.”)
Art creation, at least in my experience, happens somewhere halfway between the conscious and the subconscious, in a war between who we think we are and who we really are, what we think reality is and what reality really is. It is from that tension that real art is born. (I did not consciously put any “message” in Darkship Thieves, but all sorts of people are finding message in it, anyway. And even I can see all sorts of messages in it, in retrospect. Things that shape the artist try to leak through.)
While this does not invalidate self-consciously-aimed messages against whatever the current regime/society is, or stories that echo recent events and TWIST to make you see the artist’s point of view, to my mind art only happens when the subconscious adds yet something else, so the whole book has a deep resonance and doesn’t have that quality of learned-and-regurgitated accepted truth. (For instance, Ursula LeGuinn’s The Left Hand Of Darkness was aimed – I’m fairly sure – as a blunt argument on the nature of sex and gender, but what actually emerged echoes with deeper resonances of the subconscious which I’m sure she (or anyone) could neither have planned nor put in.)
But even when “messages” become art despite themselves few consciously aimed messages remain art after being vetted for ideological purity by gatekeepers. At least, I don’t think so.
Which is why an establishment that requires “message” or an establishment that requires any type of conformity – an establishment that has become concentrated and holds all the power of the purse, in fact – tends to produce very bad art... or good art ONLY despite itself. It also tends to produce a “reaction” art that is vibrant and full of energy... and held at bay as long as possible.
This is perhaps easiest to see in the French nineteenth century where art was encouraged and promoted by the State.
I recently took a course that echoed the methods they used to learn at the time – notably drawing from the cast (a plaster cast of a classical statue). I found it useful, but of course I wasn’t forced to spend year after year doing just this. I wasn’t forced to believe that only classical or biblical themes were acceptable and that color was a dangerous tempting demon. And I didn’t draw the cast over and over again for years, till I learned to see people like that, in the “correct” proportions and NOT as they really were.
Most of all, though, it became a competition of virtuosity. Using the permitted methods, themes and forms, artists vied with each other to make each painting more complex and “difficult.” One expression of this was the paintings with multitudes of people and animals, which given the fact they had to draw from life (or stuffed. Er... animals. Not people. I think.) because they couldn’t otherwise record images, became very difficult indeed. (It was usually done in stages, of course.)
It occurred to me, recently, that a lot of science fiction and fantasy and even mystery have become like that. “And now, for my next feat, I will attempt a completely alien world where the aliens communicate only through their salivary glands!” Okay, that’s exaggerating, but I’ve seen stuff that “reaches” almost as much. There certainly is fantasy set in almost every time period, striving to remain both believable/true to history AND magical. And there are mysteries using every profession under the sun as detectives.
While this might seem like a logical post-modernistic affliction, the result of everything having been said, I don’t believe that’s the case. After all, every creature, by nature, has something new to say – as new and individual as his journey. The thing is that OVERTLY all these books HAVE to say exactly the same thing. That’s why, to keep the artist motivated, they are set in such varying places and have such varying stratagems. They have to distinguish themselves, somehow, but the industry that banned a still-vigorously-selling John Norman AND still brags about it, will not let heretical messages flourish (not that I personally could ever understand WHY Gor should flourish, but then I don’t understand the popularity of its polar opposite type of series, one of which, at least, started a whole subgenre of fantastic literature.)
So in this multiplying wilderness of form and virtuosity, symbolism flourishes too – to get less approved-of messages through the gatekeepers – and as in the nineteenth century painting field, in France, it is sometimes so obscure that only the author “gets” it fully.
The problem with this, as the problem with most French art of the time when the monetary rewards went to those who followed the “correct” form and fashion, is that it’s become a dialogue amid the artists. We might find it fascinating, but the public has largely tuned out. Because art that echoes the establishment is never very exciting. (Gag – Soviet art. Gag.)
So, where do we go from here?
Well, fortunately technology is likely to lend a hand by removing control from a handful of gatekeepers residing in a square mile of terrain or so. But even without technology it would probably have happened – albeit not so fast – since it is part of the cycles of how art “dies” and is reborn.
Note, in favor of my thesis that Baen – which is not in that square mile – publishes a lot of old science fiction and fantasy memes (that’s a topic for another post. In SF/F there is a certain need to ‘reincarnate’ certain types of stories, for new generations) there isn’t a proliferation of the “and now, still more difficult” type of books. Writers write largely for their public, not other writers or the gatekeepers – a lesson I think more and more midlisters are learning in the stuff they put out on their own.
This is very exciting, of course – a fun and terrible time to be alive and writing, the very definition of “interesting times.” And they’ll only get more interesting.
I look forward to writing without trying to aim messages or disguise messages or in general self-consciously head off my subconscious from forbidden subjects and opinions.
I look forward to freedom and an engaged reading public again.
Am I wrong? Is there no great hunger for stuff where the message doesn’t clobber you over the head? Should I just start thinking of a science fiction about aliens who communicate with their salivary glands?
*crossposted at According To Hoyt*