Thursday, 22 October 2015

Week Twenty-Six: Art and the Novelist

Arts and crafts. Two different areas of expertise linked by some common threads. And the definition of both is reasonably simple. Art is about talent and inspiration and individual choice. Craft is about skill and knowledge and experience. You can't have art without talent, but you can have craft without art. Yet both can contain elements of the other.

Painting a picture comes down to art. Hand-knitting a Christmas jumper is certainly craft. Thus far we are agreed, I suspect. Yet to paint well you need to have learned some technique first, which indicates craft, and not all jumpers are equal: some are more beautifully knitted and shaped than others, which suggests that art and talent have played a part. Again, not a huge stretch.

But move into the field of literature, and the terrain becomes boggier.

Poetry is an art as much as a craft, most people would probably agree. Poetry is about delicate, minute choices, and rhythm that is akin to music, and a highly individual view of the world.

But is writing a novel an art or a craft? Can writing any novel - from Booker Prize winners down to the latest potboiler - ever be seen in the same light as poetry?

OMG, this paragraph is going on FOREVER.

Is there more artistry and reliance on inspiration when putting down words in prose, one after the other, in the manner of a conveyor belt, than there is a sense of craft involved in the process, of skilled knowledge built on experience and talent?

The long haul nature of writing a novel tends it towards craft. As a whole product, it's too unwieldy to be something built out of the artistic impulse alone. Specialised skill and knowledge, not to mention discipline, are required throughout. In the same way, making a bronze statue is a craft as well as an art. Yet at a molecular level, at the language and sentence level of writing a novel, it could be argued that art plays as large a part as craft.

What that comes down to is choice. The choice of the artist. Blue here, but what kind of blue, and how much? Applied in what manner? Repeated where? Highlighted or echoed how?

In the same way as a painter with a brush, we select words to a particular end. To shock, to inform, to depict, to illustrate, to confuse ... And once chosen, we arrange them in an order that seems to reflect the needs of the story at that point. We repeat them for effect. Or oppose them with different words.

But how does it all END? I was sure I knew when I started, 357 pages ago ...

We stop and consider our sentences. We alternative short with long, simple with multi-clause, semi-colons with commas. Then we arrange them in paragraphs. Blunt and pithy here, descriptive and relaxed there. We develop ideas along with the paragraphs, rising and falling, inevitably returning to the same themes again and again.

We shape our story into chapters, ending with high points, providing the reader with low points too, present them with the abyss to make the heights more dizzying. We develop arcs throughout, shifting our characters from one incarnation to another, giving them foils, tripping them up with plot obstacles. We think about our people, we make them the focus of our attention, we constantly bring them and their relationships to the fore. And we keep the thread of our theme running throughout the novel like a name stamped in a stick of rock, hopefully becoming clearer and sharper with every bite.

Overall, this feels more like craft than art. Perhaps because writers can only learn by writing. By serving a rather prosaic apprenticeship of writing and being rejected, and of rewriting, and sweating over our novels like steel workers. Yet we also use the language of art to describe ourselves and our processes. We say blithely that language and grammar, punctuation and syntax, the artistry part of writing, the small details, these constitute our toolkit. The story itself is our "canvas". Yet if we are artists, we are rough, uncouth types, in blue overalls rather than smocks, using a chisel rather than a fine, camel hair brush. We hew story over long months, and all our most important choices seem to be blunt-edged and large-scale.

But here's the thing. 

We cannot see the shape of the novel while we're writing it. 

Not until we finish and step back.

While we're at the wordface, the work has to be done on faith, by touch alone, step by careful step, like someone groping their way across an unfamiliar room in the dark. During the actual writing, the final shape can only be felt, sensed rather than seen, like a spider's web in the writer's head.

So the best novelists write with one finger touched lightly to the nearest thread, listening for the almost imperceptible tremors that tell them how far they are from the centre and how close to the prey, keeping them invisibly connected to the whole.

That sounds more like art to me. And so the argument continues ...

My latest arts and crafts offering, on sale now at Amazon only.


QUESTION: Are novelists artists or crafts people, or a bit of both? And if you are a writer, how do you see the process? As artistry or craftswork?


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