Thursday, October 13, 2011

Guest post: (What's the Story) Fiction as Art?

Today I'm delighted to host Mike French, Senior Editor of The View from Here, and author of the daringly unusual novel The Ascent of Isaac Steward, with a guest post continuing yesterday's theme of innovation versus convention.

(What's the Story) Fiction as Art?

 “Works of art often tell stories. Artists can present narrative in many ways—by using a series of images representing moments in a story, or by selecting a central moment to stand for the whole story.  These lessons will build students' awareness of how stories can be told visually and how artists use color, line, gesture, composition, and symbolism to tell a story. Students will interpret and create narratives based upon a work of art and apply what they have learned to create works of art that tell a story.”   The J. Paul Getty Museum 

People are usually happy with the concept of a painting telling a story that can be interrupted in a number of ways and accept that a quick glance isn’t enough – you have to stand in front of it for a while whilst you personalise the meaning.  So why then do we struggle when a novel works in the same way, when the writer uses words to paint images directly into a reader’s head to tell a story in a way that needs time to sit within their mind?

You can fall in love with a piece of music even if you don’t fully understand the lyrics – and again this seems acceptable, yet again when fiction does the same often people are left floundering, not sure what to think unless they understand everything. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a song that picked me out of my day in wonder and then thought …. Nar, nice tune and it jump started my emotions but I don’t understand all the lines, so no.  Even Oasis’ massively successful album (What’s the story) Morning Glory? had fans arguing over if that meant a nice sunny day in Manchester or morning erections.

Poetry doesn’t seem to encounter this thirst for instant recognition and complete comprehension. So I’m left puzzling, what’s the story with fiction as art?

I wonder if our western mindset demanding everything make sense on an intellectual level twinned with our pace of life means we have little patience for things that require time to appreciate. We read in bed in snatches when we’re tired, we read on the train. We read in the spaces in our lives and therefore we require a quick injection, a brief escape from reality and when we do have time to unwind we switch on the TV. 

So what’s the solution for writers when their fiction aspires to be art? I think for me it’s not worrying about it. People change, cultures change and if we pander to the culture we find ourselves in, then how do we effectively communicate to it in a way that helps brings about that change?  Today’s challenge being demonstrating beauty and the frailty of humanity in a way that doesn’t wrap itself up as a two minute pop noodle cash cow.

And fiction I think suffers more than other art forms in this respect. Poems tend to be short, songs ask only for a few minutes of your time, even a painting feels quite good about itself if you spend five minutes in front of it.  But o the novel. Maybe your days are numbered and in a hundred years’ time the relation between short stories and novels will flip with the publishers.  A novel you say?  Well there’s little appetite for novels, short stories are where the money is, easily digested on your Kindle.  But a novel, nobody reads novels these days.

Maybe we need art galleries with books in.  Set the ambience, where time slows down and you allow yourself time to read without feeling guilty that you should be doing something else.  O yes they’re called libraries aren’t they – are there any left?

Mike is the owner and senior editor of The View From Here literary magazine, he also enjoys painting, watching Formula 1, eating Ben & Jerry's icecream and listening to Noah and the Whale. His second novel, Blue Friday is now completed and he is starting work on his third novel. For the last ten years Mike has been a “home dad” after giving up his job in optical engineering to look after the kids full time – much of his first novel,  The Ascent of Isaac Steward was written during their afternoon naps!
 The Ascent of Isaac Steward is available at Amazon. 
Visit Mike's Blog.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

I'm with you completely. And whereas I adore a few of the books on this year's Booker long and shortlists, I do worry about the insistence on 'readability' from this year's panel.
What do they mean? I hope they don't mean 'an easy, unchallenging read'. Surely good books ought to work on the reader on many levels. As yours do, and thank you!

(I do wish the Booker panel had qualified the word 'readability'. Sadly, in not doing so, they have left themselves open to challenges, and some of the fallout is very sad, none the least for the writers on this year's lists.)

Jim Murdoch said...

I thought it was poetry that no one read these days. All you have to do is look at the stats to see that millions of people are still reading but I do agree that what they are choosing to read is changing and that’s evidenced by what people are writing. All I seem to see people promoting these days are works of genre fiction, books read for entertainment and although I agree that is one reason to read I personally am always let down by a novel or a story that only sets its sights that high and doesn’t aspire to make me think. However I do see e-books encouraging the reading and writing of shorter works of fiction which I don’t see as a bad thing at all. Most books I read are too long.

I have just reviewed a poetry collection. I don’t do many of these because they’re hard work. Novels I can read in three or four days generally but poetry is something I need to live with for a long time. This is why I like reading poetry online because I get one poem generally and that is it but even there how much attention does it really get? Three minutes? Five? Then I’m off elsewhere. Collections suffer because no one knows how to read them. They don’t behave in a nice linear fashion like novels. And that’s the real problem here, the more thought that needs to go into reading a text – any text – the more off-putting it is.

AliB said...

Hello Mike
Excellent and timely post in view of ongoing debate over literary prizes. I'm all for readability but there must be room for experimentation and for writing that doesn't just pander to current trends. I can be as impatient as anyone else for a plot to 'get going', but find books that stay in my mind are often those that I struggled to read at the time. I'm particularly cross at criticism of Wolf Hall which I found brilliant.

Sue Guiney said...

Interesting post and discussion. Yes, the death knell has been rung for the novel for decades, centuries. Every generation proclaims it dead. And now the big publishing houses are helping that along fearing novels are not marketable enough. But people long for stories. They long to get under the skin of characters, to learn about lives other than their own and, I think, that is the role of the novel. At least, that is the goal of the ones I write. I've spent plenty of time worrying about it. I also write poetry and have spent worrying about the fact that no one reads that either. And yet, here we are still writing it and turning to poems in our darkest and brightest hours. So, I'm not worrying about it anymore. I just write what I write. Enough people are interested and appreciative of it that it's taken me around the world. If you write it, they will come.

Tim Love said...

"You can fall in love with a piece of music even if you don’t fully understand the lyrics" - because there's the fall-back of the music. Perhaps a fairer analogy is with music that doesn't have melody. Few people have much stamina for that.

"Poetry doesn’t seem to encounter this thirst for instant recognition and complete comprehension." - because poetry's only read by a few people, maybe the same people who don't hunger for instant recognition and complete comprehension when reading prose.

Dan Holloway said...

This is a wonderful post, Mike. On the previous post I was musing about Romanticism and Hegel (of course, it goes earlier than that if we beleive De Rougemont that the Western narrative has its roots in a particular kind of unity-seeking neoplatonism that burst into common culture through the troubadours), and I think you've put your finger on the real issue. Movement.

It reminds me of my undergraduate days studying Hume and what he has to say about the "fiction" of cause and effect, that "impression" we have of the relation between things that constructs itself at a subconscious level as a way of enabling the mind to cope with the array of contiguous but non-causally related sense impressions that bombard it every second.

I think that need for movement, the ease of elision, has hard-wired itself into us (literally, I think I would say - the mind's capaity to construct a belief in the movement from cause to effect is largely responsible for our capacity for intellectual leisure time: we don't have to figure everything out from scratch all the time, which frees up brain space for other stuff). But it *is* a fiction. An elison. Something done for ease not accuracy.

One of the great things our thus-created leisure time can do through art is remind us that what we see as a seamlessly moving gentle narrative curve is actually nothing more than separate rather jagged instances that just happen to be viewed with a certain laziness most of the time. So it's understandable that we're drawn to certain kinds of story (even the phrase "narrative arc" plays this game with us). But it's also essential to have art of all forms, including the novel, that leaves things in their broken down and disconnected state. First, to remind us of reality; second, to make us rethink the easy curves we draw (and remind us that they are only ever lines of best fit extrapolated from points - my word verification is "graph" - how apt!); and third to make us put our brains to work from scratch and see if maybe, if connectedness is a fiction, there may be different, more fruitful, at least as interesting, ways of making connections from those we assume

Saph said...

It's interesting Dan, I did an interview recently which is out soon with Claire King and she asked me what The Ascent of Isaac Steward was about and I said ...

She’s a strange fish full of wonder and the frailty of our minds as we seek to impose a narrative on the chaos that we call life.

So totally understand where you're coming from in your comment above and how the brain can give the illusion of coherence so that we can function. I think if art is to push how we view our world and ourselves then it needs to be able to step outside that at times and there is no reason why a novel cannot do this.