Among the pines
Living by stories

Art, the marketplace, and narrative loss

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Ever since reading Sara Maitland's lovely book Gossip From the Forest,  I've been haunted by a passage in which she reflects on the ways that fairy tales have been diminished not only by the loss of the ancient wild-wood which was their natural habitat, but also by the loss of the oral storytelling tradition within our families, our communities, and our media-saturated culture.

"The whole tradition of storytelling is endangered by modern technology," she laments. "Although telling stories is a very fundamental human attribute, to the extent that psychiatry now often treats 'narrative loss' -- the inability to construct a story of one's own life -- as a loss of identity or 'personhood,' it is not natural but an art form -- you have to learn to tell stories. The well-meaning mother is constantly frustrated by the inability of her child to answer questions like 'What did you do today?' (to which the answer is usually a muttered 'nothing' -- but the 'nothing' is cover for 'I don't know how to tell a good story about it, how to impose a story shape on the events'). To tell stories, you have to hear stories and you have to have an audience to hear the stories you tell.

"Oral story telling is economically unproductive -- there is no marketable product; it is out with the laws of patents and copyright; it cannot easily be commodified; it is a skill without monetary value. And above all, it is an activity requiring leisure -- the oral tradition stands squarely against a modern work ethic....Traditional fairy stories, like all oral traditions, need the sort of time that isn't money."

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Jeanette Winterson comes at the subject of "narrative loss" from another direction in her essay "Writer, Reader, Words," discussing the ways that stories shaped by the rapid rhythms of the entertainment media impact stories created for the printed page, to the diminishment of literary arts. Her stance is not an elitist one for it is abundantly clear in Winterson's work that she believes that art belongs to everybody -- but she does resist the push to view literature as simply another form of entertainment and for writers to measure their worth in sales figures, clicks, and mass popularity.

"Readers who don't like books that are not printed television, fast on thrills and feeling, soft on the brain, are not criticizing literature," she writes, "they are missing it altogether. A work of fiction, a poem, that is literature, that is art, can only be itself, can never be anything else. Nor can anything else substitute for it. The serious writer cannot be in competition for sales and attention with the bewildering range of products from the ever expanding leisure industry. She can only offer what she has ever offered: an exceptional sensibility combined with an exceptional control over words.

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"How many people want that? Proportionally as few as ever but art is not for the few but for the many, and I include those who would never pick up a serious fiction or poem and who are uninterested in writing. I believe that art puts down its roots into the deepest hiding places of our nature and that its action is akin to the action of certain delving plants, comfrey for instance, whose roots can penetrate far into the subsoil and unlock nutrients that would otherwise  lie out of reach of shallower bedding plants. In the haste of life and the press of action it is difficult for us to examine our feelings, to express them coherently, to express them poetically, and yet the impulse to poetry which is an impulse parallel to civilization, is a force toward that range and depth of expression. We do not want a language as a list of basic commands and exchanges, we want to handle matter far more subtle.

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"When we say, 'I haven't got the words,' the lack is not in the language nor in our emotional state, it is in the breakdown between the two. The poet heals that breakdown and not only for those who read poetry. If we want a living language, a language capable of expressing all that is called upon to express in a vastly changing world, then we need men and women whose whole self is bound up in that work with words."

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In our own field of mythic fiction and fantasy, I cherish the fact that the honorable craft of storytelling has been kept alive during times when realist literature too often consisted of stylistic exercises in navel gazing by and for the privileged classes (if you'll forgive that blunt assessment, and thank heavens it's changing) -- but in valuing the skill it takes to tell a good story we mustn't then run off in the opposite direction and forget the "art" in our art form altogether. Our field is wide enough to accommodate both, entertainment and literature; and wise enough, at its best, to value the strengths and forgive the weaknesses of each. But it must be noted that the economic and technological climate re-shaping the publishing industry is geared to one sort of fiction and not the other; it is not a friend of poeticism, experimentation, and the slower rhythms that art-making and art-appreciating (in fantasy or any other genre, realism included) tend to require.

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Many fantasy books that cross my desk these days (sent by publishers seeking quotes or reviews) are entertainment products, not literature; and I hasten to add that it was ever thus. Literature is rare, true art is rare, and entertainment serves a human need too. The fine craft of making artful entertainment is one that is worthy of our respect; and the line between art and entertainment has never been so firmly drawn as some critics insist. But what I find different in my reading now is a greater preponderance of novels written with the episodic structure, "beats," and dialogue of lowbrow film and television writing -- works, in other words, disconnected from the long, rich history of the literary form. Maybe I'm simply showing my age here, but I find this trend distinctly dismaying. If I want television, I'll go to television; I turn to books for what language alone does best; and even when I seek them for entertainment, then I'd like that entertainment to have at least a nodding acquaintance with the literary arts.

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These days, it seems to me, not only are the "artful" novels harder to find, but also those sly, clever, wonderful books that borrow from both camps, entertainment and art; and the writers I used to count on to create them are looking increasingly hungry and harried, so busy now keeping the wolf from the door that "art" seems to be a luxury left only to those already well fed.  Now, I acknowledge that it has always been difficult to make one's living writing artful "mid-list" books (i.e., books with reliable but modest sales) -- but with the mid-list shrinking everywhere, "hard" is becoming "impossible" for too many of our most interesting writers.

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Should we care about this small group of writers, producing work for a small group of readers? If I, personally, don't read so-and-so, and if the market has denied so-and-so the crown of mass popularity, is it any concern of mine whether he or she can still write and still publish? My answer to both questions is a resounding yes -- because we're not just individual readers, we're members of a community; and art, and questions of art, are important to our community as a whole. 

There are books that will never become best-sellers that are nonetheless vital to the health of our field: novels that expand the language of the fantastic, novels published far ahead of their time (blazing the trails that others will follow, often with a commercial success denied the early pioneers), challenging novels that demand as much from the reader as they did from the writers who made them. I propose that we should care about such writers, the Living National Treasures of our genre, if we care about fantasy literature at all. And if we do, then we must also care about the budding young artists of the next generation: the ones who aren't going to write the next Twilight and flourish on the best-sellers lists, but who just might, with right encouragement and support, create the next Alphabet of Thorn or Little, Big.

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At a time when art is increasingly referred to as "content," and content is a thing we now expect to be quick, disposable, and cheap (or free), I find myself distinctly worried about those young artists...and the not-so-young artists, too. I'm worried about how they will pay for groceries, for tools, for healthcare (if they live in the U.S.), and for the precious hours and hours needed to create innovative work...and my worry here is entirely selfish, because I want to read all those books that won't exist if there's no infrastructure to support them.

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I like well-crafted entertainment as much as anyone, but I need the other kind of books -- the ones that shake up my ideas, stretch my heart, and heal my wounded soul -- and if they're not being made because the makers are working at Starbucks, then my life has been diminished. All our lives have been diminished.

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There are, of course, no simple answers to this, but the topic is one worth pondering, for if we depend on the marketplace for solutions, we know all too well how art will fare. My own small attempt to give art a helping hand is to seek out unfamiliar books and authors, to stretch myself beyond my usual reading comfort zone. And to stop being shy about talking about our art as an art, and doing so with passion and conviction, in a marketplace culture more comfortable with books as products and authors as brands, with ironic detachment as protective armor against the selling out of our very souls. Every time I buy a challenging book instead of sticking to familiar "comfort reading," that's another penny in an artist's pocket....and while the value of what those books give me cannot be measured in dollars and pounds, those pennies add up and put groceries on the table. It's all I can do, but it's something, and I do it.

Had I a fairy wand to wave, I would give the artists in our field equal access to MacArthur Genius Grants and all the other grants, fellowships, residencies, and working retreats that largely bypass English-language writers working in nonrealist traditions -- or else, if segregation by genre must persist, the establishment of a similar, well-funded network of resources for artists working in nonrealist forms. Mind you, if I had a fairy wand I would first bless every child born with a love of reading.

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And now I've rambled on long enough. (But hey, at least I've rambled with passion!) What are your thoughts on art-making and the marketplace, and how can might we improve the relationship between the two? Some suggested reading as part of this conversation: The Gift by Lewis Hyde (on art in a market economy) and The People's Platform by Astra Taylor (on how the arts, and other fields, have been impacted by digital technology).

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