Friday, March 4, 2011

In Which Neil Gaiman Says Something Meaningful and I Post It For the Eddification of All

The title pretty much sums this post up.

I finished reading "Good Omens" by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett last night, and am left wondering why it took me so long to read it. I suppose the number of the people who haven't yet read this book is down in the single digits, and I urge the rest of you to go read it. 

At the end of the book Neil Gaiman talks about how he met Terry Pratchett and how they wrote the book together (as in, together. Not that one of them wrote one half and the other wrote the rest. They would sort of trade off, and write when they knew what happened next). 

I was struck by what Gaiman said about Terry Pratchett:

"He constructs novels like a guildmaster might build a cathedral arch. There is art, of course, but that's the result of building it well. What there is more of is the pleasure taken in constructing something that does what it's meant to do--to make people read the story, and laugh, and possibly even think."

For a long time I've thought about art versus craft. You hear people talk about the art of writing, the creative energy that goes into a novel. Depending on the person, and whether or not they have an MFA, really big words get thrown around that basically mean "Writing is as nebulous as the clouds, and real writers cannot predict the whims of the muse anymore than we can predict the whims of the weather."

Then there's the other camp, the "storytellers". You know the writers, the ones that claim, "I am not shooting for high art, I just want to tell a good story." They pay special attention to dialogue, and characters, and *gasp* might even plot out their novels in advance.

Obviously I am generalizing. I have met people with MFAs who were down to earth and people who consider themselves "storytellers" but refuse to change one word of their deathless prose.

And all the while I am left wondering, "Can't it be both? Can't a person write a really great genre novel and it still have literary merit?"

The answer, of course, is yes, and authors do it all the time. Gaiman and Pratchett are examples. So is Holly Lisle and Orson Scott Card. Sure, they want to tell a compelling story, but there's usually something deeper going on in the story if you care to think about it. 

It's just that I think we're trained to think of it as being only one way or another. Since I write genre novels, I am excluded from the Deep and Literary table. Likewise for literary authors, your books are treated like children who must eat your veggies: you won't enjoy the actual experience, but it's good for you. Builds characters (pun intended).

Gaiman's statement really hit home for me, because I think that's the key to merging literary merit with an awesome story. Art comes after a certain level of competence is acquired. If you can lay down a seamless structure (whether it's through plotting or pantsing and tidying up afterward) it becomes much easier to focus on excellence in characters, plot, and word choice. 

I think a cathedral arch is an excellent analogy:

Wikicommons allows me to illustrate my point.
See how beautiful the architecture is? There's a quite grace to a cathedral arch. But think about all of the planning that went into the design.

You can have both art and entertainment. It doesn't have to be one side or another. 

What do you think? Do you label yourself as an artist or a craftsman? Do you consciously try to merge literary merit with entertainment, and if so, how?


  1. I agree most heartily. And I wouldn't say I'm one or the other. I'd LOVE to think I was balancing the two but really I probably write more entertainment than art.


  2. I'm a storyteller. I care far more about entertainment value than I do about art or hidden meanings, etc. I have no expectations of awards or even for critics to like me. I just want to make people laugh. Hopefully with me and not at me. :-)

  3. Mia: I think I agree with you. I focus more on telling a good story and less on the "art" but hopefully some of that seeps through.

    Christi: I think that's just as noble of a goal as going for art.

  4. I've been giving this some thought. Probably not enough, but I'll give it a go.

    Without a good story, and "artistic elements" will get lost in a glazed over expression. So the structure of a good story must be there, regardless. The craft vs the art - I suspect that elements of both are in the best works. But I think some of the art is - unconscious. And a lot of the stuff that people think is the art is crafted with a lot of hard work.

    But if you just slap together a story, without the structure, it would be like a sculptor not paying attention to structure. The final product might well not stand well, no matter how finely he crafted the details in the face or whatever, if the structure couldn't support it.

  5. I tend to lean toward the "hifalutin'" camp, as we would call it in the South. In general I don't love reading books that just tell a fun story. One of the main reasons I just can't get into most romance novels. So I try to have some deeper meanings, symbols, and thought-provoking ideas in my own work. I appreciate it in others as well.

    But I certainly don't like stories that are all brains and no heart. I live on well-developed characters, clever plot that surprises, and settings I can escape into. And I love when a book can make me laugh out loud or cry in public.

    What I really want in a book IS both. One with either/or usually bores me.

    I definitely don't think that genre writers are doomed to have none of the art, especially fantasy, though that is what they tell us, isn't it? It is often the easiest to cast reflections on our own world when you look through the lens of another. Gulliver's Travels, for instance. We can sneak our little messages in there without even being noticed until the story's over.

    What amuses me is when people read those hidden things into a story that the author never intended - see everything Shakespeare ever wrote. His sole intention was to entertain, to keep getting a paycheck for himself and his actors. He didn't even have time to worry about the "art." Now he defines it.


  6. Linda: I completely agree, and I think that what's Gaiman's point was. You can have art, but just art gets crushed under it's own weight.

    You can have just structure, but just structure is nothing to look at. In the end, a marriage of both yields the best results.

    Tara: It DOES amuse me when people read a lot more into literature. I had an English teacher who was OBSESSED with Shakespeare, and contended that all the symbols were put there on purpose.

    I definitely agree. I need some substance or reading the book feels hollow. But all substance and no attention to telling the story can be just as difficult to read.

    What wonderful comments! I am glad everyone is as opinionated about this as I am!