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.|
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?