Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Writer versus Author

I have a concern that there is too much control being asserted over the writer as artist these days. It is true that, contrary to the image of the solo writer tapping away at his typewriter with an overdose of five o'clock shadow, writers need the assistance of an editorial eye, but do they need to be told what is art and what is not? I'm not referring to the fixing of grammar and spelling - or even some structural advice when it is sore needed, but it seems that more and more, and I'm not merely talking about online resources such as my very own blog, that the final say and the final cut comes from agents and then editors.

Of course the nascent and inexperienced writer seeks guidance from the more experienced, and that is correct. There is always a need for advice and mentoring in the arts, any art. What I'm seeing, however, is a molding of writers to one limited model, and a muscular leveraging of outside viewpoints on what is, ultimately, a personal art form. Let me give you an example in terms of painting.

As a painter I went to art school to learn my craft. I was guided by my instructors, other artists who were earning a living by teaching, and then finally at the end of my journey I was let loose in the studio. It was the goal of both me and my teachers that once I was finished with instruction that I should be alone in my studio, master of my media, and the artist. I wanted the critics and teachers out of my studio once I was ready to fledge. Imagine that the art agent and the critic entered my studio at this point and grabbed a paint brush correcting perceived errors on my canvas. Perhaps they even took scissors to the piece to reduce its dimension because smaller art was more easily accessible to the viewer than a large piece.

It would be shocking and outrageous and the finished piece would no longer be mine. Increasingly it seems that the writer is losing control of their art form. Novels are written to have cookie cutters applied to them by experts that seem to have more control than the writer, more authority. If you want to be a good writer and be published than submit your art to another's scrutiny and final judgment is the message I read all the time. It's the same whether it's over the internet or the real life experience of my friends who are published writers.

Of course if you follow my thoughts in this you might well find yourself unpublished and unread. Many a painter has works of art languishing in spare rooms and dusty studios because no one wants to buy the art. Most art shows do not result in sales or a living for the artist. I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I know that I would rather be a good artist than one that had compromised my art for what is currently considered saleable. When I think of the authors that are truly great very few of them conform to the well-worn maxims of today. Yesterday's authors were authoritative and their art had authority.

My proposal is that there comes a time when the writer is no longer an apprentice, but an author. As an author they should be the final arbitrator of what is excellent in their own work; even if they submit to a helpful critical eye the final decision is theirs. That day cannot be measured by some sort of marker like being published by a major publishing house because that privilege becomes an unlikely goal, but if a writer truly wishes to make a mark on the world then at some point they must, finally, become the author of their own creation.


Vincenzo said...

Agents and editors of most large publishing houses are not looking for art; they're looking for what will sell, what will be commercially successful (in their minds). It's like the American Idol phenomenon that is so popular. I can think of dozens of established singers who probably wouldn't survive American Idol. There are smaller publishing houses that don't compromise a writer's art, but they don't have the promotional resources the big houses have. You have to look around to find them, but they're worth the search.

Pan Historia said...

Right, that's the heart of what I'm talking about - not eliminating the need for learning, craft, or advice, but ultimately not to be willing to compromise for popularity. Under today's climate I can't see some of our best authors getting published without some of their best stuff being cut out or rewritten to mercilessly conform to what is saleable.

Norm Cowie said...

I picked a small publisher for this very reason.



Helen Ginger said...

Your post explains why a lot of authors are turning to small press or even self-publishing in e-form. It's only in the last few years that this has become a viable option for many.