Success, Sanity and Alignment   1 comment

So I’ve been thinking about this whole publish-a-novel-and-live-happily-ever-after-on-the-interest-from-the-royalties gig and I’ve come up with three Principles of Artistic Wealth and Well-Being.

If getting published and getting paid a meaningful amount is the definition of success, then to be successful, you need to tell people what they want to hear in a way they find entertaining, because that’s what people will pay for and what publishers will “hire” you to do. Hey, it’s business and business is about the buck. No one’s going to pay you big bucks to do something they won’t get even bigger bucks back for selling copies of. That is the Principle of Success.

If staying sane as an artist means getting to do your thing your way, then you need to say what you want to say in the way you want to say it. Creative-celebrity suicides (and other forms of self-destruction engaged in by creative celebrities) are probably at least largely due to the creative artist’s getting locked into a philosophy or style that doesn’t come from within, either from the beginning or down the road as they change and mature but are forced to keep doing what the boss thinks will sell. Be true to yourself, whatever that means at any point. Doing otherwise will destroy you. That is the Principle of Sanity.

How do you bring success and sanity together? Well, you align by submitting what you want to say to people who want to hear it and who find the way you say it entertaining. It’s so obvious you’re probably slapping yourself silly for being so silly all these years, but many deep truths are only obvious once we see them in a plain typeface with everything spelled out nice and slow. In terms of your behaviour, the Principle of Alignment means that you stop sending your manuscripts to the venues (book publishers, magazines, journals, websites) that are big and glitzy and start sending them to the venues that want what you do. This will take research, of course, but what doesn’t? Successful courtships and the marriages that imitate them come from research: targeting the partner who wants what you’ve got and gots what you want, not from chasing the sexiest skirt or trousers. It’s John Nash’s game theory with specialization by mutual suitability. Yeah, a few thousand hacks and a few dozen lucky shape shifters can get their glamour and gold without consulting their inner Phoebus or studying the field, but you and I aren’t hacks or shape shifters. We’re artists. We need the right match.


The Three Principles of Artistic Wealth and Well-Being

Success: Tell people what they want to hear in a way they find entertaining.

Sanity: Say what you want to say in the way you want to say it.

Alignment: Submit what you want to say to people who want to hear it and who find the way you say it entertaining.


(c) 2012 Mark Penny

Posted June 21, 2012 by markpenny in Uncategorized

Looking at “Look at Me”, Part 1: A Question of Cubes   1 comment

I’m a pretty big believer in letting the subconscious have its way in fiction and poetry. Originality, insight, interesting plot twists, arresting metaphors and stunning turns of phrase seem to spring better from the blithe lunatic that broods in back than from the tense paranoiac eyeing customers in front. Yet if the product of the pen is to resonate with other minds, something must often be done to smooth out debilitating idiosyncrasies, to make the language and action legible to the last extent, to make the experience meaningful and worthwhile for the tense paranoiacs manning other shops.

To the end of improving as a revisor, I’ve decided to pick on “Look at Me“, a story I wrote in 2006, six years ago as of this writing. The incident that inspired it occurred two years earlier, I believe, on a visit from Taiwan to Canada with my wife, first child (then about nine months old) and mother-in-law. I’ve chronicled early experiences with the story here and here and critiqued it here and here, and rereading those four posts, I’m tempted to throw my hands up and declare “It is what it is and if no one wants to publish it, so be it.” But that would be damning myself in my progress as a writer and storyteller. No, I must face the pain and get the gain.

I’ve already made a few fresh notes in my creative writing journal, and I’ll get to them in a minute or two, but first I’d like to review a few gems from the posts alluded to above. From “Looking for Trouble“, we have this account:

So I’ve been showing “Look at Me” around. Had a couple of colleagues read it. Had a few students read it.

Two of the students thought it was weird. Senior high school students. Males. One student asked a lot of vocabulary questions. Junior high school student. Female. One student said the style took getting used to, so the story should be in a set, and that the opening had led him to expect a longer and somewhat different story. Pharmaceutical chemist. Age close to fifty. Male.

Both colleagues said they liked it. They sounded sincere. They were able to discuss it at length, indicating that it certainly hadn’t bored them: they were willing to spend some time on it. Mystery Colleague Number One, who took a break from Chinese study to look my story over, suggested the reference to Mount Longevity and its simian denizens needed support earlier in the story, that “where my wife comes from, where we live” in the second paragraph should be phrased more directly to something like “in Taiwan”. He also felt that the sentences read a bit choppily. Age in mid-thirties. Male.

Mystery Colleague Number Two, who paused in his progress out the door after the last class to look my story over, suggested the “cinematic flashbacks” between Victoria and Taiwan needed clarification. Age in early fifties. Male.

My mother, who read it yesterday during an MSN chat, said it was well-written but dark, too dark for her tastes. No hope. No light. Ironic, since I originally planned to improve on reality by having the protagonist interact with the girls and bring some sort of redemption. I am not as pessimistic about human nature as some of my stories and poems may suggest.

I myself, after rereading it a few times, couldn’t help feeling that it read a bit pretentiously, amateurishly.

Right then. Let’s summarise or at least tease out the criticisms.

The Taiwanese
Senior high school students, male: weird.
Junior high school student, female: vocabulary.
Pharmaceutical chemist, late 40s: unfamiliar style (better in set), opening suggests longer and different story.

The British, Americans and Canadians
English teacher, 30s: support Mount Longevity reference earlier, name Taiwan.
English teacher, early 50s: clarify flashbacks between Victoria and Taiwan.
Mother, early 60s: well written, dark (no hope, no light).
Author, 42: pretentious, amateurish.

Based on the list, I think it is safe to say that I am my own harshest critic, at least verbally–and in this instance. Dismissing the first two criticisms as culture- and language-related in ways that do not concern us in this case, the second-to-last criticism as a matter of personal taste and the last criticism as chronic acute humility, we are left with five points to consider:

unfamiliar style
an opening that promises a different length and type of story
a reference that would benefit from earlier support
a location better named than alluded to
unclear flashbacks

I am frankly uncertain what the first and last mean. The pharmaceutical chemist’s notion of style may include voice and tense, and the present tense first person plural narrator is definitely unusual; I am considering changing it to conventional past tense first or third person singular–and yet experience tells me to leave it as is: the lunatic in the back has reasons for both voice and tense, unclear to me now but promising to have significance. There is a sort of feverish, floating airiness to what I would call the style, perhaps due to what I would now call the “cubist” juxtaposition of time and place in consciousness (“flashbacks” in one colleague’s parlance). Interestingly, I only began to think about “cubing the consciousness” of the narrator the other day, long after writing it and having entirely forgotten the use I’d made of references to Maple Ridge and Taiwan. And there is my answer. Voice and tense facilitate the slicing and re-angling of thought, thought which guides and explains the action.

Let me pause and digress briefly to clarify this business of cubing. The Wikipedia article on Cubism explains that

In cubist artworks, objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.

What I wish to imitate and impart through the voice and tense of “Look at Me” is the experience of consciousness as it in fact occurs, a constant “slicing and re-angling”, as I said earlier, of past experience in response to present experience, something perhaps remotley akin to a Faulkner device described further down in the Wikipedia article: “narratives of the diverse experiences of 15 characters which, when taken together, produce a single cohesive body”, differing in being the accumulation and application of one character’s experience at a single point in a piece of very short fiction, something slightly similar to but “quite different from…free association…and…unconscious utterance”.

The pharmaceutical chemist’s remarks about the length and type of story we will leave for the moment, perhaps for ever. I can’t think what use to make of them. The confusion may be a side effect of cubing the consciousness–and not an entirely undesirable one, since consciousness extends long before and beyond the snippet of time and experience recounted in a story of any length. I should probably have dug deeper to discover whether the disparity represented dissonance or just false assumptions.

We are left, now, with “references” and “flashbacks”. I think my colleague’s problem with the Mount Longevity reference is that it is the only one not clearly set up in the first two paragraphs. This is, well, problematic, because each “cube” needs to fit its context, to be associated with something immediate in the narrative. The Maple Ridge cube is precipitated by the idea of being strangers in the current setting. The memories of hunting crayfish and diving headfirst into a swimming hole, although pertinent and referenced later, are germane to the moment where they are first inserted. The same is true for the motel cube, which springs from the clearly stated fact that the family is staying in a motel. References to monkeys or mountains at this point in the story would be jarringly out of place. There is nothing to spark them.

Yet it is true that there is a problem with the Mount Longevity cube. The cube fits the narrative exactly, but for readers unfamiliar with the geography of Kaohsiung City, there is a potential expository gap. One intriguing aspect of the objection is that it comes from a fellow expatriate and fiction writer, not from, say, my mother, who does not know Kaohsiung City and does not write fiction. Does that mean that the criticism can be dismissed as professional nit-picking? I don’t think so. The disconnect bothers me, too. The question is what I should do about it. Storytelling is always a ginger walk along a brittle, narrow ledge between the mass of thought and memory in the storyteller’s head and the capacity of the audience to spot and apprehend the fancy footwork employed to reach the next safe place.

Sometimes the glitches help. Sometimes they hurt. How does the average reader deal with a reference like the Mount Longevity one? Does he trip over it, so frustrated at the lack of stated geographical connection to the the earlier reference to Kaohsiung City that he cannot continue reading with any more enjoyment, or does he swiftly and accurately surmise that it belongs to the foreign geography mentioned in the first paragraph, accepting the missing details as consequences of limited access to a unified consciousness?

It is not insignificant, I think, that the three place names used in the story are all evocative. Victoria, of course, is named for a queen whose period of reign is associated with power and prudery and the concomitant secret (and not-so-secret) vices, among them sexual promiscuity and drug abuse (notably opium-based). Maple Ridge, whether you know the place or not, is a name which conjures up images of trees and mountainsides rather than street lamps and sidewalks. Mount Longevity, though not, perhaps, as sharply evocative as the feature’s other name, Monkey Mountain, does not sound quite North American or even English. To the initiated, it sounds distinctly Asian, if not specifically Chinese.

My main concern, then, based on the criticisms listed in “Looking for Trouble” is to somehow smooth the cube so that Mount Longevity is clearly and effortlessly linked in the reader’s mind to the place the narrator’s wife is from.

(c) Mark Penny 2012

Posted April 8, 2012 by markpenny in Uncategorized

Philadelphia and Me   2 comments

A couple of nights ago I caught most of Philadelphia, from the point where Andrew excuses himself to go vomit in the bathroom and ends up in the hospital to the freeze frame of the home video from his childhood.

I was very moved. I cried. Not great sobbing gouts of tears or anything, just a quiet happy-sad little trickle from both eyes and a short little catch in the throat.

The value of a film like Philadelphia, a toned-down mainstream look at an alternative lifestyle, is that it forces us to see the adherents of that lifestyle as people like us. They have hearts that can be wounded and broken. They have families that love them and whom they love. They have friends they care about and who care about them. They have their loyalties and disloyalties, their heroisms and betrayals. From a distance, in the words of the song, they are pretty much like everybody else. They just dress differently, eat different food, have sex with a different gender.

That's one side of a very valuable coin.

The film makes a point, through the person of Andrew's lawyer, Joe, of bringing up mainstream objections to homosexuality and neatly disposing of them. Joe, like the mainstream viewer, comes to see homosexuals as people, not problems, people with hopes, dreams and needs, people with lives they deserve and have the right to keep, people with secrets they have the right to keep. We rejoice with Andrew in his victorious bid against callous, abusive prejudice. We grieve with Andrew over the loss of his life, both physical and social. We laugh and cry with his family over the antics of a curly-haired little angel as he plays on the beach with his siblings and drags a heavy picnic basket to the porch steps. The film draws out our sympathies–and rightly so.

The film also makes a point of showing us a member of a recently abused and maligned minority in a position of unchallenged power and authority. The message here is that the still feared and suppressed sexual minority deserves the same acceptance and assimilation as the mainstream now cherishes for the once despised and oppressed racial minority.

The film likewise draws a distinction between moral and legal attitudes toward homosexuals. Joe's opening address to the jury asks them, and through them the mainstream viewer, to remember that what matters in the courtroom is not morality, but law. It is a question of the legal, not moral, code whether Andrew Beckett was wrongully dismissed. It is a question of the legal, not moral, code whether homosexuals may occupy positions of influence in our communities, from the highest offices of government to the lowest offices of education.

That's where it gets tricky. It's easy for me to accept that some people desire or need to be actively homosexual. But I get uneasy when personal active homosexuality breaks down the bedroom door from the inside and becomes public homosexual activism. This is the point that Joe attempts to make when propositioned in the drugstore. It's one thing to be yourself. It's another to shove your individualism in other people's faces. Put another way, it's one thing to come out of your closet and quite another to walk into mine. Or my children's.

People like me are in something of a bind. We are educated intellectuals (that is not redundant), liberal in outlook, conservative in lifestyle, morally religious, professionally secular. We see homosexuality as a sin, not a crime; as not a crime, and yet a sin. We believe, as Joe declares, that all men (read humans) are created (or evolved) equal, whatever their sexual orientation, and that most things in life have nothing to do with sexual orientation. We wish to see everybody free, happy and fulfilled. We try to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves". But being wise as serpents, we know that people affect each other, even without trying, and that not all effects are good (read desirable, positive, expedient).

The law reflects our tolerances, not our morals. That is, it directly reflects our tolerances and only indirectly reflects our morals. We are generally happy to tolerate diversity "out there", but we are occasionally loathe to admit it "in here"–and rightly so.

You may read the word rightly in two ways: right as in correct and right as in having a prerogative. If I do not wish to raise my children with the notion that homosexuality is a viable option, equal in physiological naturalness and social value to heterosexuality, is that not my right as a father? What I would do if one of my children chose to experiment with homosexuality or pursue a homosexual lifestyle is another matter and a very complex one that I'll address below. For the moment, I am concerned with my "natural" and "socially sanctioned" responsibility to nurture and socialize minors. If I am to socialize them, I must teach them values. What values shall I teach them and what weight shall I give to those values? How far shall I go to reinforce, or even enforce, those values?

To be continued

For discussion of a related issue, see A Clairvoyant Selfportrait of the Artist as a Published Author. See also the story A Dream of Fortune/The Fate of Meteors.

Posted June 9, 2006 by markpenny in Movies, Mutterings, Plot, Realism, Uncategorized, Writing

Ghost Month   Leave a comment

It's been a good month for spookers. Just yesterday, sitting and standing in my morning writing class, I started developing, out of the blue, it seemed, a new one about a mixed-race family stuck in the mountains of central Taiwan with a family of crash victims. It uses the idea of "hungry ghosts", spirits looking for new bodies. I kid you not: some people around here are afraid to go anywhere near a lying in state in case the departed's spirit is on the prowl for new digs. In two or three free moments, I jotted down the first three or four paragraphs. Before bed, though deadly tired, I wrote out the last two paragraphs.

The premise is that the husband/father in the family group, being a Westerner and no believer in ghosts, is entirely unaffected by the activities of the dead in Taiwan, but his wife and children are very directly affected. I don't want to spoil it for you, so I'll say no more, even though I believe a really well conceived and constructed story can easily stand a spoiling.

Brain Bombs or How to Read My Stories   Leave a comment

This afternoon I asked one of my mystery colleagues what he thought of “The Ice Cream Truck’s Song” (now “The Ninth, Not Final, Plague”). He said frankly that he frankly didn’t get it at all, even after reading it twice. Interesting. Here he was a native speaker and he’d fared worse than my students. They at least knew it was a ghost story. Hmm. We talked about the title, which I admitted was misleading. He said it made you think something nice was going to happen. Well, something nice did happen, from a certain perspective. He said it reminded him of Poe’s madmen stories. Lots of detail. I can’t remember what triggered it, but he suddenly shouted, “Oh! I know who the ghosts are!” I must have said something about its being a ghost story. I think that’s right. The minute he knew it was a spooker, everything clicked. Hmm.

The conversation reminded me that I’d planned to write a brief treatise on how to read certain of my stories which begin “in medias res” and don’t supply obvious hints about what’s going to come in handy down the road. I’m referring here to things like the James Bond movies, where Bond invariably pays a visit to Q, who invariably hands him a set of disguised weapons and other gear, which Bond invariably calls upon in a tight spot, or the Harry Potter stories, in which one or two magical gadgets introduced casually early in the tale end up being crucial to the plot (think of the time-turner in The Prisoner of Azkaban, the portkey in The Goblet of Fire, the pensieve in The Order of the Phoenix and the vanishing cabinet in The Half-Blood Prince).

While I don’t mind, and even enjoy, this obvious style of presentation in other people’s work, I like to do it more subtly myself. I like to show you the world and let you notice what you will, the way it works in the real world. Of course, there are myriad differences between any story and the real world. Any report or representation of reality is going to be restricted in content, our attention is going to be funneled to a few pertinent items, but I so like those moments in M. Knight Shyamalan’s movies when a whole mess of seemingly insignificant details or oddities suddenly string together into one tight and intense realization (as when Malcolm Crowe can’t open the basement door in The Sixth Sense, David Dunn sees Elijah Price’s diagrams in Unbreakable, and Graham Hess confronts the alien in Signs).

And so to “The Ninth, Not Final, Plague”. I’m not entirely pleased with that title, which may be the subject of a future entry called “Evolution of a Title”. It’s a good title, but it’s a bit heavy for the story, just as “The Ice Cream Truck’s Song” was too light. Anyway, let’s talk briefly about how the story works.

It starts with what for some readers would be, and is, an obvious clue: “I myself would not believe it, if not for the bell.” This is a pretty plain tip off that something weird is about to be described. If that isn’t enough, we have the next sentence: “Every night it rings–and rings and rings until I open the door and find–nothing.” What else could we be talking about but ghosts, especially after the next paragraph, which tells us that “there was no one there. The elevator had opened and was closing and stood empty on my floor. There was no one in the stairwell for two floors and not a soul on the roof”?

Next thing you know the narrator is hearing voices. Not much later he is making them out. It could only be ghosts, ba.

The question for most of my students is “Who are the ghosts?” They really puzzle over that one. Yet the clues are so numerous it’s almost embarrassing. You could be forgiven for thinking the narrator was freaked out until you read paragraph five: “It seemed like a game. It was a game. I had played it before.” If that doesn’t help, he tells you “I would have let it ring a decade if I could”, not what you’d expect from someone experiencing fear, unless you take it to mean he’d rather hear the bell ring than face the ghosts in the corridor. Ooh! That gave me the cold pricklies! But then he goes on “grasping at shadows”, actually trying to touch the ghost that rings the bell, so he’s obviously not afraid of the ghosts, and then he claims to know where the ghost’s hand, arm, shoulders and head should be–even what the look on its face must be! If that doesn’t do it for you, he digresses about shoes and dust and about an apartment that hasn’t been looked after for a while. Then there’s the perfume, a sly little twist to show he has a grip on reality. He’s sure he must be imagining the perfume. It wouldn’t be so apparent if its wearer were returning.

Then we have paragraph eleven, which spells out in huge flaming letters the relationship between the ghosts. Taken with paragraph ten’s “family grave” simile for the vacant parking spot that neighbours wish to buy or rent but which the narrator refuses to sell or rent in case “they” return and paragraph eight’s dust and shoes description, paragraph eleven amounts to a statement of the relationship between the narrator and the ghosts. The second to last paragraph talks about fear, but not of the ghosts: of their eventually not coming anymore, a fate the narrator would rather avoid. Why? Well, you figure it out.

This type of story I call a brain bomb. You go along, wondering or not, and somewhere very close to the end, it all clicks and your brain explodes with it. In the explosion, all the subtle hints come rushing together to be relived, everything takes on new meaning (or just meaning, if you didn’t start to get it earlier), and there’s this intense, exquisite paroxysm of understanding and awe, awe not for my finesse with the pen or keyboard, but for the splendour and terror of the human soul, the beauty and horror of our state.

Does that help anybody?

Where Ideas Come from   Leave a comment

I was spooning out the cat food when I started thinking about an HBO feature I'd seen on Mission Impossible 3. I'm going to skip the gimmicky spelling here. Tom Cruise and JJ Abrams had shared how the city of Shanghai had really opened its doors to them. This struck me as interesting, because some bureaucrat probably had to look over the script for the flick before approval could be given and the portrayal of Chinese military intelligence in the script was probably obviously less than flattering. You'd think they'd have run into problems on that count. Perhaps they did and were just keeping the fact under wraps.

In any case, my mind turned to the question of art and what it consists of. Readers of my previous post will remember that I spoke of communities and their aesthetics. What if a human filmmaker submitted a script to an alien bureaucrat and the bureaucrat judged the script on its artistic merits? And what if the alien world's aesthetic was worlds apart from ours?

Sounded like a good premise for a story. Sci-fi, of course. A one off? Hmmm. Maybe I could fit it into a series. How about TEAL (Teaching English as an Alien Language)? Hmmm. How would I fit in an English teacher? Aha! The English teacher is recruited as consultant and translator. He or she observes and participates in the process. Now we're talking!

All this happened before I'd finished spooning out the dog food. That's where ideas come from. From spontaneous associations, not from dog food.

Hmmm. What about dog food? Alien dog food. Alien dogs. Really intelligent alien dogs. Hmmm. Attitudes toward intelligence. Measures of intelligence. Roles of intelligence. Slavery. Cultural prejudice. Hmmm. An English teacher is hired to teach an alien dog English. The dog is as intelligent as any of us. The masters refuse to learn other languages. The dogs handle interracial relations. Hmmm.

Two ideas in one day. Not a record, but not bad.

Art, Meaning and Message   2 comments

Just yesterday I read Henry James's "The Tree of Knowledge" in Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine's Short Story Masterpieces.

A devastating and exalting little piece.

In the story, a self-styled great and little-understood sculptor, Morgan Mallow, aka the Master, sends his son, Lancelot, aka Lance, to Paris to study painting. The son discovers that he himself has about as much talent as a can of paint and that his father has less talent than a chisel. "I'm a hopeless muff [loser, bungler, incompetent]…, [b]ut I'm not such a muff as the Master!" he exclaims to the Master's long-time friend and his own godfather, Peter Brench, through whose eyes, if not voice, the story is told.

This is just one angle of the story (there are also the friend's heroic success at keeping his contempt for the work of the "artist" a deep and abiding secret without claiming the least respect for it, the son's struggle to keep his new and enlightened opinion of his father's work to himself, the son's apparent unfitness for any calling, the friend's deep and abiding secret love for the artist's wife, and the wife's subjection of her chronic and acute awareness of her husband's failings as an artist to her all-consuming and all-subsuming love for him and the concomitant care of his ego), but it's the one I want to deal with.

I'll bet it's the greatest fear of anyone who thinks they have talent but is aware that they might not that they will turn out to be one of those who has none but is unaware of it. You follow so far?

It is unlikely that either Morgan or Lancelot had no talent at all. The one could probably sculpt recognizable likenesses of people and things, and the other could probably paint recognizable likenesses of people and things. That's better than I can manage without a supreme effort.

The problem lies not in the ability to sculpt or paint, but in the power attributed to the sculptures and paintings. The problem lies in discernment. The Master's sin is not so much a lack of talent as a lack of discernment. He is able to sculpt likenesses, but he is unable to discern their ineffectiveness as works of art, their lack of power. If he claimed only to sculpt likenesses in a certain disproportionate style and made no claim of creating art, he would be neither contemptible nor pitiable. He would be normal. Because he so obstinately, in the face of the public's informed rejection, claims to be creating art but is so decidedly not doing any such thing, he is contemptible–or at least laughable, most likely slightly and harmlessly mad (that is, mentally out of alignment with his culture). Because he so naively persists in the belief that his work is simply not understood and because this naiveté is so essential to his self-esteem, if not his sanity, he is pitiable. There is no hope for the man. He will either dig in against the awareness of his own insignificance on that front, or crumble like Jericho when the reality penetrates his illusion.

The beauty of the story lies in the friend's, the son's and the wife's self-sacrificing subterfuge. They will quietly or vociferously, as they choose, align themselves with the Master's folly and bear the buffetings of a more discerning and less compassionate society rather than shatter the man's self-image or his image of the world. They are voluntary hostages to his benevolent but unsparing pride.

What does this mean for the rest of us, particularly us writers?

Whenever we write a story and friends or family applaud it, we must ask ourselves what motivates the applause. Is it genuine, discerning appreciation of our work, or is it self-sacrificing subterfuge, an inability or an unwillingness to confront us with the failure of our attempt? Conversely, whenever we submit a story for publication and it is rejected, we must ask ourselves why it was rejected. Was it because we failed in our attempt to create something of value, was it because there was no more room at the inn, or was it because a work of art was simply not understood?

A question might be asked about the Master's work. Was it really the pathetic scraping that his intimates and the larger public saw it to be? To him it was not. To him it had power. To him it was art. It had meaning and that meaning was conveyed. From this perspective, the question of whether a work is art depends ultimately on who is looking at it. If somebody thinks it is art, it is art. That is, it is art for them. And that is acceptable.

If you want to write, write. If you and others like what you write, then it's good writing. If what you write powerfully conveys meaning for you and others, then it is art.

The difficulty lies in the composition and conceits of the community within which and for which you attempt to write. In the story, the Master's son only sees his father's folly when he views his father's work from the perspective of an education in art in Paris. In other words, he had been brought up at home to admire his father's work, but when trained in a different aesthetic, the dominant aesthetic, he came to despise his father's work. He suffered a paradigm shift, a dramatic and traumatic one, one his godfather would have spared him. Such shifts occur all the time. What happens to any country boy or girl who moves to the city, any city boy or girl who moves to the country, any boy or girl who goes off to university, anyone who lives abroad? Do not they all come back, or at least look back, with some degree of pity or contempt on the aesthetic and cosmology of their neighbours and kin, their old community? And do they not often resume the old aesthetic and the old cosmology when they return?

So it appears to be a question of community. But then, that is what folk art and world art are for. We are quite capable of discerning power in an alternate aesthetic and the works it generates. Given a basic understanding of the aesthetic, we can say something of the success or failure of a work rendered within that aesthetic. Indeed, we may even be able to recognize art without any other introduction to its inherent aesthetic than the common aesthetic of humanity. Cross-eyed, short-sighted aliens from a planet that only shows blues would probably be unanimous in their judgment that every piece of visual art created on earth looks pretty much like every other, the way all country songs sound nearly identical to the uninitiated and all heavy metal sounds like a car crash to the violently unrefined.

Is this to suggest, then, that there really is such an objective quality as art? I suppose it is. At least, there must be some such objective quality at a certain level. That is to say, there must be degrees of art. This notion is adhered to by Penn Warren and Erskine, who quip in their introduction that "if we had got together within our available number of pages what we considered the best thirty-five short stories there would be fewer authors." They elaborate.

William Faulkner, for example, would have more than one, and, among others, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Frank O'Connor. There are few such real masters of the short story…. But there are others who have produced one or two stories so memorable that they must find a place in a book like this, which aims to give some representation to the considerable variety of good stories that have been written in our time.

I admit that when I read Faulkner's "Barn Burning" I was, or at least thought I was, conscious of a certain lushness not common in stories of any kind, let alone short ones, a sort of density of detail not attributable to length of sentence, paragraph or passage. On the other hand, I wasn't much impressed by Hemingway's "Soldier's Home", perhaps because I found no redemption in it (typical of Hemingway), but also because the rhythm seemed clumsily off. I'll have to go into depth about that later.

As I wrote about the subjectivity of art, or of the perception of art, it occurred to me that the aesthetically misguided may be guilty of a baser crime: vagueness. Could the Master have minutely defined in what the power of his sculptures lay? Or did his perception that his work was art spring from his belief that he was an artist and that all that he produced must by the nature of its origin be art? Can we pinpoint in what the art of our work resides? Can our friends and family when they applaud us?


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