Friday, July 20, 2012

You Say Potato, I Say Potahto

There’s a lot of crap out there. People making music, and movies and writing books that…well, they suck, okay? Musicians who’ve never picked up an instrument, movie makers who’ve never seen the outside of their basement dwelling. And writers who couldn’t write their name in the dirt with a stick.
Or…but wait. Back up a minute, Sparky. These are all forms of art, yes? Sure they are. And what precisely is art meant to do in this day and age?


Does perfection at one’s art equate to clear communication? One could argue that the more proficient one is at one’s craft, the clearer the communication. Okay, I might be willing to grant that idea. But then the question becomes: What are we attempting to communicate? And is communication the end-all, or are we really talk about resonating?

Ah, now we’re cooking with gas, eh? Many artists are proficient but do not resonate. Or perhaps they do not resonate with everyone. Some of us raise a hand in salute, give a nod to excellence, while others yawn and look for the exit. And then there are the artists who somehow nail the bull’s-eye without the slightest idea how to notch an arrow (sorry, saw Brave recently).

Maybe—just maybe—art is not about the artist. Certainly not when it comes to communication and, ultimately, resonance.

An example, if I may: Rush may be one of the greatest bands of our time (don’t argue with me, you will lose). But what makes them great? Their musicianship? Of course. The complexity of the arrangements and unadulterated skill level at which they play? Yep, and yep. But (and this may come as a shock) some people like to dance to music. Uh-oh. Can’t dance to Rush. I’ve tried. Shifting time signatures and delicious syncopations make dancing to Rush virtually impossible. Suddenly my favorite band no longer resonates, at least not with everyone. Who can you dance to? Ummm, Justin Bieber. Lady Gaga. Dare I say it, the poster child for absence of musicianship: Techno? All danceable. All quite popular and selling records (or MP3 files I suppose).

We can do this with movies as well. Overheard at the water cooler: “Titanic was a suckfest.” Really? Was it? Why was it a suckfest? I took a good deal of umbrage with this statement at first, until I saw the interlocutor’s point. But screw their point, this is my blog. To my umbrage then: Here’s why I don’t think Titanic stunk on ice (pardon). Put aside some questionable acting (Leo DiCaprio has become a fave as of late, but not due to his performance here); look away from gratuitous period jokes (think Billy Zane and his dissing of the upstart Picasso’s paintings); let’s avert our gaze for a moment from Kate Winslet’s bare breasts…no, wait, that’s one of the good points (or two, if you feel me). Aside from all that, what did Titanic achieve? Cinematic excellence? Oscar-worthy performances? A gripping and unpredictable story line? Nope, none of that. What then? Here’s what, since you asked: Titanic took me somewhere I’d never been; somewhere I never could’ve been. What James Cameron did for me was give me the opportunity to visit a pretty convincing version of a historic vessel, and he placed me on that vessel in a moment in time (the moment) so I could imagine what it was like to see the iceberg looming, to experience something I really never, ever want to experience, which is to say the feeling of the boat going down beneath me. Titanic is a time machine—I was transported. It resonated with me. I do not know enough about the art and craft of movie making to see anything other than the story, to feel the deck pitch and sway beneath me and wonder just how testicle-shriveling cold that water’s going to be when I finally hit. Resonance, communicated clearly from Cameron’s brain to my ganglion. Bravo, sir.

I know a little about music—I’ve been performing for more years than I care to think about—so I can speak on the subject with some modicum of intelligence. I do not, however, know as much about the art of cinema; I only know how it makes me feel, and so I have many guilty pleasures, films and television shows that make me laugh and cry and cringe and whatnot. Books now…ah, here’s what we paid our nickel to discuss, yes?

I am a writer. This is what I do, and what I have spent a great many years learning to do well. What does learning to write well consist of? First, and maybe most important of all, it consists of reading—millions and millions of words that others wrote before me. Our libraries and bookstores and Kindle devices are the universities we writers flock to…or should that read: the universities to which we flock? Never mind. We read so we know what has been written, and to see how it was done. Then, and only then, should we write. Constantly. We write and throw it out and write some more. It is the only way to become proficient. What about writing courses, writing groups, etc.? Sure, if you’ve got the time. But if you’re writing and reading as much as you should be….well, you probably won’t have time for such extracurricular activities as writing classes. Basic English is all you need (if you happen to be writing for an English-speaking audience). Beyond that , you will learn everything you need to know about good sentence structure, dialogue, and description, from your reading. But this is not my point.

I’ve been working my way through some horrendously bad fiction as of late. Trading reviews with other writers, paying it forward, spinning the wheel of Karma. Bad writing is not easy to read; it can be torture if you happen to know what good writing looks like. Open anything by Dan Simmons, or Lawrence Block, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Peter Straub, David Morrell, Ray Bradbury, Robert B. Parker…sigh, this is making me want to read. These writers all have The Gift. That indefinable something that is hard to point to and say: “This is why it’s good.” Actually, if you can point to it, it’s probably not good writing—good writing is not aware of itself, does not stand up and say, “Look at me, look how clever I am!” Bad writing on the other hand…well, it has a smell. And it ain’t good.

So I’m reading these clunky efforts, and judging the crap out of them, and wondering why on earth these folks didn’t stick with Sudoku…and then I become increasingly aware just how many of these writers and books are out there. Anyone with a word processor and a junior high understanding of computers (and grammar) can publish an eBook. And if that weren’t enough, people are actually reading the damned things! Some of these books are at the 5th or 6th installment for crying out loud, and people are flocking to them. Because they are literary works of art? No. Because they speak to the human condition and enrich our understanding of the Universe? Hardly. Why then? For the love of Edward Cullen, why???

Ahem. Because they resonate. With me? Not so much. But when did what I like become the litmus test for what everyone should like? People flock to these books because they like the stories. Period. The subject matter, or hunky dude on the cover, or twenty-seven euphemisms for male (or female) genitalia moves them on some level. And as a lifelong lover of books, the hardest thing for me to admit is that I sort of envy them. They don’t see bad writing; they don’t see cardboard characters and implausible plotlines. They see (like me with Titanic) angst and glamour and fear, oh my. The things that turn me on in a book would likely bore them to tears. Does that make me smarter than they? No, it makes me interested in different things. I’m interested in the sheer craft of writing—and when it’s done well, the story hits me all the harder—when it isn’t done well…ah, the heck with it, I don’t’ finish a lot of books I start. But I sometimes wonder if these other readers (and writers) might not have tapped into something grand: they are in it for pure story, pure entertainment, pure resonance. And who is the better person here? Do they judge me for the books I like to read? Uh-uh. Yet I find myself judging them at nearly every turn, calling them names and questioning their genetics. What fresh arrogance is this? It’s akin to calling Itzhak Perlman a dullard because he doesn’t appreciate Charlie Daniels.

This has been a soul-searching rumination. I am interested in your thoughts on the subject, I only ask that you be nice. Don’t name names unless you are being complimentary. Tell me: What kind of art rocks your world? Who are the practitioners you particularly enjoy, and why? Are you able to see how your liking them does not in and of itself make them great? And that you not liking another artist doesn’t mean they’re no good?

Talk amongst yourselves. And talk to me. I’m all ears.