Friday, July 13, 2007

Anxiety and artistic choices

The annual Vision Festival took place in New York a couple of weeks ago. I didn't make it up this year--I've only ever made it once, and then for only one of the nights--but I've been reading some of the accounts (which I came across mostly via Destination: Out!), Brian Olewnick's posts in particular (here and here). Brian argues that the festival in many ways embodies a conservatism in so-called "free music":
The odd (sad?) thing was that the better music from each evening almost inevitably referred directly to earlier great music. So you get pastiches of Handy, the Art Ensemble, Ellington etc., which are enjoyable enough but hardly possessing any "vision". Not surprising, of course, but still. Worse, as always, for something describing itself as "free music", countless strictures were constantly in place. There was rarely a moment where you got the idea that a given musician could do anything that came to mind. Solo order tended to follow the standard routes (horns to piano to bass to drums).
This kind of argument has been made before, of course. It's often noted that the inheritors of the legacy of 1960s "fire music" (or indeed its players, several of whom are still going strong) are no more pushing boundaries at this point than are those who represent the more "traditional" jazz espoused and played by the likes of Wynton Marsalis.

I bring this up here because it makes me think, again, of the problems that arise for the performer or the writer (or the reader or listener) when it appears that all of the possible forms have been used up, when it perhaps doesn't seem as if there is any further "out" or "experimental" to go. I used to feel, with confidence, that being into "new music" (free jazz, experimental noise, whatever) was no reason to assume that perfectly good, even great, music could not be created in the older forms. If someone released a Horace Silver-style hard bop record in 2007, there is no reason why it couldn't be great, or even the best record of the year, whether we noticed it as such being a separate matter. With literature, my attitude was similarly catholic: a great book can still be written in the style of the 19th century novel, writers shouldn't feel compelled to push formal boundaries when they are more comfortable in an older style, that it's the writing, the individual voice, that's the important thing. And as a reader, I should try to sample widely--there could, and would, be excellence found in any style or genre.

My thinking on this has evolved. I still think that someone could write a perfectly good specimen of an older style--and I'm really talking about fiction-writing, of course: novels--but I often wonder why he or she would want to. I wonder why such an effort should be praised for having been done at all. (I have similar thoughts on music, but for the rest of this post, I will be discussing literature only. I may return to music in this vein for another post.)

From my vantage point, I look out at the options available to the writer, and I see chaos. How does a writer choose? Think of the imaginary, present-day writer writing a sonnet--such an effort would not be hailed as innovative or revolutionary, however well it re-produced the style, and it's not a controversial thing to say. But with the novel, those that resemble the 19th century novel definitely are praised--maybe not as "innovative" but as accomplishments in their own right. To the extent that a "literary establishment" exists, it looks on the novel as a certain thing that looks a certain way, perhaps with variations within the general form, what with Modernism and post-modernism, and Beckett and Barth and Stein and Sterne and all that has come before. This is seen as a virtue: the novel is big enough for all of us! It is a fictional container than can, and does, include any number of styles: just pick one!

The writer has some urge to write, of course. And some decisions to make on how to proceed--maybe short stories instead of novels? Maybe science fiction or mysteries or romance or young adult? Maybe the writer is interested in capital-L "Literature". The would-be writer picks one or more of these, or dabbles in them all, and then sits down to write. A lot. There is general acknowledgment of this: that the writer must, in fact, write. And write. A lot. The writer must work at his or her craft. Inspiration is a given, I suppose. If an urge to write exists, the topics will come, the voice, if indeed any talent exists along with the urge, will develop, if only the writer writes.

But is this craft? And what of the choices available? Are these the most important choices?

I admit that I have thought of this as craft, and that I've been divided between the conception of the writer as one who crafted fiction and one who is compelled to write, perhaps a false dichotomy. But I look at the blank sheet of paper, or the blank document on the computer screen (or the blank blog post), and I ask, what is to be done? I've blogged before about the things that have blocked me from writing. What I said there remains true, but there's more to it than that, I think. It's not just that things I have to say may have been addressed by others (indeed, they probably have), but that formal problems vex me. It's not just why to proceed, but how. (Or, depending on the day, it's not just how to proceed, by why.) But this post is not supposed to be about my personal problems with writing (or maybe it is, who can say? maybe they all are).

I will return in future posts to this question of craft, specifically in the context of my reading of Gabriel Josipovici. . .

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