Thursday, July 26, 2007

Fame and Legacy and Art (courtesy of Novel Eye)

Novel Eye wrote a very interesting post on Fame and Legacy and Art, which included the following:

So, is it [Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat] a good painting? Shama thinks so. It is a painting which has outlived both its artist and its purpose.

As someone who creates things, what are we to make of that? What is the purpose of art--fodder for tomorrow's advertising (I remember my horror when I realized that Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies would be remembered as "Smurfberry Crunch is fun to eat."

Is it better that it be remembered at all? There are countless pieces of art in all fields which will disappear without even a poor imitation to their name. I am depressed just reading lit mags, thinking of all the people who will never see this poem or this story, or this drawing.

It stops me from creating. Clearly it doesn't stop others--I put this out to Writing Life x3 and Mirror as people who actually do create and produce things in there spheres.
The question of does it matter if your work is remembered, or if it will even be widely seen or noticed is one I've thought about a lot. As an artist, I definitely strongly desire for my work to be seen and remembered. Writing, is after all, partly a passion to communicate with an audience.

The remembrance part: I don't think too much about that anymore. However, I recently bumped into someone from Denver who remembered seeing a play of mine that was staged there, ten years ago. Knowing that someone would still remember the play and production ten years later was a thrill. When I was younger, the idea of fame definitely seemed very attractive to me. If you'd given me the choice between fame and money, I'd have chosen fame every time. (Guess what, no one has made the offer so far.) Nowadays, I'd certainly still like to be interviewed by Terri Gross on Fresh Aire, but I don't need to be on Letterman or the Daily Show. I would like my work to still be published and read after I'm dead, I suppose. But I don't need it to appear in a list put out by the 22nd century's equivalent of Harold Bloom.

Do I think about potential audience when writing? No, and yes.

At the very start of a project, when I'm framing some of the basic direction of the piece, I am conscious as to whether it has a remote chance of being published and widely seen or read. I don't only pick projects that I think will be bestsellers or huge Broadway hits. (As if I'd know.) But I wouldn't spend 2-3 years on a project, if I didn't have some idea that it could reach an audience. Sometimes I realize later that my assessment of potential audience was complete self-delusion. A great deal of writing day after day is just finding ways to keep that bubble of self-delusion comfortably inflated. (The world will be happy to deflate the bubble once the final draft is complete.) (I spent 5 years writing a full-length play about the history of the creation of the English Bible. I'm glad I wrote it. It's had good readings and workshops and done well in competition. But I've had to accept that it might never be widely produced, or might (note the self delusion creeping in--the proper term here is probably) never be produced at all. )

Once I've committed to the project, though, I have to write the truth of the piece for me, whatever that is. (That sounds so hifalutin, doesn't it?) The production or publication process is so drawn out, that there's no point in trying to second guess the market, or even consider the latest fads, while I'm writing. Who knows what will fascinate people by the time I'm done? The trick is to get whatever depth out of it that I can provide. That, and a bit of good luck, is the only thing that gives it a chance to reach people after that.

As for them remembering it later, again, I think that's luck as much as quality. Or maybe, as discussed in this post by Mirror up to Nature, the luck has a lot to do with the rest of the life of the author and where he or she fits in with society. What's the story of the author and the times? I don't know. Once you're a writer and have lots of writer friends, you know there are scads of talented people out there with great manuscripts that will never be widely read. The bullshit story told to beginning writers--if you write something great, it'll get published/produced/staged--is a fiction designed to keep the pipeline producing more work for the producers and publishers to choose from.

I guess, though, if I let worries about all that stop me, then I'd need to go find something else to do (go become a farmer, or something). For now, I'll stick with writing.


Malachy Walsh said...


And as an old Chicago bookseller once said to me about being in the book business after 40 years, "If I'd known anything at all about it, I wouldn't have done it. I'm glad I didn't know any better. It would've ruined me."

patrick said...

I think this shows up even more clearly in fiction than in playwriting. The sophomore slump for novel writers is such a real and tricky thing. With that first novel, it's written without any understanding of the book business and with no expectations, or really any interaction with an audience. This is partly why we see so much critical fuss over first-time novelists. And this fuss, of course, makes the situation even worse. (I was fortunate, in a way, I suppose, that there wasn't a great deal of critical fuss about my first novel (though it did have good reviews), so if I can find a publisher for my second, it'll be almost like emerging with a blank slate.)