Real Art Doesn't Match Your Sofa
or: The Trouble with Genre
or: Damn the Rules, You Play All 12 Notes in Your Solo Anyway
A long time ago, perhaps another lifetime ago, I worked in a picture framing shop called Prints 'N Things, in a mall. Deck the Walls bought Prints 'N Things, and then, being a franchise operation, sold the store to an accountant. The accountant decided that the employee's taste in music sucked, so he subscribed to this thing called Muzak.
Sales dropped. (This is a post about writing. Don't worry. I'll get there.)
Customers left the store more quickly than they had when we were playing Beethoven's 9th, or Joy Division, or Donna Summers, or Billy Ocean, or Boston, or Miles Davis, or the soundtrack to Sweeney Todd. It's not that they necessarily liked what they were hearing, but at least it was music. Not Muzak. The employees were less happy and more irritable, less interested in doing their job well, and more interested in going on their breaks. I personally found that any prolonged exposure to Muzak, that calm, homogenized noise that poorly mimics music, sets my teeth on edge, leaving me feeling like I'm just barely controlling an urge to fly into a rage.
Eventually, the Muzak receiver (ahem) broke, and sales increased.
Later, I was introduced to the music of Enya, and found myself having much the same reaction. The problem, I think, is the lack of tension. Music requires a certain tension, created by the retention in the mind of previous notes (and, importantly, of the spaces between the notes) into the note(s) (or space) currently played, that pulls you into the next note. Created by the relation of notes and tones to each other. They have to fight each other a little bit, resist each other, clash. The inertial past holds itself back as the present tugs at it, tugs until it releases and the whole thing flings itself into the future. Anything that does not have this rubberband quality is not worth listening to.
I'm not talking about dissonance, here. I'm not talking about Igor Stravinsky and Thelonious Monk and Gang of Four, though a bit of dissonance never hurts. I'm talking about the difference between Enya and Loreena McKennit. Both of them are sorta similar, but Ms. McKennit makes music. Enya makes pretty background noise.
The problem I have, sometimes, with musicians (particularly guitarists) boils down to riffs and scales. When you're learning to play, you pick up useful riffs, useful combinations of notes that can be inserted into solos, and you practice your scales so you know what notes will fit. But I find that often the riff or the scale becomes a crutch, the musical version of “ummmm,” something for the fingers to do while you try to think of what you want to say, or, like in the interminable climactic guitar solo that concludes Freebird, in order to not have to think or say anything at all. The riff becomes a false tension, the misuse of a tool to create artificially that which should be genuine.
The problem is when the speed of the guitarist's runs becomes the song, rather than serving the song, when the big hat becomes more important than making interesting music, when the special effects and explosions and car chases get in the way of character and plot development (think about the difference between Blade Runner and Total Recall), when the big fight scene where the protagonist slays her enemy is about the big fight scene where the protagonist slays her enemy, rather than what it means to the protagonist (and to other characters) that she has done this.
The problem is when the tools become the story.
And the problem with the tools is that they are seductive.
There's a set of tools available to writers. Science Fiction / Fantasy writers have a set. It includes spaceships and dragons and time travel and alien invasions and overpopulation and post-apocalyptic California and AI and wizards and computer hackers and so on. There's tool sets available to the Horror genre, and to the Mystery genre, and the War Story genre, and the Romance genre (the phrase “heaving bosom” comes to mind).
Too many people write stories about spaceships. Or dragons. Or vampires. These things are uninteresting. Really. The words are just shorthand for a whole set of preconceived notions that can be inserted into a story to keep us from having to reinvent things from scratch every time. You say “dragon” and I know, more or less, what you mean, minus whatever customizations and optional packages you've had installed.
So what's more interesting? A story about a dragon coming into the village, and the heroic knight that goes out to slay the dragon? Or a story about what it means to Joe and Mary the Peasants that the battle took place on their field, right before harvest time, with the King's Tax Collector coming by in a week and nothing to give him. I've read the former before. Some of the variants are interesting, with the right elements subverted (Zelazny and Hambly come to mind), but mostly not. I haven't read the latter, but I hope to someday.
Jay Lake writes:
I can't figure out if this is a failing on my part or a failing on the part of sf/f itself. Our conventions, our tropes, our classic inferences and nods, provide a sort of shield which protects both the reader and the writer from having to step all the way into the blade and swallow it whole. Genre swaddles its stories in an insulating layer.
I don't look at it this way. To me, “our conventions, our tropes, our classic inferences and nods” are a set of tools that we use to create our stories, and which, like the riffs and scales practiced by musicians, allow us to produce crap very easily, and in fact, to produce crap that superficially looks like something that ain't crap. They allow us to write without thinking, and without feeling (or with pre-packaged Hallmark-emotion), and without putting anything of ourselves into the crap. And when we do that we are just making more of what is already out there. We're just making a product. A commodity.
When I worked at the frame shop, people would come in looking for something that would match their furniture or their drapes. (In one case, they needed a picture for the bottom of the stairs. At the end of the hall at the top of the stairs there was a room, and if you were at the top of the stairs and the door was open, you could see that the drapes were green, therefore the art had to match the drapes in the room on a different floor all the way on the other side of the house. Go figure.) I was wearing my “Real Art Won't Match Your Sofa” t-shirt on the day that a woman brought her sofa cushions into the shop. There's commodity (decorations that match your sofa) and there's art. Art does things that are unexpected, and goes places that are sometimes uncomfortable. And that hardly ever matches your sofa.
It's easier to demonstrate with music than anything else, because you can see and hear it happen. Watch Thelonious Monk's solo in Blue Monk. Watch his fingers. He's thinking every note, with his whole mind and his whole body. It's not just reflex. It's sure as hell not the ending of Freebird.
'Course, nobody screams “BLUE MONK!” at concerts anymore.
The problem isn't the tools. The problem is that people use them as a way to avoid work, to avoid thinking, to avoid having to find those uncomfortable places where things don't match your sofa and minor seconds dot the soundscape. The problem is that there's even a financial reward for producing crap, or perhaps a financial disincentive for producing art. People would rather watch monster trucks than explore what's monstrous within themselves.
But that's not the audience we're looking for, is it? Is it?
The audience we're looking for is the one that's looking for authors who will take those tools and use them judiciously. To use the tools for what they are – the scenery and backdrop needed to set the stage for the real story. They're looking for authors who will do the work necessary to find the hitherto unexplored passageways, who will look into their own souls and dredge up things that they themselves are afraid to look at, who will tell the truth, no matter how painful.
And not just string a bunch of ready-made riffs together, top it off with a couple really fast scales, and call it a solo.