Wednesday, February 17, 2016

On Accessibility of Art, or Why My Writing Class Needs to Get Over Itself

I took a class last semester on short story writing.  I loved the writing itself, but the discussion was challenging for me.  There were so many times when I just wanted to look people straight in the eye and say, "Get over yourself."

Because, you see, the class I took was on literary fiction, as basically all college creative writing classes are.  And that's fine.  There is a place for literary fiction just as there is a place for commercial fiction, and zombie fiction, and romance fiction, and fiction about dogs who are abducted by aliens.  But I have taken two "literary" writing classes now, and they do not seem to agree.  Alternately, they think that literary fiction has a place, and that place is above all other fiction.
Comic by Tom Gauld, tomgauld.com.

I hit my breaking point last semester when one of my classmates was giving constructive criticism about some subtle symbolism in another classmate's story.  He started throwing around the term "the average reader" like this was not him.  Like he was somehow above the average reader.  To my dismay, many of my other classmates nodded along with him.

Who is missing the point here?  Has this particular writing community really gotten so pretentious that they feel they have somehow evolved beyond their mortal forms and become transcendent, cosmic beings of All That Is GOOD Literature, with "good" determined by--you guessed it--themselves?  Or am I alone in my frustration?  Am I just the "average reader" somehow sneaking into highbrow literary communities?  Is the high horse getting taller, or am I getting smaller?

I believe that art should be accessible to people.  Call me a radical if you will.  But I don't see how burying your meaning under layers of symbolism or subtext, even to the point of all but the "right" audience missing it, makes your art any better.  Is there merit in this?  Absolutely.  I love puzzling out hidden meanings in fiction, and how the writer wove layers of subtext together to create wholly new themes.  There are so many fascinating things that can happen in this type of work, and it's super cool.  What I don't understand is how that devalues art that doesn't do this, art whose meaning doesn't require a miscroscope and an overworked grad student to puzzle out.  Is art that is meant to be nothing more than pretty, nothing more than entertaining, no longer valuable?  What if (*gasp*) a piece is both entertaining and subtly meaningful?  What then?

This could bring me into a discussion of subjectivity vs. objectivity: How do we objectively measure the quality of art?  Can we do such a thing?  This is another discussion for another time, and certainly a discussion I'm willing to have.  For now, though, I will say this: I do not think "art" is a thing, an object.  "Art" is a way of looking at something.  Think about it this way: we describe certain sounds as music, and others as noise.  In reality, they're all vibrations hitting our eardrums.  All writing is simply different combinations of letters, which are nothing but arbitrary markings roughly correlated to sounds.  While I'm not saying that every piece of writing, therefore, is art, I'm saying that our definitions of art are actually much more arbitrary than we think.

As a writer and lover of so-called non-literary fiction (and, God forbid, young adult fiction), I think we need to build a better bridge between the two worlds.  We need to recognize that art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive.  We need to bring back the notion that things can be enjoyable simply for the sake of it, while recognizing that your style of writing doesn't make you more or less of a writer.  We need to destroy the idea that writers need to write to a level above "the average reader" in order to have their work considered True Literature.

There are so many other things I could discuss branching out from this.  What is "literature"?  I could toss out the phrase "literary canon" and we'll be here debating what should (or shouldn't) be included until Leonardo DiCaprio wins an Oscar.  The place of YA in the literary/genre fiction dichotomy (but is it a dichotomy? because I don't think it's that simple), and the quality of YA in general.  The "quality" of fiction in general, and how we determine it.  Why not include genre fiction in the general consensus of high quality fiction?  What should we do with genre fiction with a literary style, or literary fiction with a genre twist?  (And don't even get me started on graphic novels.)  What is "good" literature?  What are we even doing here at all?

But I won't discuss them now.  I'll leave you with what I'd already written, because I'd like to start a discussion/dialogue about this.  What are your thoughts/opinions/comments/concerns?  Have you had similar experiences?

I feel like I need to include a "not all" disclaimer in this.  I love literary fiction.  I love genre fiction, especially YA.  My point isn't to bash literary fiction, nor is it to protest on the street corner with a sign reading, "Genre fiction is the only fiction!"  I'm not here for that.  I'm just here to ask why we can't reconcile these two--both worthwhile and valuable--worlds of fiction.
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