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All Books Are Art?

The SB’s have a letter from Laura Kinsale up at her website. Somehow I doubt she will ever write a letter to us but I felt compelled to respond (don’t I always).

Dear Authors:

If you (and by you, I mean the universal you) are writing in a certain genre, particularly within the romance genre, aren’t you always thinking of the reader. I.e., why else put in the HEA? or conform to any the constraints the romance genre maintains? When an author writes for Harlequin and signs on to do a group project – are they writing for themselves or their readers?

When writers do connected series books writing about brothers, cousins, nephews, etc, aren’t those written with the reader in mind? When writers write stories about a certain character because readers were clamouring for that character’s story, isn’t it the reader that you are thinking of at that point?

Or maybe, like Robin said, I just don’t get Ms. Kinsale’s point. I have freely admitted to not being the most cerebral of readers. I’m the plain Jane.

I think that she is saying that she writes to please her own muse and that the story renders itself. There is magic in the writing as there is in the reading and because some books evoke the phenomena of full suspension of disbelief (in my case, Naomi Novik’s book) then all writing is art and not to be subjected to petty concerns such as cost, editing, or even authorial behavior.

No, I don’t think it is all about the reader. But I tend to think that books are more like cars than they are like Van Goghs. To some degree, books are interchangeable. There are several books out there that I feel could be written by the same person or several persons. Some books are homogeneous with no distinct voice. Some books are mere commodities and should be judged accordingly. And some books are art that rise above the masses and place themselves in the pantheon of classics where generations of readers will take them off the shelf and read them. Not every book deserves recognition as art. Some will always be part of the $1.00 bin.

Best regards,

Jane

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

11 Comments

  1. Mary Reed McCall
    May 17, 2006 @ 10:51:09

    Jane,

    I agree with you completely on several points; for the (universal) writer who is writing within the confines of a genre, “the reader” must often play a certain part in the equation of creating a book, at least in the back of the writer’s mind. I’m not speaking for Laura Kinsale, naturally because that may very well not be how she creates (and having read her letter on SB and also recalling some of the conversations – several heated – about some readers’ reaction to the kinds of submissive/dominant love scenes in Shadowheart, I think she may be an author who feels the pull of a “muse” and its specific, individual dictates much more strongly than some other authors may).

    What I got from her letter, however, is the idea that there can be a kind of danger, undermining the creative process for many writers, wherein “keeping the reader in mind” actually starts to subvert the writing/the storytelling. As she pointed out, on the internet (not to mention the commercial and business side of publishing, with editors, sales people, marketing and art depts) there are a million voices and opinions to sift through. It’s a double-edged sword, wanting to see what feedback is on a book, or wanting to see what the internet community thinks of various levels of in books, or wanting to get perspectives on readers’ general perception of the historical market, say – and getting so much feedback of wildly contrasting kinds, that it can affect the clarity of the author’s own thoughts, voice, and vision of story.

    That’s what I got from her letter. The subtle and debatable points of what “Art” is and what it’s not will continue to be challenged and discussed forever, in my opinion. To L.K. and her process of writing it is an act of art, and my interpretation was that she was simply providing another perspective of to some of the discussion going on regarding the connection between author and book.

    Not every author is going to feel the same “pull of the muse” vs. “pull of pleasing a readership” (IMO, of course). I imagine authors fall at any point along the gamut from one extreme to the other. I know I fall somewhere in between myself,and it’s a constant juggle for me to balance both sides. What I felt L.K. was trying to express was that for *some* authors the “real world” of seeing books-as-commodity and books for consumption only can play havoc with the writer’s ability to keep creating. I don’t think she was advocating the acceptance of bad grammar or shoddy plotting, or even that she was knocking any reader’s right to hate a book and throw it against the wall. She was just providing another perspective of the topic from the angle of someone who sits down to create a story, and everything that can get in the way of that, if the writer isn’t careful.

    But then again, all this is just my opinion, and I could be totally off base. It’s how I see it, though.

    –MRM

  2. Cece
    May 17, 2006 @ 10:52:55

    This is what stuck out most from her letter for me:
    All the storm and fury of the internet and readers and critics and sales figures is nothing. It’s not out there. It’s in here. If I have to protect it from readers, I will protect it, viciously.

    Or too many cooks spoil the stew……..

    One of my all time favorite quotes… “Protect the Work” ~SEP said that. It’s basically the same thing, just more to the point. I know there was a long period where Laura went through writer’s block and I know it’s no fun.

    It might not be art in the sense that some people think of art but it IS a creative endeavour which might be a better word? It’s hard to balance the absolute joy of creating something (anything including CARS!) with trying to make a living from it…….and sometimes the only way to do that (and maintain your sanity) is to protect the work.

    Hopefully this makes more than no sense……. :)

  3. Jane
    May 17, 2006 @ 11:14:53

    What I got from her letter, however, is the idea that there can be a kind of danger, undermining the creative process for many writers, wherein “keeping the reader in mind" actually starts to subvert the writing/the storytelling.

    I agree with that 100%. I don’t want an author to write a book for me, to suit my tastes, needs or desires. If she does great, if she doesn’t hopefully another author is more to my taste.

    What I got from the essay (and this may be totally perspective based as certain parts sing to writers and others to readers), was that because writing was art all books deserved respect. To me that was saying criticism of sloppy researching, shoddy editing, plot and character inconsistencies were not only expected but should be respected because the entity containing those elements was art.

  4. Cece
    May 17, 2006 @ 11:22:18

    Hmmmmmmm Jane I didn’t take it that way, but it could be a matter of perspective :) HOWEVER art or creative endeavour, there’s no excuse for sloppy, shoddy work, poor research etc. I’m very conscious of the quality of what I write and I do try to make it the best that I can because that’s my name on it.

  5. Jorrie Spencer
    May 17, 2006 @ 11:27:30

    Since I have yet to be published, I don’t have readers. Maybe I’m taking this idea of writing with the reader in mind too literally. Because after all, I have been pretty vigilant these last couple of years about keeping up with and understanding the marketplace. I do want to write something salable. And yet when I sit down to write, I don’t have the reader in mind. I’m trying to write a story I would like to read and therefore, perhaps, others would like to read.

    As for Kinsale’s post, I loved it. That doesn’t necessarily mean I agree 100% with everything in it. Nor does it mean that others should agree with her. I think she was talking mostly about her process, not all books.

    Anyway, this is going to get too long. There have been a lot of interesting posts and comments of late on this subject and tend to agree with a lot of contradictory statements. So while I’d love to write a coherent post about it, I don’t think I can.

    I will say I don’t believe writers are superior beings. Most writers I know don’t think so either. Not to say you haven’t run into those who think just that. As I have, too.

  6. Bev (BB)
    May 17, 2006 @ 11:33:09

    Then it’s all about perceived audience, I believe. I mean I see what Mary and Cece are saying but only if I accept that Ms. Kinsale’s intended audience was other writers and only other writers. However, if I perceive that intended audience to be readers like myself, I come up with the impression that we should leave the artwork alone. Or worse.

    I’ll have to go back and reread the essay, yet again, and see if I need to change what I’ve already posted on my own blog.

  7. Cece
    May 17, 2006 @ 11:46:12

    Take it from a reformed people pleaser–you can’t please all the people all the time. You can only allow so much outside influence on a book, or one day you turn around and discover that you don’t know who you should please and you end up a quivering idiot in the corner–Protect the Work.

    My pratical side, the one that has two kids to send to college and 29 years left on her mortgage, has to think of the marketabilty/saleabilty of an idea.

    However, if I don’t enjoy what I’m writing, it’s like giving birth breach with no drugs. And if I don’t enjoy what I”m writing, how can I expect anyone else to enjoy reading it?

  8. May
    May 17, 2006 @ 12:03:01

    It’s true that if you want to get published or if you already are published, to some extent, you must keep in mind what the reader wants.

    So I do agree with Jane about thinking about the reader.

    The act of writing is to create. Not necessarily art (sometimes it’s just words strung in sentences on the page), and even if it’s all art, there’s good art and bad art.

    Authors (in general, and of course, there are exceptions) deserve respect, just like everybody else. Their books might not.

  9. Tara Marie
    May 17, 2006 @ 12:13:32

    Mary Reed McCall’s comments here put Ms. Kinsale’s essay in wonder perspective. Each author comes to their art or craft for different reasons and needs.

    I completely understand this as I’ve worked in artist communities for large parts of my adult life. Personally, I’m about as creative as a slug, but I’ve watched potters who can create wonderful one of a kind sculptures and then watched the next one create dinner plates for 16. What drives each of them to create is different. The dinner plates for 16 can be just as beautiful as the sculpture, beautiful and different is okay.

    I don’t think Ms. Kinsale is trying to be insulting to readers, because ultimately she’s not writing for us, in the same way a potter may not be creating their scuplture for someone in particular, but there always seems to be a market for those who can create from their heart and those who can see the marketablity of their ability.

    Does any of this make sense?

  10. Robin
    May 17, 2006 @ 13:26:07

    What I got from the essay (and this may be totally perspective based as certain parts sing to writers and others to readers), was that because writing was art all books deserved respect. To me that was saying criticism of sloppy researching, shoddy editing, plot and character inconsistencies were not only expected but should be respected because the entity containing those elements was art.

    Are you saying that you thought Kinsale was saying that we should respect the errors, too, or respect the criticism of the errors? To me, anyway, respect for all things literature (in the broadest sense of that word, and relating directly to “literate”), respect for writing means better editing and publishing (in other words, you may more attention to what you value).

    In terms of books as art, I would never classify all books as art, even while I think that writing is a craft and some books most definitely art. However, where I haven’t yet settled is in deciding whether a lack of respect for a certain kind of writing (i.e. Romance novels ) yields a lot of Romance novels that aren’t really all that great, either technically or emotionally, or whether a lot of really meh Romance novels yields a lack of respect for that kind of writing. Or both. Any by respect, I don’t mean as fine art, I mean as a craft that — when published at least — deserves the careful attention of editors and publishers. As a reader I like to think I respect writing per se, but I don’t think I have that obligation in the same way that those who are directly producing it in a supposedly professional capacity do. IMO the terms of my contract with the genre are different than those of the writers, editors, or publishers.

  11. Jayne
    May 17, 2006 @ 17:15:51

    I as a person deserve no particular respect above the average. But the work that I do, the art itself which has been with us and served us and consoled us and given us wonder and joy and some little modicum of understanding here and there–that art deserves respect.

    What I got from her letter is that the creative process deserves respect but not the author nor the final product (i.e.,the paperback in your hand) which can become flawed through the editorial process.

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