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Tuesday, November 05, 2013

"Art is artifice"

Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Marly Youmans, Thaliad
(Phoenicia Publishing, 2012)

Scott G. F. Bailey stole my brain:
The novel is and has always been a work of art, of artifice, an abstraction of a set of ideas about the world. A novel is—and pretends to be—no more “real” than a symphony, a painting, or a dance. Novelists might talk about life and the world, but they are not creating an accurate map of life and the world. To ask the novel to accurately mirror our own lives is to ask the novelist to do something that isn’t his job. Apuleius’ Golden Ass is clearly only a glancing blow against reality. The same can be said of Shakespeare, of Chekhov, of Chaucer, of Dickens, of Tolstoy, of O’Connor, of Woolf, of Manning, of whomever you care to name. Tristram Shandy contains many truths about life, but it is not a strict depiction of reality. The same can be said of Finnegans Wake. The same can be said of The Old Man and the Sea, or Lolita, or A Visit From the Goon Squad. I will also point out tangentially that every good book is an amalgam of what the author believes to be factually true and what the author has invented. The ratio of fact to invention is no indicator of the success of the book. And every representation of the world is imaginary, because the only accurate representation of the universe is the universe itself; anything else is an abstraction, an illusion, a fantasy, a falsehood, if you will. Art is artifice. There has never been a “realist novel” that was not a fantasy. There has never been an epoch where a work of fiction was equivalent to the actual experience of life. 

Now wasn't that good?

I'm always mentioning this business about "reality" and the novel to people. It's what makes talk about literary versus speculative fiction so often meaningless. But it's also what gives made things of all sorts much of their charm and beauty--the gap between creation and sub-creation, sometimes seeming narrow and sometimes wide.

Find him at Six Words for a Hat.


  1. I think the gap between reality and art is the audience's imagination.
    When reading a novel, what is not being written (or even directly implied at times) is as much a part of the audience's experience. Once the reader nows the palette being used, the inferences that ARE there, he/she will use their own imagination to build a more complete picture. This is where the art of novel writing comes into play: What to write, what not to write, what to imply, what not to imply. How to paint a full picture without painting everything in full focus and full detail.

    A symphony is made up of sounds… but the sound of open spaces, or water, or fire and disaster…. these things are in the imagination of the listener.

    An artist is always a conductor, regardless of the form (poetry, fiction, painting, music, etc.)
    The best are GREAT conductors!

    *folds arms*

  2. 'knows', even….

  3. Me too, Paul. Now just tell me how to do it -- conduct, I mean.

  4. He writes lovely music, so he is a good one to ask about that interesting matter of conducting!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.