04 March 2013

The Arts Set

Grant Snider via GalleyCat, 02 Mar 2012 Rather a strange weekend around here, but that shouldn't surprise anyone.

  • Diversity in the arts is a good thing. It's how we get To Kill a Mockingbird actually being read by those who need to read it; it's how District 9 can say anything at all, let alone how well; I could go on, but I won't. But diversity in the arts — especially the performing arts, and especially socioeconomic and not just racial/gender/religious identity — doesn't just happen; it requires both money and attention. And, too, it requires standards, not just approval because it's diverse. To say the least, we haven't learned how to do any of this yet... or at least not do it well.
  • Then there's the translation problem. An awful lot of what would otherwise be "diverse" material is unavailable, or at least less available, because it's not in a language (or sensory envelope) that is accessible to its audience. On the one hand, one must shrug one's shoulders a bit and note that the arts are the arts, and that neither common language nor common sensory envelope is any guarantee that the audience will "get it" in any event. On the other hand, consider the course of late-twentieth-century literature if the Spanish-language magical realism movement had not been (selectively) translated into English, often with dubious fidelity. Or, for that matter, if a Czech playwright had not given English speculative fiction the word "robot"... by way of a Jewish Russian immigrant professor of biochemistry.
  • A certain Harvard-and-Indiana-trained anthropologist of my acquaintance discusses why some Interminable Fantasy Series are train wrecks, such as the one she discusses; for that series, one could saw the spines off of every volume, lay the pages end to end, and never reach a conclusion. At the craft level, I think her analysis is highly sound. At the literary level, it's a necessary-but-not-sufficient description of the symptom... without going into the cause.

    The cause is the missing element in her essay. At various points in the essay, she discusses both character development and plot mechanics in some detail, and gives some passing attention to the influence of setting (as examples of setting's influence, consider The Left Hand of Darkness and 1984). But this is commercial fiction, so thematic material — especially thematic closure — can't possibly matter, right? Wrong. Ultimately, the difference between a great work and a lesser one is the integration of the four elements of fiction (character, plot, setting, theme); and the difference between a merely not-great work of fiction and a train wreck is usually the author's failure to match the thematic material — and, in particular, the pace of the thematic material's development — to the remainder of the work. "Pacing," after all, isn't just about plot; that's why we often criticize works for having "anticlimactic endings." All four elements need to develop throughout a work of fiction for it to be a successful work of fiction. That development won't necessarily be seriatim in equal increments... but at certain major points (e.g., the end of each volume of a multivolume work) they should be resynchronized, or pretty damned close to it.

    The objection I can almost hear from the crowd is that "commercial fiction only needs to entertain, and doesn't need thematic elements." Leaving aside that "only needs to entertain" is a thematic paradigm, this objection mistakes what high school English teachers, and too many undergraduate instructors (especially those who have no understanding of commercial fiction), call "theme": The arch, high-falutin' stuff that is accepted by the Establishment, ordinarily restricted to the literary masters and testing materials, that usually ends up just short of pontification in contemporary works. After all, defining one's audience for that entertainment is also thematic material... and one will end up with vastly different works to entertain seventeenth-century, largely illiterate London playgoers and to entertain mid-twentieth-century Broadway impresarios. That's (part of) the difference between Romeo & Juliet and West Side Story.