Art vs. Work

Here’s a headline for you:

Fifty Shades of Grey soars to top of sales charts after shifting 660,000 copies in a week

(Thanks to Terry Odell via Twitter for the link.)

If you read the article in the Standard, you will note that a) this is for just the UK; and b) it’s actually 664,478 copies (hey, what’s nearly 5,000 copies between friends?). By every concrete measure, this novel is a huge success.

And I still hear people talk it down because it’s not Art.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book. I get curious, sometimes, to see what the big deal is; but I don’t read a lot lately. I feel like, if I’m reading, I’m using up precious energy that I should be using to edit my own novel. Because I haven’t read it, I can’t comment on whether or not I, personally, would consider it Art.

I will say I don’t think it matters one bit.

I love my novel. I love the story and the characters. I work hard at writing it, because I want to do the best I can to communicate my story in a way that is true to the vision I have in my head. Is anybody else going to like it? I have no idea. I hope so. I hope some people pick it up and get to know my characters, and become fond of them as I have. I hope some people find it entertaining. But it ain’t Shakespeare, and it’s never going to be. It’s one little manifestation of my own personal imaginary landscape.

To me, it’s art. To anyone else? I couldn’t say. The definition of “art” is malleable. Sometimes we think we can look back and say objectively that this or that novel is “art.” To a certain extent there is some truth to that. I can read The Grapes of Wrath and recognize that the author’s use of language is brilliant, and that the story is well-formed, and that it speaks eloquently to the human condition. I can say The Grapes of Wrath is Art, and at the same time I can say it bored the daylights out of me and I’d rather stare at a blank wall for two days than ever read it again.

Fifty Shades of Grey does not, I am certain, bear the slightest resemblance to Steinbeck. It does, however, appear to be entertaining an awful lot of people. I would argue that makes it art. It may be Kinkade rather than Da Vinci; but goodness, what difference does it make? If I want a book to change my life, I’ll re-read The Scarlet Letter (or perhaps this lovely YA novel). The brain needs escapism, too.

One criticism that I’ve read a few times – and that makes me a bit nuts, the more I work on my own novel – is the old “I could write a better book than that with one hand tied behind my back” line. Well, maybe you could. But have you?

Finishing a book – any book – is hard. Finishing the first draft is hard. From there, rewriting is hard. Polishing is hard. Finding readers is hard. Editing, marketing, finding an agent, finding a publisher, self-publishing on your own – these things are all difficult. They take work and discipline and tremendous commitment. It doesn’t matter if somewhere inside of you is King Lear unless you can actually sit down and write it.

As part of my day job, I write software. Sometimes I write new programs; sometimes I must fix a problem or add functionality to an old one. The first thing I have to do is spend some time thinking about the design. There are usually a lot of options – there are a lot of “right” answers with software, and even occasionally a number of “best” answers. Thinking about the design generates a lot of questions: what happens if I do it this way rather than that way? If I make this faster, will that give the user a better experience?

Eventually, though, I have to sit down and write code. I have to choose a direction, and go with it. I have to do this knowing that I will get some of it wrong, and have to start over. I have to do this knowing that I may realize, halfway through, that my “right” answer is not the “best” answer, and go back and redo a lot of what was already done. I do this knowing when I finish, and hand it off to be reviewed by my fellow engineers, they will see things I didn’t, and find flaws, and disagree with many of my choices. I have to take their feedback, and weigh it, and choose what does and doesn’t get changed. Eventually I call it finished, and it ships, and if I did a good job…they will ask me to do the same thing again.

Does this sound familiar?

Most of my life, writing was a personal outlet. I have had more novel ideas than I can possibly remember. I have written mysteries, and science fiction, and children’s stories, and romance. I have waited for the muse to strike, and written with an eye toward one or two Beautiful, Perfect, Poetic scenes. Maybe I created Art along the way; who knows? None of that was ever finished. I will never share it. Nobody will ever have the chance to be entertained by it (or not).

This novel is the first one I have approached the way I approach work. It didn’t start out that way. I thought, after my first draft, that it would be easy: obviously I’d conquered the Muse problem, so the rest was just mechanics. As it turns out, the rest is work – the same kind of work I have been doing for twenty years. At some point, all the mental stuff has to go down on paper. Waiting for inspiration, expecting perfection – these things are fine, but when push comes to shove, they are not relevant until the words start coming out. In my experience, it matters not one bit if they come out perfectly the first time – but they absolutely need to come out.

I hope that E.L. James loves her novel. I hope she has a good lawyer, and a trusted financial adviser, and that she’s out enjoying the money in whatever way works for her. She has earned it. Not by creating Art, but by doing the work. Whatever one thinks of her novel, she finished it. She finished three of them. I may read them someday, and love them or hate them; but either way, she has my respect, because she did the work.

It may be Art if it’s unfinished, but nobody will ever know.