A number of years ago a reader wrote in to tell how much they had enjoyed a specific story I’d written, which was very flattering. Unfortunately, he also said he was happy that I had returned to writing something “more realistic.”
Now, since the story he was praising was a science fiction murder mystery set 1500 years in the future, and my detective was a genetically engineered lioness, I was more than a bit curious about what, exactly, he thought was so much more realistic about it than anything else I had written. And so, perhaps foolishly, I wrote back to ask.
His reply was a long, polite, and extremely thoughtful email. The first story of mine that he recalled reading had been co-written with two of my friends. It was an epic action adventure tale about the crew of a cargo ship who discover that the containers of farming equipment they have brought into port are actually full of weapons intended for a local revolutionary army. The crew is soon running from both the law and the terrorists. Not surprisingly there is more than one gunfight and a lot of people die. The story includes a lot of grim moments.
He loved it.
Then he cited several more things I had written, all of which he categorized as “light and fluffy,” which he didn’t like. Since one of the stories involved an astronomical disaster in which an entire inhabited planet is destroyed, and another one was a murder mystery, I was a little confused as to why he considered them light and fluffy. Fortunately, the rest of his email explained it.
All of those stories, he wrote, had an unmistakeable air of optimism about them. They generally had happy endings, for instance. He disliked such stories because in reality, he said, nothing good ever lasts, people fail far more often than they succeed, and bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it.
I had more than a few quibbles with what he said, but there was one thing I knew he was right about: my stories probably do all have an underlying thread of hope. I realized a long time ago that a fundamental part of my temperament is an unshakeable certainty that there is no problem that can’t be solved. Worse than that, there’s no problem that I couldn’t solve if only I had the time and the resources. However much I may know, intellectually, that lots of problems are unresolvable, at a deep, emotional level I seem to be incapable of accepting that.
It’s not that I set out to prove that with any of my stories. The dichotomy between optimism and pessimism is usually the furthest thing from my mind when I’m working on any given tale. However, since a hopefully arrogant perspective is a fundamental part of my personality, it will always color things I write. Because, no matter what the goal of a particular story, painting, song, or other piece of art is, no matter what topic the artist is tackling, no matter what things he or she may have the characters say or do in the story, some aspects of the artist’s core beliefs will manifest in the art.
It’s a not that it’s a conscious decision on an artist’s part. These core beliefs are seldom significant plot points, for instance. We are certainly capable of writing stories (or songs or movies or plays or comics) that seem to argue persuasively against our core beliefs. The specific story which started this conversation with this reader has prompted other readers to write me to argue about completely different things which they felt were “the message” of the story simply because one of the main characters espouses a particular belief or philosophy in the dialog, for instance.
The type of core belief I’m talking about informs how an artist sees the world. In some works these things manifest most prominently in minor aspects of the work rather than the major theme. I suspect that is why my story about the disaster which kills one billion people came across as light and fluffy to this guy, even though I thought it ended on an ominous, rather than hopeful, note. There are probably aspects of the ways some of the characters go about trying to figure out what happened that provided some hint of a glimmer of hope. I’m guessing.
Because these core beliefs inform and color the way a creative person sees everything, it is impossible to completely separate a work of art from the artist who created it.
A work of art is more than the person who made it. And in an ideal world, a work of art should be judged on its own merits, without regard to who made it, or to other things which that person made. All humans, artists and audience alike, fall short of our ideals.
The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. —Pablo Picasso
I thanked the reader for explaining. I said I was sorry he didn’t enjoy some of my stories, and that I hoped he would occasionally enjoy more of my stories in the future. But I suspected he wouldn’t, because I could see that we had diametrically opposed perspectives on the world. And even though I have written plenty of tales since then which have included things I think are far grimmer than anything that was in the two stories he liked, I also know that the glimmer of hope I always believe will be there is bound to continue cropping up in my work.
I myself had found writers and artists whose work, while technically good, even excellent, just rubbed me the wrong way. Sometimes I was able to put my finger on why they did so, but many times not.
Art should move us. Art should also challenge us. I don’t think that we should always agree with everything a piece of art appears to be saying, any more than we should demand that an artist agrees with all of our opinions. But challenging art should engage us in a re-examination of our beliefs, or prompt us to see things from a new perspective. It should act as a lantern illuminating different paths which we may or may not choose to follow.
Sometimes the way that a particular piece of art challenges us does not wash the dust of daily life from our souls; it hammers us down and grinds our souls into the dust. And no one should feel obligated to submit to such hammering.