I ran into this passage from Brian Eno recently and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.
“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.”
There’s more to it, but the gist is that art is not a thing so much as something that happens. The experience of ‘art’ is what you, as the recipient of it brings to the table. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now, but I could never find the words to express it, which, as a writer, is both maddening and embarrassing.
I have a hard time seeing books as art. I tend to see them as machines, as well (or poorly) crafted devices. Engines through which ideas churn, full of nuts and bolts and creaking hinges. Things better described in terms of craft than of art.
Some of that, I think, is because like most writers I’ve learned to pick books apart. Dissecting them more often than experiencing them. It’s a rare treat to find myself lost in a book, to look up after a few hours and realize I haven’t tried to analyze it for structure or turns of phrase.
But I think there’s more to it. Culturally the only books we tend to see as art are ones that fall firmly into the Literary genre. We rate books with multiple stars and upturned thumbs the way we rate restaurants. We confuse criticism with critique, a poor experience with shoddy craftsmanship. How many 1-star reviews are “Why isn’t the ebook cheaper?” or “The main character was a bad person” or “There was too much swearing”?
The simple fact that Amazon, a company that will sell you a 55 gallon drum of lube, is now the de-facto keeper of our cultural cachet is mind-boggling.
When you talk to writers about books, conversations invariably turn to sales, outlines, process. Number shit. Angry, angry number shit. Seriously, you’d think we were all living our lives in data mines chipping out chunks of raw ore with our Excel picks. Get past all that and, sure, we’ll tell you what we like about a story, what we think works, why we think it does or doesn’t. But that can take a while.
And readers? Readers, those blessed, blessed masses. Those unknowable voices in the dark. I don’t know who the hell most of you are. But I am thankful for every last one of you crazy fuckers who takes a chance on my fiction. Really. You are amazing and I can only hope that I give you a satisfying time when you do.
But I don’t really know if I actually connect. Most of your thoughts are hidden behind multi-star reviews, or occasionally, single-star reviews. If you put in any kind of review at all. I don’t know what you’re not telling me. Like trying to glean the motives of suicides from the survivors, I don’t really know what motivates you to pick up my books, or what it is you like or don’t like about them.
To be clear, this is not a fault. You don’t have to tell me a goddamn thing. You don’t owe me a goddamn thing. I don’t expect anything of you. Hell, I don’t even expect you to buy my books and am honestly, and pleasantly, surprised when you do.
But when was the last time people talked about how a book made them feel?
I don’t mean, “I didn’t like the protagonist.” I mean, “It made me feel like that time I was in summer camp and down by the river I watched the dragonflies flit around the reeds and then Mary-Anne Phillips dared me to jump in and I had a crush on her so I did and I lost my swim trunks and was mortified the rest of the week as kids kept pointing and staring.”
You know, feelings.
I know that replacing an easy to gauge 1-5 star system with, “Yes, but how did you feel about it?” isn’t feasible. But this isn’t about numbers, or ratings. It’s about what did a story bring up for you? You. Not your best friend, not your book club. YOU. What did you experience with it? Did it make you feel anything? Angry? Sad? Joyous? Wanting to dance around in your living room naked in unbridled glee?
I gave a copy of a draft of DEAD THINGS to a friend of mine before it was published and when she read it she said of the protagonist, “He really pissed me off.”
That’s gold right there. Not just for me, because that’s how I had intended to write him and it was nice to see that she picked that up, but also for this idea that we can talk about stories based on how they make us feel. She got angry. Not at me or at the book. She was aware enough that his actions, as a fictional character, were making her angry with him. She was invested.
I call that a win.
And so I would invite everyone to think about how a piece made them feel. Whether you rate it on Amazon or not, or mark it on Goodreads or toss it in the trash. I don’t care if you never tell me.
But I think that if more of us put some thought into what experience art, whether it be a painting, a poem, a novel, a badly lettered request for oral sex scribbled on a bathroom wall, makes us feel, I think that will make us better. Better at what, I don’t really know. Better people? Better readers or writers or critics?
I think mostly it’s that I want to live in a world where we experience art, rather than just see it.
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