Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Corruption Of The Artist

I recently finished my third novel, a literary ghost story called The Thespian, which consumed more than two years of my life, and for which I have yet to find an agent or publisher. What if, like the novel I wrote before it, this novel never sees the light of day?  What is this lowly writer to do?  It’s answering this question that gave The Thespian its theme, its heartbeat.  What is the nature of art?  And what, if at all, does the relationship between artist and audience have to do with its creation? 

Art – Artist – Audience.  Subconsciously I’ve been thinking about this triangle for years, and it first germinated in my mind when I was watching a news article about a violinist who had busked at a train station only to be summarily ignored by the commuters.  It transpired that the previous night the violinist had played to a crowd of thousands at the Royal Albert Hall.  I didn’t know how I felt about this at the time, but it became obvious that this news article had spoken something to me, and that over the course of writing The Thespian I had been trying to translate it. 

Edgar Allan Poe talked about “Art for Art’s sake”.  Poe’s example of this is the writing of a poem purely for the sake of the poem, but I see it a little differently, I see pure art as creating with no agenda, and it’s for this reason I don’t believe there is such a thing as “pure art”, not in the modern age, at least.  If we imagine such a thing as “pure”, then we also have to acknowledge the pollutants that can sully it.  Money, fame and ego have to be the major three pollutants, but none of these things can apply the kind of corruptive pressure to an artist the way an audience can, because an audience represents all three of these things, all at once, and for an artist to truly create something pure, he or she would have to create something with no audience in mind. 

Imagine a sliding scale.  At one end you have an artist working on a masterpiece, a can of petrol and a box of matches waiting beside his easel for when the painting is finished.  And at the other end, a writer furiously penning a raunchy Fifty-Shades knockoff while the market’s still hot for it.   

Whether the artist is a painter, sculptor, writer or musician, he or she will be creating their art, to some degree, with an agenda – perceiving their art, to some degree, through the lens of the audience.  And the funny thing is, the audience cannot be trusted, because the audience is as corruptible as the artist because the audience is under the illusion they have subjective opinion, but this opinion can be manipulated in many ways – by others’ opinion for instance – friends or experts or majority popularity. But by far the most interesting to me is the corruptive power of narrative. 

The chef, Raymond Blanc, is a true artisan of food – if not an expert in wine, then certainly a man who knows his own mind.  I watched him taste a cider and declare it bland, but ‘Wait!’ says the wine expert serving him, ‘this cider was produced by three men who learned to make wine as prisoners of war, and when they were released in ’46 they started producing apple wine, and from that came this, their very first cider…’  Raymond Blanc smiles and tastes again: ‘I like it better now,’ he says, and his smile says that he knows he has been manipulated, but doesn’t mind. 

Apply this formula to the violinist busking at the station.  The art he was producing for the commuters was the same as for the patrons of the Royal Albert Hall, but the narrative surrounding the art was different, and so the audience was corrupted.  As I was writing The Thespian, this merging of ideas regarding the nature of art and the corruptive power of narrative seemed too perfect, almost as though the first time I had seen the violinist article and couldn’t immediately pin down what it meant, my subconscious had figured it out straight away and was feeding it to me as I wrote. 

So what if this novel never finds an audience?  What is my agenda regarding my art? I’d love to say that my art is pure, and that I create just for me and for the sake of the work, but alas, I’m just like everybody else.  A little money and fame would not do my ego any lasting damage, and I’m just shallow and insecure enough to want people to like what I’m writing, but what I have come to realise is that I also love to write stories, and if nobody ever read them, I can honestly say that I would still write them.  There is something pure in that at least.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Yerma, not a review...

This week I was lucky enough to see Yerma at the Young Vic in London, the new play starring Billie Piper.  I say lucky, because the play’s sold out now, and I feel like I’ve witnessed a “moment” in time when people will look back and wish they too could have been there.  I’ve become one of those smug types who say things like, ‘Yeah, I saw Hendrix’s last gig before he died.’  Yeah, I’m that smug, but Yerma is that good, and Piper… sublime.

This isn’t a review of the play, because unlike books, and to some extent film, I’m blissfully unaware of the mechanics that make up great theatre.  And yeah, I wrote a novel, a ghost story, on the subject of acting and the theatre, but The Thespian grew out of my love for this art form, and not my desire to know how or why it works.  I wish I could go back to reading books in this way, to just experience an honest emotional reaction without the intellectual assessment – to read a book the way I watched Yerma: with tears in my eyes and perpetually caught in mid-swallow.

They say in Hollywood that it’s roles that win Oscars, not actors, and to this I partly agree.  But could any actress have pulled an Oscar-winning performance out of Blue Jasmine?  I don’t think so.  As soon as I’d finished watching Cate Blanchett’s performance I said to my self I’ve just witnessed this year’s Best Actress Award winner.  I felt the same way about Billie Piper’s performance, and knew I’d just witnessed an Olivier.

But unlike film, you could see immediately how much Piper had given of herself.  When the players came out to take their rightly deserved applause, Piper looked devastated, ruined, unable to break from her character.  She managed the odd smile, but it looked crazy on her face.  She was still traumatized from her performance, and I loved her for it.

Yerma is the best theatre experience I have ever had, and if you can beg a ticket from somewhere, anywhere, you should do so, because if you don’t, one day you’ll bump into somebody like me, and you’ll have to deal with, ‘Yeah, I saw Yerma when Billie Piper was playing the lead, you know, the role that won her the Olivier…’

Monday, 27 June 2016

The Debt Collector...

If you add this...

to this...

You get a supernatural chiller called...

 The Debt Collector

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Friday, 15 April 2016

A Wish for Connie Harris...

My new novel A Wish for Connie Harris, which is a Southern Gothic fairytale for adults set in 1920s Louisiana, and is a sort of a hybrid of The Road meets Big Fish, is shaping up nicely.  Here’s a little taste of the opening:

I met Connie Harris only briefly, a week ago today.  We shared an afternoon together, drinking lemonade beneath an old oak tree.  I was just a boy then, seventeen years old.  A week on and I am much older.  That particular afternoon was breathlessly hot, and though it is raining hard at this moment, as I sit here on Connie’s porch with her axe at my feet and blood on my hands, staring at where we once sat and drank our lemonade, I am sweating still and breathless.  Death always makes me breathless, but it is such a part of life that the two cannot be separated.  Not by man.  Not by God.  To deny death is to deny life.  Connie knew this, and I guess now I do too.  Three lives have been lost this week, and if there were such things as wishes, and I believe there are, I would not wish them back.  A week ago I may have felt differently, but like I said, I was just a boy then.

There's a teleportation machine, and a boy that can fly, a murderer called Mackey, and a dog that won't die... What's not to like?  I'll keep you posted on the progress.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Chaplin, the elegant writer...

I watched the film Chaplin last night – the biography of the silent-movie legend Charlie Chaplin, starring Robert Downey Jr.  It was all very interesting, but there was one scene that struck a chord with me in particular.   

Chaplin (the director, not the tramp character), is struggling with a scene he’s directing.  The female lead has to mistake Chaplin (the tramp, not the director) for a well-to-do gentleman, only the woman is blind and the movie is obviously shot in silence.  A problem.  Now, because the whole plot is hinged on the incorrect assumption made by the female lead, Chaplin (the director) feels he cannot cheat the audience with a flimsy incorrect assumption, or ask them to turn a blind eye (no pun intended) to the implausibility of the mechanics.  Chaplin doesn’t want the audience to say, I don’t believe that.   

He not only solves the problem, but solves it with elegance:  The blind girl is sitting on a busy street corner selling flowers, and Chaplin, trying to get to the obstructed pavement, steps through the back of a parked car to emerge on the street in front of the girl.  The girl thusly assumes he has exited the car, and therefore must be a gentleman of some standing, etc… 

It needn’t have gone like this.  The dialogue card has the girl address Chaplin as Sir, anyway, so he could have just been walking by for the incorrect assumption to be made, but it’s lazy, and even if it’s only on a subliminal level, the audience will know it’s lazy, and the story will be weaker for the, I don’t believe that, moment. 

It’s the same in written fiction.  Plot-heavy genre fiction more specifically.  A carefully contrived plot can be softened with elegance.  Characters needn’t be shunted around with a cattle prod but subtly directed by a conductor’s baton.  Chaplin’s way is elegant because the path he takes through the back of the car is in keeping with his cheeky-chappy characterisation, so it feels like the plot is following Chaplin and not the other way around.  It’s all device of course, but it should be artful.  The actor’s goal is to hide the performance within the performance.  To give the illusion of spontaneity.  To not be seen to be acting. 
The writer’s goal is the same. 

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Metaphors and Symbolism, why bother?

The real question should be: why wouldn’t you?  You’ve spent the last year or two of your life carving a story out of thin air – when you weren’t writing it, you were thinking about it, dreaming about it.  When you’d finished it you redrafted it, edited it, polished it, scrutinised it line by line and reworked every paragraph to make the rhythms sing.  After all that effort and hard work, why wouldn’t you give your precious manuscript one final look-over?  You may have missed an opportunity for improvement.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a good idea of the subtext of your work before you finish the first draft, but more likely you’ll have been so preoccupied with getting the story down that deeper meanings will not even have been a concern.  But once the story is down, why not take a look at the thing as a whole?  You may find that your apocalyptic zombie novel is more than just about survival, or that your vampire hunter story has more going on than merely staking bloodsuckers.  Whatever underlying theme you notice – even if it’s only a fragment of one – you owe it to yourself to bring it to the fore and let the reader see it too. 

One of the best ways of highlighting theme is with the use of metaphors and symbolism.  Here's a couple of examples, albeit from the movies:

Metaphor: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Benjamin Button had an unfortunate condition: he was born old and grew younger every day – eventually dying as an infant.  At first glance the story appears tragic, but is in fact a tale of optimism.  Throughout the film a seemingly insignificant old gentleman tells us of his poor luck regarding lightning.  He tells us of the seven times he has been struck, and by the end of the film we realise the old gent views these lightning strikes as a good thing: “God keeps reminding me I’m lucky to be alive.”

Now take Benjamin: If you count the meeting of his adoptive parents as one lightning strike, then there are a total of seven encounters that Benjamin has during his life – seven people who have a profound effect on him, whether the encounters are good or bad.  These are Benjamin’s lightning strikes, and regardless of the way in which he entered and left this world, Benjamin had a full life in between.  This metaphor becomes the beacon for the story’s theme: Life is a gift – Embrace life – whatever, it all carries the same message.

Symbolism:  Gran Torino

Walt Kowalski is a racist Korean War veteran who forms an unlikely friendship with a Hmong teenager (Thao) who tries to steal his prized Gran Torino.  The friendship causes Walt to face his racism but also a dark memory from his war days.  Throughout the film a local priest tries to get Walt to take confession, but Walt has no intention of airing his sins to a wet-behind-the-ears priest fresh out of catholic school. But when Walt decides to lay down his life to save Thao and his family, he takes the priest up on his offer, but only confesses to the most trivial of sins. 

In their final scene together, Walt locks Thao in the basement to protect him, and it’s here, through the wire mesh of the basement door, that Walt confesses his darkest sins to the boy.

The symbolism of the screened door not only landmarks Walt’s confession by visually redefining the immediate surroundings as a confessional, but also gives weight to the confession itself, and by doing so clearly echoing the theme of the movie: Redemption. 

Metaphors and symbolism are no substitute for good storytelling, and omitting them does not a schmuck of you make, but not taking a step back to see what you’ve written does.