Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Trouble With Purity

I have mixed feelings about the idea of artistic integrity. On one hand, I like to think I have it--that I do the work I want to do, that I'm passionate about, regardless of whether or not there's anything in it for me aside from the pleasure of making it. This is what we like to think about our favorite artists, too--we want them to be pure. We want them not to be tainted by the crass world of commerce that brings us their stuff. We want to think Alice Munro owes nothing to Barnes & Noble, that Radiohead is indifferent to Best Buy, that Frank Stella doesn't need Gagosian, just a hell of a lot of molten steel.

Indeed, I try to run my creative life as though this were true. Like Nabokov said--write for pleasure, publish for money. (Or...for not quite enough money.) But the fact is, most good artists are intimately involved with the institutions that bring the world their work--and, as those institutions are invariably flawed, sometimes catastrophically, the artist's relationship to them is flawed as well. The teaching writer gives something of herself to academia, something that might otherwise be contributed to her work. The musician will remind you from the stage that there are tee shirts in the back. The painter will allow herself to accept a commission from the internet mogul who will hide her painting away from everyone but him.

Is there something wrong with that? Yeah. But there isn't necessarily enough wrong with it to condemn the artist for it, and sometimes (heaven help us) it's a positive, productive kind of wrong.

Every once in a while I have the good fortune to be asked to write something for an anthology. "I'll pay you," I might be told, "if you write me a story about a Sonic Youth song." And my answer, almost invariably, is hell yes. I want the money. And I would never in a million years have written a Sonic Youth story. But now that somebody's going to pay me to, I'll do it. And sometimes those stories are better than the ones that come from pure intentions--because the only thing at stake is money, not my creative soul, and when my creative soul is free from care, I can relax enough to knock out something unusual and good.

In other words, the pressures of commerce may be great, but they are often less great than the pressures the artist puts on himself. Being given a reason to write besides pure self-expression is a boon to the self--it allows the self to take a vacation from having to measure up. "I'm just doing it for the money." What a relief! It doesn't have to be good, it just has to be done. And every once in a while, it's done better than it would otherwise have been.

This reminds me...maybe we need a Ward Six tee shirt...


rmellis said...

Still, you wouldn't do one of those Absolut vodka stories, would you? Tell me you wouldn't!

I'd like to see WS branded merchandise, oh yeah. WS hot sauce, WS pocket knife...

jrlennon said...

I would happily write a story while under the influence of Absolut Vodka. But it wouldn't be about vodka. It would be abookt a guyeo whppo amkps jpi&^*^&


5 Red Pandas said...

It used to be weird to hear one of the bands I like in a commercial, but that surprise has worn off. Though hearing the Fall in a car commercial was still a bit surprising. I don't begrudge the musicians the money they're making, though I do wish we lived in a society where people could do better with their talent than shill for some brand or what have you.

Actually my sister told me that she just saw a new record contract that now states that bands will have to share profits from any endorsements with the record company. They will also have to share profits from any involvement in movies, even if it's an acting role.

In your opinion(s), why is it not frowned upon when a band releases a record themselves, on their own independent label, but if an author decided to publish his or her own book, it would be laughed at?

jrlennon said...

"In your opinion(s), why is it not frowned upon when a band releases a record themselves, on their own independent label, but if an author decided to publish his or her own book, it would be laughed at?"

I think rock and roll has always been an endeavor "of the people"--you're not supposed to need any kind of institutional support to do it. Literature has traditionally been mediated and vetted by institutions. There's a good reason for this--inexperience and awkwardness enhance rock and roll as an art form--clarity and nuance are not necessarily important, emotional honesty and spontaneity are. Whereas literature is composed at leisure and consumed the same way--it doesn't have to be "in the moment." And when it's rough and awkward on the page, we don't like it. A writer is expected to take the time to perfect it, whereas perfection is anathema in rock and roll. This is why I love to do both--they come from different parts of the brain, and each is a relief from the other.

Anyway, the perception is that, if you self-publish, you either don't have what it takes or have been unwilling to buckle down and submit yourself to the critical apparatus. This is not necessarily true, but there's some reason to accept it, in most cases. But putting out your own record is cool, because it's DIY, you don't need anyone's help, etc. etc.

Frankly, I like the publishing orthodoxy, even though it isn't always kind to me. And I also would to see something like that imposed on rock and roll.

rmellis said...

I'd like to see a renaissance in self-publishing, actually -- it has a grand history (Virginia Woolf, for one) -- and now it's possible to make books look good on the cheap (twenty years ago self-published books *looked* cheesey).

Also, big publishing is obsessed with the bestseller, so a lot of small-sellers need an alternative.

5 Red Pandas said...

Maybe one reason it's more okay for a band or group of musicians to release their music on their own is because music is generally more of a group process with several voices editing the work before it's recorded.

Do you really think that there is no rock-n-roll orthodoxy?

In the neighborhoods that I have taught in- mainly Harlem, and Fordham in the Bronx- I noticed that some authors of "ghetto fiction" have begun self-publishing and literally taken their work to the streets. A man even tried to sell me his book on the subway. He offered every person a copy of a chapter from his book and gave them his contact information. I thought all of that was interesting. There are people buying these books, and in the schools I taught at there was much debate over whether it was worse that students were reading major publisher released versions of ghetto fiction, full of slang and creative grammar, than if they didn't read anything at all. In this case, major publishers don't necessarily want to touch these books, but they do have a niche.

All that said, I've always been the first to admit that I need an editor.

jrlennon said...

"Do you really think that there is no rock-n-roll orthodoxy? "

Of course there is!! But it isn't generally a reliable source of great music. Whereas major publishers do put out many of the best books. Not all, to be sure. And often obscured by a sea of crap.

So yes, it's true, the publishing orthodoxy is getting lamer by the minute. And I think Rhian's right, there are increasingly new ways of putting out your own stuff. I actually had 25 copies of the unabridged "Happyland" printed up by a print-on-demand place, to give to family and friends. And they really didn't look half bad--about as good as a trade ARC.

I think Kelly Link and her husband started a little house to publish her stuff as well, and her book looks marvelous.