A while back, I was talking up Carol Bly, whose book on writing short fiction I finished – oh, I don’t know – last week? the week before? Bly takes a reassuring and pragmatic approach to digging within one’s self to write things that speak to the wider world (reassuring to those of us dogged by the fear/concern that one’s stories are “small”). But she also returned again and again to a (faux modestly?) crappy story that she developed for the purpose of illustrating various techniques, and so strong was my distaste for this example story that I found myself distracted from her broader points.
I began to doubt the affinity I felt for the approach she described in the non-fiction book. And then. Then! She delivered backhanded praise to Maugham (who she positions as clever for clever’s sake) and Austen (whose pleasure in writing fools gave her pause—she viewed it as an unkind impulse). I pause here to declare my love for both these writers. (In high school, my best friend and I read Of Human Bondage and would quote lines at each other: “I don’t know whether it’s perfectly delicious, or whether I’m just going to vomit.”)
Perhaps I do not have such an affinity for Bly after all, because I would sooner write occasionally unkind and once-in-a-while clever things versus Very Important Stories About Personal Ethics and Chemical Warfare, With a Side of Alcoholism, Domestic Assault, and a Lost Dog. It’s not that I want my stories to be small, but if they need to be leaden and dreary with the psychic weight of our agonized existence…eh. I’ll stick to le fluff.
I realize this is a belabored transition, but I actually did produce the above thoughts after reading some material on Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, who creates large-scale public art spaces. I saw his rabbit and monkey on Honestly…WTF. He is also behind the ginormous rubber duck (or Canard de bain…hee) that’s been around the world. Hofman declares that his goals as an artist are to amaze and make life a little more fun, but this is an oversimplification. There is considerable craft behind his work, which is often produced in collaboration with the communities in which he constructs them. Several works – such as this thatched musk rat or this blue-painted stretch of street in Rotterdam comment on wider issues. And his work is theatrical. He is quoted here: “It’s important that the people who have seen the work were lucky and there were those who didn’t. People will feel a connection more because they were part of that work as long as it lasted.” The ephemeral quality of the work creates a shared experience (like memorable concerts) that can only really live in memory. Neither shaky footage of a concert nor a photograph of a public art piece can do justice to the experience of living it.
Meanwhile, what does this have to do with writing or with Carol Bly or important art? That is the rub, isn’t it? Because I don’t really know. Nominally, that art does not need to be humorless and serious to succeed in engaging the viewer. And that if engaging the viewer/reader is the goal of a small artist, well—so be it. We can’t all be Tolstoy, and some of us don’t even want to be, however great he was.