extribulum

Posts Tagged ‘art’

Learning From Television

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2014 at 10:00 am

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I think magical realism may be the next thing. Like how vampires and post-apocalyptic dystopias are a thing. I think maybe magical realism is next.

There have been a growing number of television shows in particular which incorporate elements of magical realism, whether intentionally or otherwise. I’m always leery of attributing magical realism to things that weren’t written that way intentionally, in part because they’re usually written by white men who already had a lot of cultural pull, but it’s hard to deny that the TV show Hannibal has a lot of visual elements of magical realism, and apparently the show True Detective, another new hit, incorporates aspects of it as well.

I get a little conflicted over it. On the one hand it would be great for the genre. Magical Realism is notoriously difficult, and difficult stories taking center stage are good for the literary development of culture. If nothing else, a story too difficult to read teaches us what not to do, and a story that people just think is too difficult to read opens a lot of dialogue about prose structure and technique. On the other hand, if it does take off, I’ll have been the loser who liked it before it was cool and still couldn’t make much money off it. I try to detach the personal, but it’s difficult.

Then again, perhaps the sheer challenge of reading magical realism will prevent the genre from ever gaining a wide audience. Not that I think people can’t cope with it, but a lot of people don’t want to, and why should they? Some days I don’t have the mental bandwidth for Jorge Luis Borges either.

But it’s not just that understanding some stories in magical realism is a struggle — it’s also that it’s difficult, in literary form, to employ it and still allow for action, for the parts that make most books interesting to read. There’s a lot of exposition that goes on in magical realism, and I’m still trying to work out why it’s so necessary, but I think in part it’s because it’s hard to have characters talking about something unusual without expressing how unusual it is. A staple of magical realism is that nobody acknowledges that what’s going on is super fucking weird.

For example, at one point in the show Hannibal, a character in prison temporarily grows antlers. We don’t know if this is meant to really be happening, if it’s a hallucination he’s having, if it’s a visual representation of what his internal feelings are, or if it’s something we’re being shown in order to indicate his state of mind without him having any thought of it. The ambiguity is intriguing and it makes you think carefully about how to read it. But it’s very difficult to write that scene in a novel — to just say, “He sat in his cell, and his antlers grew, black and twisted, towards the ceiling.”

You can do it. Obviously, because I just did. But you want to include all this other exposition about how the antlers were linked to his feelings or what his feelings were or the rest of it. And that is why magical realism often seems tedious despite being a genre essentially filled with strangeness and delight: there’s a shitload of exposition.

It’s something I’ve wrestled with a lot as I’ve tried to write more in the genre — attempting to break away from the exposition-heavy forms that it comes from and write something that is more similar in shape to popular literature. I’m still struggling with it, but perhaps if there are more stories out there like what I want to write — magical, surreal, and popular — I can learn from others who have done it better than I have.

I’m learning a lot from the television, anyway, and that’s a rare and interesting thing.

Lessons With Packing Tape

In Uncategorized on June 6, 2014 at 10:00 am

I’m writing this on a flight from California to Chicago, returning from wrapping up the last of my grandmother’s estate, a process which began seventeen years ago. Gran always was a nonconformist.

My grandmother had a fascinating life, but the portion of her existence which she imparted most strongly to me was her art. She was a painter and a lover of all the fine arts, and she gave me culture, from sketching with her in her dining room to playing trains on the floor of her painting studio (which doubled as the garage). She died when I was seventeen, but her paintings and many other belongings of hers have only just surfaced, so we had to collect them up and figure out what to do. Over the course of last weekend I documented, wrapped, packaged, and helped arrange safe transport for a hundred and two of her paintings, everything from eight-inch-square seascapes to three-foot-tall frontier towns.

She painted two for a local bank and then changed her mind and kept them; she painted three abstracts and then duct-taped them together, and when we found them I was the only one of the family members present who could point out the angels she’d subtly painted into them, much to my mother’s delight. Gran painted faceless women in white and boats that somehow look married to each other. She was stubborn and independent, and while she did sell pieces and paint pieces as gifts, her art was mainly for herself. Sometimes I think she painted a crap painting just because she didn’t want to mess around with perfection.

When I visited her, I didn’t really appreciate that she wasn’t teaching me sketching and painting as much as she was not to take any bullshit from anyone when it came to art — hers, mine, or others’. Her art isn’t always the most original or the most talented, but it is invariably honest. I know this, because I’ve seen paintings from the time when she was unhappy and suffering depression — when she was trying to be someone she wasn’t, for the sake of others — and they’re no good. They have no light, no subtlety, no depth. When she stopped taking shit from the rest of the world, she got a lot better.

It is incredibly hard to be honest to one’s art, especially when one is just starting to work. People want you to be something, and they want your art to be something, and very rarely will they agree with each other or with you about what that something is. It is necessary to take criticism and to accept it when it’s truthful, but before one can judge the quality of criticism, one has to know one’s work. Confidence in the honesty of the work, whether it’s any good or not, is vital. I don’t think I ever realized until this past weekend that she fed this to me along with cheese sandwiches and cups of apple juice.

It’s been a struggle, the past year and a half, to try and write — exhaustion, new jobs, illness, and perhaps some plain old burnout have made it difficult to hold coherent thought for the length of time it takes to write a novella, let alone a novel. I’m not sure if I’ve been honest to the work; I’m not sure if I haven’t been trying too hard to fuck around with perfection. And it’s not like spending two days lifting, wrapping, photographing, packing, and securing canvases has caused some kind of spiritual epiphany; mostly it made me tired. But it did give me perspective.

I sometimes wonder what Gran would think of me. I think mainly we’d be butting heads about the fact that I haven’t given her any great-grandchildren yet. I think she would be proud of some of my novels, at least, if she knew about them. And the rest she would at least be proud I’d completed, even if she might think they were a little ‘blue’.

Either way, I owe her a lot, for teaching me about honesty — and for the half a dozen paintings by her that were my commission for the work this weekend.

Origami And The Narrative

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2014 at 10:00 am

Two years ago, I spent a year studying origami, off and on — more on than off, which I’m proud of, but not in any kind of professional sense.

I got pretty good, though it was mainly “good for an amateur”. There is a certain jump that origami enthusiasts are eventually faced with, moving from “need instructions” to “just show me the creases”. Some people make the jump; I didn’t. What MIT can do with origami is frankly amazing. Don’t talk to me about the cheaters who use fan folds, though.

Anyway, I came to the conclusion that writing was actually really good practice for origami, and vice versa. They’re very different disciplines; origami is mathematical, geometric, and spatial, while writing fiction is…generally not. And while I am pretty good at writing fiction, I am inherently awful at anything to do with mathematics.

But the discipline itself, the way one thinks about the art — for me, those are very similar.

When I started writing, I had no formal training; I still have very little. So I didn’t know about arc and development and building the narrative, I didn’t know about the structures of stories or how to plot one out. I didn’t know where a story was going until it got there. Likewise, I am very bad at pre-reading visual instructions for the creation or construction of a physical thing. I’m better than my mother and her mother, who wouldn’t read the instructions at all; I follow the steps and usually come up with, say, a bed frame that looks like its Ikea picture, or an origami duck. But I won’t bother to read all the instructions before I begin because, frankly, I won’t understand them anyway.

I mean, do you read every step in the process of folding a paper crane before folding one? I could, but it wouldn’t help.

Origami was a lot like my early writing. At first I didn’t bother looking ahead because it wouldn’t change anything, and I wouldn’t understand. I just did the step the instructions told me to do, or I wrote a scene I wanted to write. But once you get to be pretty decent at origami, which requires a lot of yelling and frustration first, you realize that sometimes, if you don’t understand the step you’re on (and some of those folds get pretty tricky), you can look ahead a few steps and you actually will understand what you’re doing better. Mainly because you’ll see the fold you’re working on from other angles, but sometimes because you’ll see the reasoning behind folding that corner this way instead of that way. I am convinced there is a step in every single origami pattern that may as well be called “Do some magic here”, but at least now I can often reverse-engineer which magic I’m supposed to be doing.

I still, often, start a story with either no inkling of how it will end or only a vague idea of how to get from where I am to the ending. I’m okay with that; it works for me, and I fix the middle-part goof ups in rewrites. But I have learned that looking ahead just a little can be a big benefit — just to see where the step you’re on now is about to take you.

Mind you, much as with origami, there’s still a lot of yelling sometimes involved.

The Analytics Of Art

In Uncategorized on March 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

Recently, the Telegraph ran a news story headlined Scientists Find Secret To Writing A Best-Selling Novel.

My first thought on reading the headline was Well, there’s a genie that’s never going back in the bottle. It wasn’t even negative so much as…cynical.

I could pretty accurately predict the premise of the news story, because at my day job I work in a field that is very heavily analytical, a field in which analytics has created a revolution in the last five years.  I work for a not-for-profit entity in their fundraising unit, though I don’t do any fundraising myself. I manage operations for an office full of people who essentially perform one of two tasks:

— Providing actionable intelligence on potential donors that fundraisers are about to go hit up for cash.
— Discovering new sources of money by finding new potential donors.

When people began to apply analytical thought to the latter task, the whole industry changed. The idea was that you could look at, say, a sample of donors who had given over ten thousand dollars in a single gift, and from that sample draw characteristics that you could use to comb your database for similar people who hadn’t yet given you money. That’s grossly simplifying things, but at its most basic, that’s what it is. You could look at the way a donor moved through a set process from identification to solicitation to “reward” (anything from a thank-you letter to their name on a building) and predict how other donors would react to the process. They do this in the entertainment industry all the time, too — they pick a demographic and then figure out what that demographic wants to see. And if they don’t make something that demographic wants to see, they at least package something else so that it looks like it in a film trailer.

So I could see where analytics plus publishing was going: market-driven novels written to specification, new analytics divisions in publishing houses, and the homogenization of the novel. After all, the tools are already in place — your ebook reader comes with a host of analytical functions you may never even see.

But then I took a step back, because essentially that’s what I’ve been doing with extribulum all along — finding out what my readers want and giving it to them. There is a fine line between “give them what they want” and “give them something that looks like what they want” — not to mention “tell them what they want” — but essentially, I’d been doing market research all along anyway. The difference is, of course, that I’m not industrialised; extribulum dominates zero industry sectors.

Still, I was interested enough, and newly unafraid enough, to have a look at the article, and I’m really glad I did. Because what’s awesome to me is that these scientists, employing “statistical stylometry”, figured out that “bad prose doesn’t sell”.

Here are the elements of a good book according to the stylometry: complex prose (“heavy use of conjunctions”), descriptive prose (“large numbers of nouns and adjectives”), and thoughtful narration (“verbs that describe thought processes”). The analytics didn’t address the topics of these books, whether they had sad or happy endings, who their characters were, or what their plots were — just the use of language involved, the frequency of certain forms of word and what those frequencies indicated.

Now, on the one hand, this does rule out writers whose style of prose may not rigidly fit the statistics that Science has laid out for our convenience. And that may mean that writers who are experimental, who write in dialect or who have different things to say in different ways, may be in peril when it comes to publishing. On the other hand, I think it means we’ll have a few less true stinkers becoming bestsellers because a publishing house pushed them, and more books making it on their own merits.

So it is a genie, and it’s definitely not going back in the bottle — but where it does end up going we don’t yet know, and it’ll be fascinating to find out.

The Madness Painting

In Uncategorized on October 13, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Ivan The Terrible and his Son Ivan on November 16, 1581 by Ilya Efimovich Repin, painted 1885. (The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow)

I had the opportunity to see this painting on tour at the Royal Ontario Museum a few years ago, which was the first time I heard the story of how it drove Abram Balashev mad.

The painting depicts the real-life murder of Ivan Ivanovich by his father, the Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich, in 1581. Supposedly, Tsar Ivan (known as Ivan the Terrible) had beaten his son’s wife for wearing immodest clothing, and had caused her to miscarry. His son apparently confronted him about this and, in a fit of rage, Tsar Ivan struck him on the head, killing him.

When it was first exhibited in 1885, it was considered obscene, ostensibly due to the graphic portrayal of the bloody wound, though I suspect the madness in Tsar Ivan’s eyes was part of it nobody wanted to even mention. Rumour says that it made women faint. There are whispers that it drove people who viewed it to suicide, but nothing recorded.

On January 13th, 1913, a young man named Abram Balashev, suffering from severe mental illness and supposedly obsessed with the painting, took a dagger to the Tretyakov Gallery and stabbed the painting multiple times, ranting about the blood.

You can see in the detail that he pretty much went for Tsar Ivan. Though, as has been pointed out to me, he missed the crazy, crazy eyes.

The painting has since been restored, but the legend hasn’t faded. On the one hand, it’s a cautionary tale: don’t look too closely at art, don’t listen too closely to the story, because if might show you something that you can never recover from.

On the other hand, it fascinates me. It’s not the only artwork to ever be attacked — the Mona Lisa has had more than a few — but it’s one of the few that people believe actually drove someone mad, like the legends that when the Furies appeared onstage in the Oresteia, women in the audience spontaneously miscarried out of fear.

That’s a strange sort of holy grail for any artist, visual or literary or otherwise. Certainly most artists don’t want to cause harm, but to make something out of yourself which has that much power is a temptation, and perhaps sometimes a desire.

Did the painting drive Abram Balashev to insanity? Probably not. We know now that most mental illness is caused by biological factors. It’s likely that Balashev was already on the verge when he became obsessed with the painting, and it simply became a focal point for his suffering. It’s not terribly likely that the painting itself ever actually drove anyone to suicide, either, even if it was more graphic and “obscene” than the culture of the day was accustomed to.

But as a story, it’s compelling. It’s mysterious. A magical object that has the power to alter reality simply by existing.

And it’s a dare: do you take the risk, look at the painting, and face the power it presents?