What Art Can Do for Us

Oath of the Horatii, by Jacques-Louis David

It happens to everyone; sometimes, life disappoints us. We can do our best to mitigate disappointment, and we can even achieve a great amount of success in that regard, but at some point, something’s going to come up that wrecks our day.

Indeed, it appears to be a rather prevalent issue these days (the reasons for which are beyond the scope of this post, though I assure you, I do have an opinion on the topic), so much that people unquestioningly equate cynicism with realism. If you have any doubts about this, listen to a politician.

But this phenomenon extends beyond our day-to-day lives to the field of art, and in particular, of literature. In fantasy (the genre with which I am the most familiar), there has even sprung a new sub-genre dedicated to cynicism called “gritty fantasy,” comprised of anti-heroes and more anti-heroes. Those who have helped popularize this sub-genre have done so by acclaiming its supposed authenticity of character motivation and general realism amidst a fantasy backdrop.

Some of the authors in this sub-genre are quite good and a few I buy the day their books come out. More often, though, especially on those wrecked days, I’ll have to take a break from this kind of book and read something that I know will end happily ever after. Why? Because I have enough problems of my own, thank you very much, and it just isn’t worth it to wallow in some character’s misery. In a way, I think it’s (somewhat unsurprisingly, given the nature of these books) tragic that this grittier type of story has come to prominence because it probably contributes to the general malaise that people feel.

So what happened to the stories peopled with characters you can cheer for and want to emulate, stories led by heroes who save the day and vanquish evil in the final act? Many of its critics (who currently outnumber its champions) think this type of story is unbelievable and unsophisticated, that its characters aren’t “flawed” enough. It seems this type of story has fallen out of vogue in recent years, though there are still its practitioners and fans, and I doubt that either will go away. At the end of the day, these are always the stories I gravitate toward. These are the stories that remind me that today can be a good day, so long as I do my best.

Some stories show us how the world is. Some show is how it can be, whether good or bad. Still others show us how it ought to be, and give us the inspiration and the emotional fuel we need to make it that way, to become the heroes of our own stories and live the lives that we want to live.

As artists we have a choice. We can either fall in line with the trends of today, and I’m sure many of you will disagree with me and argue that this is the better path (if you do, please comment. I enjoy a good discussion). Or we can show our readers characters who do not yet exist, but can, doing things considered impossible, yet succeeding.

And who knows? We might just end up saving the world by the time the final page is turned.

10 responses on “What Art Can Do for Us

  1. leigh

    I think what you’re really talking about here is a shift in the fantasy genre that puts more emphasis on character rather than plot to drive the story. High fantasy, in my opinion, with its archetypal heroic characters who are the idealized versions of the best within people, have to rely on plot because the characters are…well, idealized versions of the best within people. There’s nowhere to go with a character like that. They’re incorruptible and perfect. They’ll always make the right decision in the end. The situations they are in have to supply the conflict and tension.

    To me, gritty fantasy (which isn’t really new, it’s just the new face of sword and sorcery fantasy) uses character to supply the conflict and tension. For this, you have to have a flawed person, sometimes deeply so, who has the capacity to make the wrong decision. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no hope or that the bad guy will win in the end, as you seem to imply above. The flawed hero often saves the world, and emphasis is placed on overcoming the flaws to become a better person.

    But to say that either of these types of fiction can doom or save the world is a bit much. I’m not saying that they don’t have an effect on people. How many of us took our role-models (for good or ill) from comic books, television, novels, or movies growing up? Yet, both types of fiction can provide a positive experience for readers. High fantasy provides the ideal to aspire to. Gritty fantasy provides a catharsis to get out all those bad impulses you can’t play with in normal life and shows us that redemption is possible even for us lowly, flawed, human beings. Both are valid types of expression that we would be poorer without.

  2. Brandon M Lindsay

    Thanks, Leigh, for commenting. As I said, I love a healthy discussion.

    I agree that much of the conflict in a high fantasy story is external rather than internal, but I’m not saying that these internal conflicts aren’t interesting or valuable. Even the best among us has to deal with this kind of internal conflict, so I think even heroic characters would be plagued by doubt and make mistakes. That kind of examination can be valuable from a moral perspective, especially when dealing with redemption of those flaws.

    And I suppose I should be more precise in my definitions; unfortunately, I think the definitions used by the writing community at large are more ostensive than conceptual, so a certain vagueness is sure to sneak in. When I think of gritty fantasy or gritty fiction, I think of the fiction where those flaws are prominent and the story leans toward the tragic. They tend to point out mankind’s flaws and watch them fester until the curtain drops. A few recent examples are Joe Abercrombie, Glen Cook, and Steven Erikson (and I’m not saying I dislike these authors at all or that they’re bad; quite the contrary. They’re very good at what they do). If anything, stories like these show that genuine redemption is IMpossible, that we are doomed to be wretched beings eternally, that goodness is a fraud and a mask for some greater evil (if any of these authors read this claim and dispute it, please comment 🙂 ). Other kinds of stories that don’t exhibit these qualities may have fallen under the gritty fiction category, but I think these are the essential aspects of the phenomenon, and it is to these aspects that I am referring. I don’t know what kind of catharsis results from reading these stories (unless one appeals to the these that do indeed speak to goodness), but I would dispute the value of anyone feeling better about themselves or their lives as a result of having read them, except as a marked contrast.

    As far as changing the world goes, many small things can do that, especially where art is concerned. How many times have you heard someone talk about a book that has changed her life? History is driven by ideas, and culture is oftentimes the incubator and distributor of ideas, and artists to a large extent drive culture. Granted, there are a lot of us out there, so it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, but even if we as artists inspire just a few people to live better lives, the world is that much better for it. Even the effort is valiant, in my opinion.

  3. leigh

    Just to clarify. What I mean about catharsis, is being able to live vicariously through the characters. In this case, of course, we’re talking about people doing bad things to other people. I think Stephen King once said something about how people think about doing terrible things to others all the time, but we never act on it. Through reading about characters that do act on it, it’s cathartic because we get the same guilty thrill without actually committing the crime. In effect, by vicariously being bad, we are able to move past it to being better people in the real world.

    Did that even make sense?

    I know what you mean with the authors you’ve mentioned. While I’ve never read Erikson (I know, I’m terrible. I’ll get to it), I think it really goes to how you look what writers who right the unhappy endings are doing. I come from an academic background that pushed literary fiction, so I’ve studied a fair amount of modern and post-modern fiction, which colors how I read writers like Abercrombie, for instance. While I can see why some who read, say, the First Law Trilogy, see it as the evil within humanity winning out, I see it more as aimed to the genre itself. He purposefully took the expectations of the reader and turned it on its head. I look at this as more of a commentary on the fantasy form than on the failings of humanity. Taking expectations and screwing with them is a defining characteristic to post-modern fiction. It’s one of the reasons I like his work so much. I don’t know if that was really what he was going for, but that’s how I read it.

  4. Colette Vernon

    This trend toward the tragic is showing up more and more in YA fiction as well. I once heard an editor say something to the gist of, “we’re going to publish books with good, happy endings instead of this end-of-the-world, tragedy crap that’s showing up everywhere.”

    And yet, my daughter eats it up and I’m not sure why. I think it would be a great study to compare society now to past societies in which tragedies have become popular. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t those usually occurred during times of economic downturn? What are people relating to in the tragedies?

    Me, I’m still a happy ending girl. I can handle a tragic ending in a short horror, but if I invest hours and days into reading a story, the guy better get the girl, and there can be some losses as long as the happy ending prevails.

  5. Evan Braun

    It’s funny you should say that, Colette. I actually think it might be somewhat the opposite. Instead of tragedies becoming more popular during economic downturns, I think the state of our current society is fairly comfortable (filled with “malaise,” as Brandon put it), which leads people to search out darkness. But you could probably argue this one from any angle, as there’s no right answer.

    1. Colette

      I’ve heard it from both sides, but you very well may be right. I remember from my writing and history classes that a society’s overall economic trends and security doaffect people’s choice in entertainment, but I can’t remember which way it runs. Now I’m very curious.

  6. leigh

    Colette, your mention of how YA readers are devouring books with darker themes, made me think about a post that I saw a couple days ago on the SFWA site. Nicola Griffith spoke about novels and the human condition. While I don’t agree with all that she said, she made a very good point about how reading allows us to experience things we either cannot be or have not been exposed to. This, I think has direct bering on why younger people are reading such books. They’re looking for experiences (which make sense for that age bracket). Heck, I still read for that reason.

    The post can be found here if anyone is interested: http://www.sfwa.org/2011/12/guest-post-novels-–-the-expression-of-the-human-condition/

    I for one, believe that art imitates life, not the other way around (not including the exceptions people who try to recreate their experiences from a book in the real world, which I think is symptomatic of the psychological issues of the individual than what the art is doing). I think there are far too many variables in the complex psychology of the human brain, not to mention the shared consciousness of an entire society, to pin it on one cause alone. As Evan and Colette point out, economics can also have an effect.

  7. Clancy Metzger

    I’m with Colette – I want happy endings. This is why I primarily read and write romance. That;s the formula – Happy Ever After or at last Happy For Now. And I agree with Brandon, that these kind of stories get a bad wrap – unfairly to my mind. What’s wrong with some positivity and optimism?

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