I have a friend in Melbourne who is a paste-up artist. Under the guise of the moniker ‘Drab’ he creates small and large scale pieces of art, prints them onto jumbo sheets of paper and—normally in the quiet post-midnight hours—sticks them onto surfaces in and around the city and its suburbs. For as long as I have known him and followed his work (we used to live in an old weatherboard together with a few other sharehouse denizens and so I was able to watch him from go to whoa) I have been jealous. Not because I want to be a paste-up artist (mixing the glue is labourious enough, let alone doing the actual pasting up, which requires considerable measures of dexterity, mettle and stealth), not because I wish I had a smeck of talent for visual arts (although I do wish it; I can’t draw; I’m one of those people who when asked to draw a cat or dog or horse will end up with something on the page resembling a mutant platypus) and not because I harbour secret guerilla-ish urges to skulk about at night doing things naughty (again, I do, but that’s irrelevant, for here anyway). I’m jealous of Drab because his creative toils, along with all paste-up’s elements of artistry and inventiveness, is so tangible, so perceptible, so hands-on. In the space of a day—or a few days for a larger/more elaborate piece—he is able to devise and produce something in the shelter of home or studio, on his computer or by hand, in silence, channeling his imaginative energies into image-on-paper, and then go out into the world and literally place it there, in that wider world, under the cover of a greater silence, knowing that people are very soon going to see his work and react to it. He can even go back there and watch people as they interact with his paste-ups. It’s so seeable, his work is, and corporeal, and finite. And the best bit: his paste-ups never last. They are pulled off or covered over or simply peel away over time, and then it is finished. What a lark, creating something whilst already having its death in sight.
Writing and publishing a novel is just about the opposite experience (or at least it has been for hundreds of years, but it might be morphing now). It’s not something you can fashion with your hands and then go out into public and stick it up and then it’s done. It can’t be assembled in a day or two or even a week (although of course there are exceptions to that rule, but they are exceptional exceptions, like Oliver Sacks, who wrote his first book Migraine in nine days, but only because he’d vowed to himself that if he didn’t finish it in ten days he would kill himself, and anyway, this was after a protracted period of trying to write the book, so the nine days was really a whole lot longer) and it’s not going to disappear completely within a few weeks at most. Writing and publishing a novel is a commitment to something, and it’s scary and long and shit a lot of the time.
I consigned myself to this writing caper because of novels. I loved reading them so I wanted to write them. I haven’t succeeded yet, not even once. And to make things stickier, writing novels now is no longer just writing novels. Maybe it never was, I don’t know, but it seems harder somehow than ever before. It sure feels as if everyone’s turning and staring at this thing we call a novel and asking it to explain itself. But a novel is not a bath plug, or a stretch of asphalt, or a banana. Its raison d’être is subjective, and even if one can justify exactly why they alone think it is important, many others think it nonessential. A novel’s whys are different depending on wheres and whens and whos, and this slipperiness makes it vulnerable. In a recent interview with Full Stop critic Marco Roth was asked to give his opinion on the state of the novel, and his one line response sums up the predicament facing many wannabe novelists and even already-novelists: “Easier than ever before to write one, harder than ever before to know why you’re writing one.”
I have found that the whys and wherefores of producing and publishing a novel is something that people either get or they don’t. It’s almost a gut thing. Or an eye thing, if the eyes are portals to the gut. You can see it in someone’s eyes, whether they understand or not. Some acknowledge writing novels as a job like any, like a plumber or a zookeeper. Some see it as high-falutin’ nonsense. And there are lots of people scattered in between.
Douglas Adams, who said a lot of smart things, generally shied away from thinking of his writing as art. In The Salmon of Doubt he wrote, “I get very worried about this idea of art. Having been an English literary graduate, I’ve been trying to avoid the idea of doing art ever since. I think the idea of art kills creativity.” I tend to disagree with him but like his intentions. Fiction writing is art, is an art, etc., there’s no way around it, at least in my general definition of what art is (making something using creative skill and imagination that aims to be appreciated for its emotional power). But the idea of art that Adams is talking about, the idea that one is creating something lofty and orotund and like, setting sights on a sublime realm or whatever: this is anathema to me. Creating art doesn’t mean you are channeling some higher consciousness. It does mean you are using your brain and personality to explore avenues interesting to you. It means you have to take your work seriously. Roxeane Gay wrote about this recently, and it’s worth checking out.
So, the (accursed) question: why write a novel? To convey information? To provide entertainment? To learn about others? To get famous? To learn about yourself? Because you don’t want to get a “real” “job”? (Because you like to use “scare quotes” when writing your deadpan narcoticised Meursault-meets-Zetland fiction?) Because the pursuit of good art is the path to something something?