28 March, 2006

Enduring Fiction

From Nick Evans:
"Writing is not an art, it's a craft.There are very few writers in the world producing art - timeless works which will be valued in a hundred years the way they are today. They exist, but they are few. And probably foreign.

The rest of us are producing craft, at best - skillful work which provides pleasure but is, fundamentally, disposable."
OK, I'm leaving aside the art-as-enduring/craft-as-disposable divide (but you're wrong, Nick, wrong :) - and (updated) I don't leave it aside at all). I'm not well, and I should be off writing. But this stuff about "will be valued in a hundred years". I was at the panel on The Canon of speculative fiction at Magic Casements on Saturday, and there was a lot of this kind of talk. What do we think will last? And the implication seemed to be that writers should aspire to be placed on the canon, should be aiming for such high quality that their works are guaranteed to endure 200 years and more.

The thing is, we have no control about what will last. A bloke in the audience talked about picking up lists from the beginning of the 20th century and not having heard of a single author or work on them. It's not up to us; it's up to a million million tiny and tremendous events that will happen without us. So what are we doing when we try to establish a canon? We're trying to decide what is most significant now. We're trying to define the shape of the field now. We're not sending messages to the future. We're laying down a historical document. We're telling people who are entering the field as readers for the first time now, what we think is of most value, now. And we're helping people already reading in the field decide what to read next.

I'm sure there are writers who think they are writing for posterity. Well, maybe we all are, but we can't do anything more than create the archives of the future. And whole archives get burnt at once, you know? Everything, even what we think of as greatness now, is disposable. Just because it's of high quality doesn't mean it's going to last better. If it doesn't get burnt or shredded, or rot away, people of the future can just decide not to look at it.

You have to be reconciled to that, if you're a writer, I think. You have to be writing for reasons that make sense in spite of the fact that in a century or less you and your works won't exist in anyone's memory. It doesn't make what you're doing any less of an art, or any less valuable. It just means you're not fooling yourself.


Blogger Lee said...

I'm sure this is true about posterity, and it makes me wonder sometimes about lost books, lost libraries ... or maybe the books that don't even get further than a bottom drawer. A little bit like children who die young. Maybe there are some things to which we never get reconciled.

28 March, 2006 20:01  
Blogger chance said...

I'm sure there are writers who think they are writing for posterity. Well, maybe we all are, but we can't do anything more than create the archives of the future.

For me it's more about writing something that would be *worth* keeping for posterity than actually believing I have written something that will endure. I frequently (ok understatement there) become annoyed with what I perceive as the low quality of fiction in the world.

03 April, 2006 00:27  

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