The question arose recently among some bloggers: Of all the arts, is fiction writing the most difficult career to pursue?
It would be a legitimate question even were we living in a culture of reason, or in a culture dominated by reason, such as that of the 19th century, which by no means was wholly founded on reason. The severity or duration of difficulties encountered by an artist — be he novelist, playwright, screenwriter, painter, sculptor, composer, or actor – depends on if he is living in a free society or in one that is only semi-free, that is, one governed partly by irrationality.
In a free society, an artist whose implicit or explicit premise is reason would have relatively little difficulty establishing a career, albeit with the caveat that there would be no guarantee of success, just as there is no guarantee that the value of a new invention would enjoy immediate recognition. If he is irrational in such a society, and is an exponent of a school of art similar to the Minimalist or Dadaist, he may find a “following,” but deservedly remain on the fringes of that culture.
Conversely, in a partly irrational society, or in one palsied by viral strains of irrationality, as ours is, the irrational artist will more frequently be rewarded with recognition and riches, depending on the culture’s fad, fashion or mania of the moment, while the rational artist will struggle with little hope of making a life-sustaining, materially rewarding career of his chosen art, and remain relegated to the fringes of that culture.
A completely irrational society would entail government censorship, and the rational artist would disappear altogether, either of his own choice or by government force. Even the pseudo-nonconformist, abstract artists would be suppressed, persecuted or banished, to be replaced by consummate mediocrities or officially approved irrationalists, as happened in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
For brevity and economy’s sake, by “rational artist” is meant here an individual who, in his work, respects and addresses the reality-rooted epistemology of the human mind, works on the premise of Aristotle’s “ought,” and seeks, to the extent of his vision and ability to translate it into an artistic work, to enhance human existence. By “irrational artist” is meant an individual who hates and defies man’s reality-rooted epistemology, works on the premise of destruction, and seeks, to the depth of his malevolence, to deprecate or negate the experience of human existence. An irrational artist is fundamentally a nihilist, or an anti-artist. Better known anti-artists, as examples, are Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and the Dadaists, and in music, Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage.
A great number of fiction writers and other artists, mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries, fall somewhere on the upper end of a sliding scale between the rational and irrational. For every John Singer Sargent and Daniel Chester French there were numerous minor painters and sculptors who mastered the requisite disciplines of their fields, whose skills and virtuosity were spent on noncontroversial or common subjects and themes, but whose work may still be admired and enjoyed for their clarity, technique and integrity. For every Victor Hugo or Friedrich Schiller, there were many lesser writers whose work can be enjoyed for the same reasons, such as that of O. Henry and Terence Rattigan.
On the far end of the sliding scale is a moldy heap of literature and other arts, which, while not consciously produced by “irrational” artists, can still be deemed trash. It is of the undistinguished kind that can be seen at community art fairs or that is churned out in “workshops” or “creative” writing programs, including “folk art” and kitsch, often commercially available to people with less esthetic sense than prehistoric cavemen and produced by their esthetic inferiors. The men who told stories by painting reindeer and bison on cave walls were true innovators and more respectful of human epistemology than any educated, modern irrational artist, past or present.
Relevant to this discussion is a host of middlemen responsible for promoting the irrational artist: critics, intellectuals, impresarios, teachers, and other exponents of unreason, all of whom, including the irrational artist, are necessarily impervious to any objective criticism of their actions – necessarily because they reject reason. Their usual fallback argument in answer to such criticism is to fault human cognition for not valuing, appreciating or pursuing the irrational. Too often today, however, they do not feel a need to answer such criticism at all, or to justify their actions, because the culture is on their side. They are the “establishment.”
Regular readers of this column need not be reminded of the power of government agencies that encourage the formation and perpetuation of such an establishment, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, not to mention their smaller siblings and cousins in every state and municipality of the Union, all supported or “endowed” with revenue looted from taxpayers. For a description of the founding and mechanics of such an establishment, see Ayn Rand’s essay, “The Establishing of an Establishment,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It. One observation of hers in particular is germane to the subject here, which is the difficulty of any artist, including fiction writers, to advance in his career in especially today’s culture:
“Private cliques have always existed in the intellectual field, particularly in the arts, but they used to serve as checks and balances on one another, so that a nonconformist could enter the field and rise without the help of a clique. Today, the cliques are consolidated into an Establishment.”
So that there are no checks and balances that would allow a nonconformist to enter any field, intellectual or artistic, just a damp, impenetrable, cotton-like barrier of suffocating insouciance that disguises fear and hostility, a barrier that cannot even be objectified in the image of a human face.
All that being said, fiction writing differs from the visual arts in that a writer must create his own world (or selectively recreate reality according to his metaphysical value judgments), whereas a visual artist creates a single static entity (governed by the same method). A painting, which may be of a human figure or a tableau, or a statue of a human figure, will occupy physical space. A novel will occupy one’s mind as a set of concretized abstractions (of specific characters, actions, places, and events), and how well and how long they occupy one’s consciousness depends on how vividly memorable their venue – the story – is established by their author.
Writing a novel (or a play, screenplay, or short story) requires a personal commitment to a long-range project. This is the chief obstacle which, aside from his lacking the skills needed to accomplish it, stops any person who merely dreams of writing a story or who toys with an idea by taking still-born notes over a period of years, hoping that some magic “inspiration” will suddenly strike and move him to somehow realize his idea. Fiction writing is a purely non-social task, absolutely non-cooperative, an utterly solitary avocation, requiring a passion second only to sex. A fiction writer, as Ayn Rand once noted, is God at the creation of his own world, and such a task requires a nearly selfless dedication, “selfless” in the sense that one’s own existence cannot matter until that world is complete.
As one overcomes external difficulties and obstacles, one’s writing career must advance up a ladder of one’s own making. One may advance, too, up another’s ladder, say, that of a critic or a teacher, but that measurement should be wholly incidental and apart from one’s concerns. In Rand’s The Fountainhead, Howard Roark ascends his own ladder; Peter Keating, having no ladder of his own, rises on Ellsworth Toohey’s.
Another difficulty encountered by a fiction writer is that employment in that art does not exist, except perhaps in Hollywood, writing screen treatments and screen plays and the like largely by committee or collaboration. There is nothing that would allow a writer to perfect his craft while earning a living as an apprentice or an intern to someone like Tom Clancy or J.K. Rowling. But then one would just be a hack for a “master,” much like the artists who did the detail work for popular painters in the past and finished a “masterpiece” to which the “master” would sign his name.
Fiction writing may be a difficult career, but it is not necessarily the most difficult. A different species of labor exists for every other art form – in painting, sculpting, composing, and acting – but one cannot legitimately compare the various efforts and say that one is harder than the other. If there were any difficulty at all, it would depend on the scale or magnitude of one’s artistic ambition and communicating its value to those who may undertake to bring the work to the public. Ayn Rand’s legendary conflicts with her agents, editors and publishers over the integrity and marketing of her novels are a case in point. With all due respect to O. Henry, he would not have been able overcome the difficulties Rand encountered in her career. But, then, he did not need to deal with an ossified cultural establishment.
On a personal note, concerning the difficulty of getting one’s work “out there,” I have had a comparatively easier experience than have other writers and artists, and I think the most difficulties are encountered by visual artists. The visual arts in our culture have arguably sunk beyond sight into a percolating mire of mediocrity, pretentiousness, and worse, farther than has literature.
What difficulties are faced by individuals who aspire to become poets or composers? Why have no new Miltons or Kiplings or Rachmaninovs appeared? The culture just does not encourage such a career path. And here again one should defer to Rand and her introduction to Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three:
“Have you ever wondered what they felt, those first men of the Renaissance, when – emerging from the long nightmare of the Middle Ages, having seen nothing but the deformed monstrosities and gargoyles of medieval art, as the only reflections of man’s soul – they took a new, free, unobstructed look at the world and rediscovered the statues of the Greek gods, forgotten under piles of rubble?”
The men of the Renaissance undertook to excavate those piles of rubble to more clearly see and appreciate those statues. The men of our time, since the end of the 19th century, are dedicated to not just reburying those statues, but to destroying them so that they are unrecognizable rubble. They want to return to a nightmare worse than that of the Middle Ages, from which no one would emerge but in which all would suffocate. If that is the spirit of our culture, how could anyone be inspired to compose great music or compose great poetry? To celebrate or communicate what? Where is the incentive? In answer to what? To disgust? To revulsion? To madness?
A rational, sane person could not be enticed to master the disciplines of those arts merely to answer the malevolence or dullness or the irrationality that may be the leitmotif of a culture (not unless he is a destroyer or psychotic or just plain dull himself). Most men today would be deaf to a new symphony or epic poem, or indifferent to it. (For more on this subject, see Rand’s articles, “Our Cultural Value-Deprivation,” in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought by Ayn Rand, and “The Esthetic Vacuum of Our Age,” in The Romantic Manifesto.) The great composers and poets of the 19th century were imbued with and encouraged by the spirit of Western culture then, and each was moved to answer or echo it in his own way. The last great composer in our time was Rachmaninov, and he was of the 19th century.
In the past, the progression was just the reverse. Michelangelo’s “David” can be taken as a symbol of the Renaissance, when men were emerging to take “a new, free, unobstructed look at the world.” Literature and music trailed behind, advancing in fits and starts, catching up only in the 19th century. But by then, as Rand so poignantly remarked, it was too late; Kant and his minions, with virtually no opposition or protest, had sabotaged the Aristotelian underpinnings of Western culture. The symbol of our culture today is something that is a combination of what might be a screwdriver welded to a dented car fender, or perhaps a leprous-looking human figure encased in mud. A fictional hero, such as Cyrano de Bergerac or Howard Roark or John Galt, is considered unreal or a fraud.
The only artistic medium that has half a chance of surviving and influencing the culture today (barring censorship) is the novel. It can point the way, just as Ayn Rand’s novels have pointed the way, to valuing those other artistic fields and ultimately allowing them to flourish. It is, after all, a philosophical battle, the most difficult battle of all. Novels, because they can dramatize ideas in action, can help to promulgate a philosophy, while the other arts act as a reflection of it and of the culture.
It would be apropos to end this commentary by quoting Ayn Rand from her essay, “What is Romanticism?” in The Romantic Manifesto:
“When reason and philosophy are reborn, literature will be the first phoenix to rise out of today’s ashes. And, armed with a code of rational values, aware of its own nature, confident in the supreme importance of its mission, Romanticism will have come of age.”