Monday, September 12, 2011


In the wake of my ranty ranty art post, I thought it might be interesting to ask some of my more artistically inclined peers-- writers whose art I admire, and/or whose approach and way of thinking has inspired my own thought processes-- to give us their views on the writer as artist.

First to join us is the lovely Thoraiya Dyer. I first came into contact with Thoraiya when she emailed me to ask some searching and incisive questions regarding the Aboriginal spirituality portrayed in one of my stories, and to discuss her misgivings about the difficulty in portraying that spirituality in one of her own works. That story, Night  Heron's Curse, published in ASIM, is frikkin' fabulous, and was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award in 2008, proving beyond all doubt that she has no need to ask the likes of me for advice about anything. Since then, over a dozen of her short stories have appeared in such places as Cosmos, Aurealis and Zahir. her novelette The Company Articles of Edward Teach was winner of the 2011 Ditmar Award for best Novella/Novelette, and Thorayia was awarded Best New Talent in the same year, making us New Talent Buddies or something. Her urban fantasy short story Yowie, from the Locus-recommended Twelfth Planet Press anthology Sprawl, was joint winner of the Aurealis award for Best Fantasy Short Story of 2010. Twelfth Planet Press will publish a collection of her original fiction as part of their Twelve Planet Series in 2012.

I finally met her in person at this year's National SF Convention, and she is as lovely in person as she is in electronica. You can learn more about her at her website, but for the moment, if you would be so kind, I give you Thorayia Dyer:

There are all sorts of parallels between writers and visual artists, and it’s a fun way to explore my taste in books and in paintings. Why do I like what I like? How can I try to write things that other people will like?

My very favourite paintings meet three criteria.

First: I demand outstanding technique. I want to feel like the artist’s fingers have bled, that they have stayed up til dawn to master techniques that a novice couldn’t dream of.

I want to see the evidence in a painting’s composition, movement, colour, brushwork – anything! – that those facets have been studied, that they have been considered, that they have been deliberately applied, that it isn’t all just a happy accident like patterns of moonbeams or rain. Not only because the results are stunning, but because dedication to a skill makes me feel respect and awe for the artist and prepares me to absorb the message.

Second: The message. I want a topic or theme that challenges, moves, informs, or – yes! – even entertains me. As long as it incites some sort of memorable response.

The final criteria, tied in with the message, is the ability for me to understand that message, and here’s where the visual artist has a choice.

To communicate clearly with symbolism that most people will understand (paint a big gold halo around the head of that saint!) and risk being scorned by critics?

Or, to communicate, perhaps with more complexity and depth, with those who are students or lovers of art (the tree in Van Gogh’s Starry Night connects earth and sky; the element is repeated in the church steeple which connects people and heaven, the message is the beauty of nature as a facet of Creation), but to risk having the message missed by many or most people?

Written works follow the same pattern, really.

There are books that have clearly been written in an oblivious, rapturous way by authors who were struck by a good idea, but, even if they did read other books before they started writing, they did not think critically about what they read and how they might apply the techniques they encountered.

There are books that have great technique but no message; nothing to make me think profound thoughts or feel some powerful emotion.

There are books that have messages, but I don’t have the skill to decipher them. (I often like to call this “poetry”! When poetry is self-referencing, the meaning is lost on me because I haven’t read enough poetry, which makes me sad and also feel a bit stupid. But I did choose Veterinary Science and not English Lit.)

Then again, when a message is too transparent, I don’t like it either. I like to earn my supper, when I’m in the mood, and when I hear people complain about a science fiction story that they hated, but that I loved, it can be because familiarity allows me to decipher conventions that they don’t have the tools to decipher.

Sometimes being able to understand a dense literary novel makes me feel clever, and that’s rewarding; who doesn’t like to feel they are good at something they have practiced? The skill to do that is no different to the skill my husband has, which is to take mechanical gadgets apart for the pleasure of seeing how they work and then have the ability to appreciate and applaud some clever engineer’s innovative solution, while I’m staring at it and wondering exactly what it’s for.

Am I difficult to please? Yes, but so is everyone, and everyone has their own criteria, and all criteria are valid. Just because another person doesn’t care for technical excellence doesn’t mean that what they love isn’t art.


Satima Flavell said...

A heartfelt, stirring post, Thoraiya. If I've read you rightly, what you're suggesting is that whether a creation of any kind is "art" must surely lie in the conditioning (culture, education, upbringing, health, state of mind...) of the reader, viewer or listener. A case of "diff'rent strokes", perhaps.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Satima, that's exactly how I feel about it :)