Her first collection of short stories, Bluegrass Symphony, was published by Ticonderoga Publications in 2011. Midnight and Moonshine, a second collection co-authored with Angela Slatter, will be published in 2012. You can find her online at http://lisahannett.com.
In February 1880, William Morris delivered a lecture before the Birmingham Society of Arts and
which was later published in a book called Hopes
and Fears for Art. It was during this public lecture, Morris’s first, that
the philosophy driving the Arts & Crafts movement was famously summarised. “If
you want a golden rule that will fit everybody,” Morris declared, “this is it:
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be
beautiful.” School of Design
Replace ‘houses’ with ‘writing’ and now read that sentence aloud.
What you’ve just heard is the mantra that whispers through my mind every time I start writing a story — and which bludgeons me when I go to read one.
There are more than enough mundane sentences in our world, and we’re bombarded by them relentlessly. Work emails, text messages, TV commercials, ads on bus shelters, misspelled restaurant menus, tax forms, university websites, cereal boxes, DVD cases, instruction manuals, radio announcements, Woolworths flyers… Everywhere, everywhere, words. They all communicate messages to their readers, and most serve a purpose — they do, in other words, what it says on the can — but though they get us semantically from A to B, few people would classify these pieces of writing as Art (with a capital ‘A’).
It isn’t a writer’s job to merely get their readers from A to B, to facilitate their journey from plot point to plot point, from page one to page three hundred and seven. Writers have certainly made a contract with readers that they will do these things — they will provide, to the best of their ability, a story worth spending precious hours of our lives reading — but there is no clause in this contract that states, “I, the Writer, promise to make you, the Reader, forget that you are involved in an Act of Literature.”
Writers compose. Writers conjure. Writers create. These are all words I associate with Art; so my hope, when I pick up a book, is to find Art trapped between its covers. My hope is to spend a few minutes, hours, days submerged in useful beauty.
Beautiful writing can’t be superfluous — long before Shakespeare’s time we’ve been wary of tales “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” — so it must serve a purpose in the story. It must give us extra insight into the characters, their worlds, their plights. But being useful does not preclude being beautiful: a well-crafted phrase, a symbolic image, a perfect metaphor can convey emotion or give us a sense of place far more effectively than half a dozen workaday sentences. In ‘The Wings of Mister Wilhelm’, Theodora Goss could’ve said “The girl was a fine seamstress” but instead we learn that she “could make stitches a spider would be proud of” and so we understand the delicacy of these stitches, how small they are, how many hours the girl would’ve spent practising her craft. Webs and spiders and fine gossamer thread also conjure up images of fairies and Queen Mab and dresses made of spidersilk — all of which add to the magical tone of this story.
When we read “He wants the redness to spill from him like a scent” in the ‘Cranberry Creamed Honey’ entry of Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month, we don’t merely imagine blood spilling from veins, but also the cranberries from the story’s title, crushed and juicy; rich garnet tones and dark forests filled with fruit; love, but equally, danger. This image not only suits the tone of the piece — it also helps to set it.
It might not be surprising that these two authors have both earned critical acclaim as poets — a particular breed of artist that agonises over word choice more acutely than most. The most useful aspect of this beautiful writing is that it succinctly and simultaneously conveys many possible meanings; it slows the reading process just enough to allow readers to bathe in the richness of words.
You needn’t be a poet to convey multiple meanings so effectively. In ‘Dradin, In Love’, Jeff VanderMeer could’ve simply said that Dradin looked out his window at a humid city at night, a sensual city — a City of Saints and Madmen, if you will — and all of these descriptions would have given us some idea of the protagonist’s state of mind. But instead, he tells us that the city “lay inside the cupped hands of a valley veined with tributaries of the Moth. It was there that ordinary people slept and dreamt not of jungles and humidity and the lust that fed and starved men’s hearts, but of quiet walks under the stars and milk-fat kittens and the gentle hum of wind…” Veins and hands cupped and humidity and lust and people sleeping all convey sensuality and suffocating closeness and tactility and the heat-fever of love, without having to say it in so many words. And if “ordinary people” spend their nights dreaming sweet, milk-fat kitten dreams, then what does that tell us about Dradin, whose insomnia keeps him awake and staring, voyeuristically, out over the slumbering city?
These symbols, similes, metaphors, clever turns-of-phrase, speak to us in a way that straightforward prose isn’t designed to — they speak straight to that wistful, intangible part of ourselves that weeps at the sound of an orchestral swell, or gets goosebumps at the sight of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. This type of writing may not get us to point B without travelling to M and X and Z first, but we need this type of Art just as much as we need an outlet for escape into wondrous worlds. The function of this beauty is to take us out of the realm of everyday language, and to remind us of the mind-blowing power of fine words.
My fear is that too many writers, genre or otherwise, are forced to sacrifice beauty for productivity. Publishing is a competitive business; there are more writers, more editors, more stories out there than a whole world of readers can possibly get to know in one lifetime. People aren’t paid sufficiently for art, they are paid for product. Churn out a series of shit books about sparkly vampires and you’ll likely be able to buy ten houses to fill with Morris’ beautiful things; but write a dozen near-perfect award-winning stories in a decade (á la Ted Chiang) and you’ll probably spend more time working in a carpeted grey office cubicle than you will be surrounded by Arts & Crafts treasures. (But a particular shade of grey can offer a neutral backdrop upon which many fine writers, often masquerading as office clerks, have hung colourful daydreams. And come nightfall these reveries are transformed into awesome books…)
The Romantic in me wishes writers could survive on beauty alone. The writer in me not only wants but needs to be inspired and encouraged by fine literary art, by the perpetual magic of words. The pragmatist in me would love it if we were able to find a balance between commercial success and artistry, productivity and grandeur. Hmmmm…. Beauty and financial stability… What could be more useful than that?