Monday, August 27, 2012

Reflections in the Well

On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

by Alexander Slagg

Beholden to Beauty

Criticism’s most perfect form is purely subjective. It seeks to reveal its own secret and not the secret of another. It deals with art not as expressive but as impressive. It is the record of one’s own soul.


I have moments of self-doubt when I’m writing. “Is my prose singing today?” “Does this character have enough depth?” “Will anyone find this interesting enough to read?” It’s this last poison dart that really gets to me. What will an audience make of my work? Will it see value? When this gray haze descends upon me, I often return to the thought I began with above.

I’m paraphrasing a passage from an Oscar Wilde essay, The Critic as Artist, first published back in 1891. It’s written as a dialogue between two people: Gilbert, the man brimming with ideas, and Ernest, the foil that questions Gilbert’s ideas. Weighing in at over 25,000 words, this wide-ranging essay lays out some of Wilde’s insightful thoughts on aesthetics. A reader can take away dozens of interesting ideas about the nature of beauty and art and art’s role in society from this essay.

This notion that artistic criticism is subjective really struck me as a young artist when I first read The Critic as Artist years ago. The way I read this, any audience reading your work is a “critic.” Each reader brings a unique background and outlook to reading a story. They cultivate impressions and reactions to their unique aesthetic experience of reading. They bring their own soul to a story.

So an aesthetic experience is not a matter of the artist building “value” into their art and then having the audience unlock this preset value. It’s a matter of the artist presenting their art and each individual in the audience having their own experience with it. For me, this understanding of the artist-audience relationship lifts a burden from my shoulders.

As a writer, my job is not to create value in my writing, but to simply write well and execute whatever creative ideas I’m trying to express. End value isn’t even part of the equation. Each reader is going to glean their own impression of my work. I couldn’t convey “value” to each and every one of them if I wanted. That would obviously be a foolish endeavor.

I simply need to focus on working my craft. There’s nothing anxiety-provoking about that. I’m doing that every time I sit down to write. Easy.

Now someone such as Ernest could easily retort, well how can we possibly determine a classic from a waste of time if value is subjective? My first response to that question is that a focused artist isn’t concerned with creating a classic or avoiding a stinker. The focus is on creating and executing the work of art. So that kind of judgment ultimately doesn’t matter to the artist.

More hand wringing – because humans are naturally driven to make judgments about things. But how will society know what’s good and what’s bad? I believe it comes down to collective response. If enough people share a similarly positive aesthetic experience of a work of art, it’s a classic. If a book doesn’t move or touch anyone, it isn’t worthy. Does that make Avatar a classic film? A lot of people really liked it. I suppose it is – but as an artist, I don’t care much either way. I’ve got my own work to focus on.

Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well is more than a rote column, it’s a literary lounge where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Share your comments with Alex for possible inclusion on the LWN blog or in his next reflection at