12 Winters Blog

Preface to ‘The Artist Spoke’

Posted in Uncategorized, October 2020 by Ted Morrissey on October 27, 2020

Like all novels, The Artist Spoke is about many things — some that I, as the author, am privy to, and some, as the author, I am not. One of the things it’s about (I know) is what it means to be a writer when the book, as an art form, is gasping its final breaths. Why labor over a novel, a story, a poem, an essay when you’re certain almost no one is going to read it?

It’s a question I’ve been contemplating, on various levels, for a number of years — as a writer certainly, but also as a publisher, a teacher, a librarian, and a reader. I have found solace in the words of my literary idol William H. Gass: “Whatever work [the contemporary American writer] does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. . . . Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art.”

Gass shows up, explicitly, a couple of times in The Artist Spoke. I use most of the above quote as an epigraph for Part II of the novel, “Americana.” Then later, the two main characters, Chris Krafft and Beth Winterberry, visit a bookstore where they briefly discuss Gass’s iconic essay collection Fiction and the Figures of Life and specifically its concluding piece “The Artist and Society.” I read the essay often, as a reminder — a kind of mantra — that what I do, answering the call of the “reckless inner need,” is not only worthwhile but important.

Quoting the Master again: “[The world] does not want its artists, after all. It especially does not want the virtues which artists must employ in the act of their work lifted out of prose and paint and plaster into life.” Gass goes on to discuss these virtues, which include honesty, presence, unity, awareness, sensuality, and totality (that is, “an accurate and profound assessment of the proportion and value of things”).

Gass concludes the essay, written toward the end of the 1960s (the Vietnam era), by saying that “the artist is an enemy of the state [. . . but also] an enemy of every ordinary revolution [. . . because] he undermines everything.” That is, to be true to their art, artists must be ready to stand alone. As soon as they lend their voice to a cause, their art becomes something else, like propaganda, jingoism, a corporate slogan.

The Artist Spoke is a departure for me in several ways. For one, it has a contemporary setting. When I began writing the novel, in late 2015 or early 2016, I even intended for it to have a somewhat futuristic setting — but when it takes five years to write a novel nowadays, the future quickly becomes the now, if not the past. My other novels and novellas have been set in the past: Men of Winter (early twentieth century, First World War-ish), Figures in Blue (also early twentieth century), Weeping with an Ancient God (July 1842), An Untimely Frost (1830s), Crowsong for the Stricken (1950s, mainly), and Mrs Saville (1816 or 17).

I prefer writing in a past setting. My current project is set in 1907 (the first three episodes are going to be published by Wordrunner as an e-novella or abbreviated collection, First Kings and Other Stories). I like the definitiveness of the past, and I enjoy reading history — so doing research is one of the most pleasurable parts of the writing process. What rifle would the hunter have been using? When did electricity come to that part of the country? How were corpses embalmed?

Though a devout atheist, I’m fascinated with the Bible, as a narrative and as a cultural artifact, so I often incorporate biblical elements into my fiction. I did this to some degree in Crowsong for the Stricken, but in the current project all the stories (episodes?) are rooted in Bible stories and biblical imagery, which is reflected in their titles: “First Kings,” “Hosea,” “The Widow’s Son,” and (the newest) “The Buzite.”

Religious faith is explored in The Artist Spoke as well. For instance, the novel asks, is faith in literature — or devotion to a particular author — not a kind of religion, and one that could be more meaningful than a traditional religion? A faith’s liturgy, after all, is at the core of its beliefs (in theory). Are not Joyceans, then, a kind of congregation? People who consider life’s meaning through the lenses of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake or another Joyce text, like “The Dead”?

For me, though a fan and admirer of Joyce, my religion is rooted in the writings of William H. Gass. They help me to understand the world and to sort through my own opinions and feelings regarding what the world offers up to me, like a pandemic, like a country where many of its citizens refuse to take precautions against spreading the virus, believing it to be some sort of hoax or conspiracy. Gass said, “One of the themes of my work is that people certainly do not want to know the truth, and they construct all sorts of idiocies to avoid facing it.” Amen.

Reading Gass helps me to cope with what is going on in the country right now. I would want that sort of solace for anyone, for everyone — but one needs to read literature and read it well and read it often. And those days are quickly coming to an end.

Another way that The Artist Spoke is a departure for me is that I feel I have stepped from behind a curtain to acknowledge that the book is all me: I wrote it, I took the photoraphs, I designed the book, I designed the cover, I edited it. I have done everything. I have been slowly inching my way into full view. With my last book, Mrs Saville, I was essentially out but was perhaps not quite as vocal about it.

Self-publishing is still seen by many as “vanity publishing.” In other artistic fields, taking charge of your own art is viewed as rebellious and bold: musicians who create their own labels, fashion designers who found their own boutiques, visual artists who start their own galleries, etc. The simple truth is that commercial publishing houses are not interested in what I’m doing in my writing, thus literary agents aren’t either. Nevertheless, I still feel that “reckless inner need”; and, what is more, I enjoy the entire process. I love writing the stories and novels, and I enjoy designing the books and illustrating them.

By taking control of the whole process, I can shape the book into a unified artistic expression. The design can complement the words. I’ve had run-ins over the years with editors, and I’ve been disappointed by the efforts of graphic designers who didn’t seem to get my work (perhaps they didn’t read it, or comprehend it).

That said, I do have an ego, so I seek publication for pieces of my books as I work on them (perhaps I am more sensitive to the charge of vanity publishing than I like to let on). Most of The Artist Spoke appeared in print, here and there, prior to the novel’s full publication, in Floyd County Moonshine, Lakeview Journal, Adelaide Magazine, Central American Literary Review, and Litbreak Magazine. I say in the Acknowledgments, “I wrote this book in fits and starts, often losing my way, at one point abandoning it for nearly two years. The editors who saw something of value in the work and published pieces of it over time provided more encouragement than they can know.”

My ego also hopes at least a few people read and enjoy The Artist Spoke, but I didn’t write it for a mass audience. Ultimately, I suppose, I wrote it for an audience of one. In any case, I give it to the world, to take or to leave. Gass-speed, little book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: