Sir Philip Sidney stated that poetry was “the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk little by little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges.” Ezra Pound believed that “The arts, literature, posesy are a science, just as chemistry is a science. Their subject is man, mankind, and the individual.” And yet, still, sometimes, we struggle to justify our creative practice.
If you’re in the middle of a personal crisis, it’s unlikely that you will have the energy or the mental bandwidth to produce art.
If you stop to consider big problems like climate change, terrorism, refugees, our shrinking job marketing, rising house prices, the privatisation of health care and a multitude of other issues, sitting down to work on a short story or novel can seem self-indulgent and pointless.
What good is a novel when the world is falling apart?
It’s important to acknowledge these feelings of inadequacy because simply ignoring them won’t do anyone any favours. However, it’s equally important that artists continue to produce work despite this feeling of inadequacy. Art itself may not be able to solve our complex, incomprehensible social, economic, political and educational problems, but artists must continue to use their skills and ability because we need art, even if the world is falling apart.
At their most basic, novels provide a space for escapism and entertainment. At their best, a novel can inspire us into action by forcing us to confront our own behaviours and beliefs. We may ask ourselves why we do the things that we do, whether our behaviour is contributing to the solution or to the problem, and how can we change for the better both individually and as a society.
Stories don’t have to change the world. If you want to write stories for the sole purpose of escapism, both for yourself and your reader, then that is an honourable use of time. We need a little escapism. We need books that we can read at the end of a long day; books that offer comfort instead of further confrontation. It’s okay to read funny books or adventure stories or mysterious. Not only is it nice to escapes into a different world with different people and different problems, it is also nice to see those problems get solved.
Here’s the thing though, even nice books have value beyond mere entertainment. Whether consciously constructed or not, narratives contain the observations and reflections of their author. They are stories about people living with other people. They contain insight and knowledge about human behviour, our relationships with ourselves and others, our desires, strengths, and weaknesses. A novel is a response to the experiences an author has had and the observations they have made. They contain magic, and though this magic is unlikely to reverse climate change, novels can still teach us something about ourselves and the world we live in.
Novels have purpose.
A well-crafted and thoughtful novel that asks hard questions may not alter the general public opinion, but it can cause a shift within a reader. You may choose to write a dystopian novel based on scientific fact about where we’re heading environmentally, or you may write a speculative fiction novel about what the world would look like if women became infertile (The Handmaids Tale – Margarett Attwood), or if we intentionally used clones as a means for organ harvesting (Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro). Stories such as these act as a type of role play. They allow us to ponder and explore potential future spaces. If we continue to remain passive about particular issues, what will happen? Additionally, they provide a container for our personal and social fears. Not only is the writer able to unburden themselves, but it also allows the reader to experience their innermost fears while remaining within the safe, imaginary confines of a story.
The world may have a lot of problems, but when has it not.
If you’re still struggling to justify your need to create art, perhaps my final point will convince you. When we looking back on the type of art that was produced at any given moment in history, we can see the prominent concerns of that time through the themes, structures, and styles that are repeated across different works by different artists. We need to write stories that capture this moment in time. That explore our societal concerns. That showcase our collective psyche. Artists need to make their contribution to the historical record because we have skills that scientists and politicians don’t have. We can take incompressible problems and present them in a consumable format that will make you feel something, and that is a very special skill indeed.