Yes, But is it Art?

I’m listening to a radio interview as I write; it’s not the most restful or helpful thing to do when trying to write a blog post, but I’m working on improving my multi-tasking skills. So, let’s give it a go.



A bestselling author is being interviewed on the radio right now, a person whose works have been turned into huge blockbuster movies, and who has sold more books than I can even imagine. This particular author is not one of whom I am a fan; I’m not going to name any names, because that’s not fair. All I’ll say is: it’s not Dan Brown.

However, like the aforementioned Mr Brown, this author has a formula. The books this author produces differ only in the characters’ names, perhaps the time-period in which they’re set, and the degree of whiteness of all the people who appear on the jackets. This author writes books the same way a child would complete a paint-by-numbers drawing. Yet, right now, on the radio, this person is talking about the difficulty of constructing the plot and creating the voice of the novels; a discussion is going on about the complexities of creating characters and the exciting challenge of sitting down at the blank page, wondering where this (apparently) new and fresh plot is going to go.

Well, let me guess. It’s going to go the same way as every other book this person has ever written. The books may as well be churned out by a machine. I’m put in mind of Roald Dahl’s ‘Great Automatic Grammatizator’, and that makes me shudder.

If you produce the same story, over and over again, just changing the names each time, is it art? Or is the author just laughing all the way to the bank? Not that I mind a person making money from their art – that’s not the point. I’m talking about how a person can believe, truly, that they’re an artist or a creative person when they know that all their books are the same, and they’ve just been lucky enough to hit on the sort of story that people like to read. Or, is art defined by its audience? If you have an audience who loves your work and thinks every word you write is golden, does that make your work ‘art’? As I listen to this particular author talking about the creative process, and the challenges of creating art, I can’t help but think – this person is laughing at their audience. This person knows they’re not creative. Perhaps they can write – clearly, they can – but they don’t have ideas. They just follow the formula, and churn out the books.

I don’t believe this sort of writing is art. Something in me just balks at the thought. But then, I read books by authors whose work I passionately love, like John Connolly for instance, who writes supernatural-tinged murder mysteries. His books all follow a similar arc; they follow on from one another in a series; his main character (Charlie Parker) doesn’t change a whole lot from one book to the next. Yet, I love Parker as a character, I love the books, and I relish each new publication. You could almost say that John Connolly does the same thing as the other author – he has a formula, and he sticks to it. But, I think there’s a significant difference. Connolly has a framework upon which he builds his story, but the details differ from book to book. Each book builds upon the previous story, enriching it and deepening the mystery surrounding the recurring characters. The other author writes books which do not differ hugely from one another. It’s the same escapist, romantic fantasy time and time again. This author has had one idea, and is flogging it for all it’s worth.

Am I just being a snob? Perhaps I am. I feel very mean-spirited, even writing this blog post! I’m not trying to knock the successful author, or suggest that their success is undeserved. No doubt, this author has worked hard to get where they are, and I salute them. Successful authors mean more people reading, which is always a good thing. But I do feel uneasy with listening to them talk about their creative challenges when I don’t believe they really understand what ‘creativity’ means.

But then, who am I to judge? Perhaps the question of whether or not a piece of writing is ‘art’ is less important than ‘do people enjoy it? Does it bring happiness to an audience?’ I just hope there’s room for all types of writing, and readers enough to go around.

Enough of my negativity. Have a wonderful weekend, all! Go do some reading.





12 thoughts on “Yes, But is it Art?

  1. The Hyperteller

    Great topic, and something that often gets me thinking about my own personal views. Everyone with writer friends will know that when the next worldwide bestselling phenomenon is released, all the people who actually writ e and aspire to be successful writers will hate it. There does seem to be an inverse correlation between the success of a book and how good it actually is.

    But then again, if millions of people have bought that book and love it, who are we to say that it’s not good? Just because we own a pen, or sit at a keyboard and write; does that make us more qualified than readers to judge what’s good and what isn’t? Yet I’ve come to the conclusion that, yes, actually we do sort of have a right to say that, as people involved in the creation of something are going to have a different perspective than those who simply observe the finished product. So we might know that a book is terribly written, has poor characters, and a cliched plot, because we (hopefully) strive to create better than that ourselves.

    But can several million readers be wrong? I guess it’s all just down to personal taste, and being a writer doesn’t make our opinions any more or less valid than those of readers.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks for this! It’s good to know I’m not talking pure nonsense, and that others understand what I’m trying to say. I really don’t want to denigrate anyone’s taste in books, but honestly sometimes I just can’t understand why people read the things they do.

      I like the distinction you draw between readers who don’t write, and so only see ‘the finished product’, and readers who are also writers and know the work and effort that goes into creating a piece of writing. Perhaps this makes us more judgemental, but I guess it makes us better readers, too. Let’s hope we’ll always have good stories to read. 🙂

  2. anna3101

    If you were talking about Stephanie Meyer, then I’m with you wholeheartedly. But if you were talking about my beloved James Rollins *looks threateningly*… though no, I don’t think there were any films based on his books yet. Anyway, it’s a very interesting phenomenon you are talking about. I can’t help but despise people drooling over Twilight or 50 Shades but at the same time I adore each book by Rollins, despite each book having the same plot, the same characters and not much in the way of style or plausibility. Which only proves that for each little something there will be someone who will like it 🙂

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      I can confirm it was neither Stephenie Meyer, EL James nor James Rollins. I’ve never read Rollins but he sounds a lot like the author I discussed on the blog, John Connolly – his books are all rather similar, but they’re still compelling stories. The framework is the same in all of them, but the details are different.

      I won’t be tricked into giving away the name. No, ma’am. I’m not about defaming people! Particularly rich, rich, powerful people… 😀

      1. anna3101

        To EL James’s credit, however, is the fact that she herself doesn’t consider her book well-written or well-edited 🙂

        But now I’m really, really curious! Who was that mysterious rich bestselling author? Maybe I’m missing some really juicy piece of trash literature! Something to enjoy under the duvet and to hide from the rest of the world. Tell me tell me tell me!

  3. Kate Curtis

    As always, inspiring a post out of me. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not that I have more posts than I have the time to write them. Write them, or not write them… argghh. We’ll see!

    Thought provoking post though. Thank you! What actually defines success is a really interesting question. What is even harder to answer – what defines art? The simplest answer is of course, each to their own.

    I’ll try and grow a blog out of it. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Measuring Art Against Success | Will Wally Wonder

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