The question on the floor

The question we failed to answer at last night’s colloquium: “Z*/Tolstoy: Do we have a choice?” continues to bug me.

I hope everyone felt that the topic was asking not only the flippant surface question, “What should we choose to read?” but also challenging us as creators: “Do we have control over our own creative output?”

This is a question with some girth. Clearly, the works of Z and Tolstoy are at opposite ends of the scale, and without a doubt our works are somewhere in between. It would hard indeed to create something beyond Z’s work, even deliberately; that is his special gift. But where do our works fall and how much control do we have over that?

I don’t think I’m talking here about posterity’s evaluation of our works. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that there is at base a level of quality that I will dare to call objective. In other words, I think we can posit that each work has a base line of quality from which posterity will not stray very far in its assessment.

Our two goalposts can illustrate that point. No one is ever going to proclaim Z’s two novels as anything other than what they are, which is one human being’s noble attempt to fulfill that inborn urge to create. Likewise, Tolstoy’s War & Peace is not likely to fall very far from its current heavyweight status. The fact that there cannot be any serious argument about placing these works at opposite ends of any scale you want to devise is further evidence for my argument.

My not so secret fear then is that the stuff I produce will fall into Z’s range. I know the songs I’m writing for Moonlight, for example, are not really going to be that bad, but I am afraid that they will be at best insipid and at worst banal. And I am wounded by the knowledge that they will never approach the other end of the scale, either.

And here’s our question again: Do we have a choice? I know enough to keep my stuff from being bad, but is my inability to create a work of genius dependent on my knowledge? Was Tolstoy’s work a direct result of his artistic control, or is there something else going on?

This is getting into Tolstoy’s “man of destiny” territory, and it would be ironic indeed if his creative output is as great as it is simply because of the dictates of his own will. For those of us stranded below, it makes more sense, and is certainly more comforting to think, that there was some happenstance, some inborn-genius-thing that he could not control, and which we do not possess, that made War & Peace the staggering work of art that it is.

So, do we have a choice?

We’ve mentioned before the idea that a creative work is “abandoned not completed,” and nowhere is this more true than in the last five or six chapters of Z’s latest novel. There were misspellings, typos, repeated paragraphs/sentences, and an overall sloppiness that was actually distracting instead of just being a part of the delightful mise en scene. I don’t understand that. It cannot have been the case that his publishers were breathing down his neck like J. K. Rowling’s were for Goblet of Fire, causing her to slip up in the crucial graveyard duel scene. I cannot imagine that he was being rushed in any way to complete the thing.

At any rate, I finally put my finger on what is wrong with much of the dialog in this book. Almost all of it consists of the characters stating what they’re doing, have done, or are going to do. It is pretty much the way 8-11-year-olds play: “Come on, we have to fight the Balrog.” “You can’t defeat us, Balrog, we have Gandalf on our side.” “Oh no, Gandalf has joined forces with the Balrog.” “We have to run away.”

The rest of the dialog is made up of flat descriptions of the characters’ emotional status: “I’m so happy/scared/worried/in love.” Or agreements: “You are so right.”

It’s entertaining something awful.


*Names changed to shelter the innocent

8 thoughts on “The question on the floor

  1. Enough with the doubting and self-flagellating, already!

    I think the objective values you allude to exist at the level of the artist’s criteria for value, subject, realization, deployment of materials and basic expressive elements, etc. I doubt Z upholds a set of values we could call objectively artistic as he sets about his work. Z is using language to get the movie in his head onto a page, to make word-pictures that will match what’s in the mind’s eye. You, I think, have other goals that fall in line with what we see as credible artistic intention. You work with artistic criteria that can be objectively stated and re-affirmed by sympathetic others. You will struggle with the material until the result falls in line with your criteria and you are satisfied (at least reasonably so..which doesn’t exclude the nagging thought of “could be doing it better”).

    “Being a writer” is part of the inner movie Z is attempting to externalize and make real by producing these documents. While you are certainly attracted to the idea of “being a composer,” you rely on more than magical thinking to cast youself into that possibility. You have craft and know-how. Your talent will take care of itself. The question of “talent,” I feel, is most useful as a trope exploited in the art of criticism. Fellow artists get very little use-value out of discussing who does or doesn’t have talent. Don’t you think they regard one another more in terms of the kind of work being attempted within the shared criteria and craft?

    I think sometimes the anointed don’t know and sometimes they do. It’s not either/or. Fret not. If you somehow do know you are, or even suspect you might be (when the drugs are working, perhaps) it doesn’t change the task in any significant way.

  2. Of course you are right. The concept of Z simply transcribing the movie in his head is, I think, exactly right. Witness his inability to have his characters speak like real people with real problems. As I said on Friday night, he’s not completely inept, because his plots are workable if not enlightened (or enlightening). It’s his “craft and know-how” about how to make that internal plot machine sharable with a reading audience that is almost totally lacking.

    I think you’re right about his “being a writer” thing, too, especially in this last novel, where the main character is a novelist of the same ilk as he. (I recently learned that this kind of character is called a “Mary Sue.”)

    BTW, the blogger Slactivist who writes so incisively about the first Left Behind book can be found at, and all those posts can be seen in one place here.. It is worth your time to read the most recent post, perhaps, then scroll all the way to the bottom and read your way up.

  3. AWAY, Apollo, AWAY! Summon DIONYSUS! It is chaos, not rationality, that is the creative force.

    Remember the soul you invoked at the inception of this enterprise … Sir Edward Wood. So cue the barbaric yawlp. It’s aesthetic arrest or damnation.

  4. By the way, I encourage everyone to use OCYAR (Of Course You Are Right) as a short-hand response to any or all of my comments. Always down with the latest in technology culture.

  5. I was thinking more of OMGMTMTSWTD&SF: Oh My God Marc Told Me To Stop With The Doubt and Self-Flagellation. Of course, the irony meter pegs out on that one.

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