Peeking behind the curtain

by Steve

Backstage at the theatre, University of Iowa, 1930sYesterday, I did a little catching up on the backlog of articles I’d allowed to build up on Instapaper. Reading Dan Kois’ piece for the New York Times, “Why Do Writers Abandon Novels?” helped kick my brain into some degree of action, to focus on some related issues that I’ve been mulling over for some time now. Why do we like peeking behind the curtain so much?

Kois’ article does much to humanise the author. If John Updike and Saul Bellow found writing difficult from time to time, then there is hope for us all, no matter what our endeavour.

But there is a particular grain of hope for those budding/procrastinating/pseudo writers among us. Such articles (and the like) show that novels do not just ‘happen’. Even the greatest writers are not presented with a story fully-formed. They were all budding writers once themselves. They have all failed. “We” could be “them”.

However, reading the piece again shows just what it takes to be a good writer. It is not just a question of talent; it is also one of persistence. Success comes with hard graft and honest work. That honesty may be in realising a book isn’t working. The hard graft is in putting in the time and effort to write something else. From that perspective, those budding/procrastinating/pseudo writers may be inspired to greater endeavour, or may just realise they aren’t cracked up to the job in hand.

So, perhaps there are two distinct reasons why we like peeking behind this particular curtain – first as readers, secondly as writers ourselves.

As readers, we like to unpack what makes reading enjoyable. I guess this is evident, especially if you look at critical writing and the like. But such exercises seem to be more popular and accessible than ever. It is no longer the domain of dusty academic halls. Michael Chabon annotates his unfinished novel “Fountain City” in McSweeney’s in a frank, unflinching way (well, apparently, I haven’t read it yet). Jennifer Egan’s website contextualises and comments on her work.

So, why is this happening more? Technology is clearly a factor. Writers can blog, tweet, or do whatever else they fancy to bring them closer to their reader. There is now simply so much more room for the off-cuts and the trivia that surround the actual “work”. Where a print publisher might baulk at this, or might have rejected work in the first place, the internet welcomes it. And then when it is clear there is a demand, the print publishers follow.

Also, perhaps we should go back to the birth of the novel, as summarised in Jonathan’s Franzen’s recent essay for The New Yorker. The growth of novels coincided with the growth in people’s free time. Maybe, despite calls to the contrary, we live in such as automated and service-industry-driven world that we really have more time on our hands than we think. We now have enough time to satisfy any curiosity around how art is created. We now have the time (and relatively speaking, the money) to foster (and satisfy) an appetite beyond wanting just the finished article.

We also now have enough time to label ourselves as “writers”, or at least aspire to that station. And so it makes perfect sense to want to pull open the bonnet/hood (to use another old cliché, and to try to make it understandable to both UK and US readers, and generally mix my metaphors) and see how the whole thing works. Any sort of abandoned attempt, or cut passage, or the like is gold dust. What is more valuable than learning from other people’s mistakes?

Writers (of the aforementioned budding/procrastinating/pseudo variety) may also want to feel closer to the experience of real, genuine, successful writers. Unpublished works are less adulterated, are nearer to the writer, as they have not necessarily gone through the same editors, revisions etc that a published work would do. It is much easier to see the inner workings, and especially so if the writer, like Chabon, is willing and able to comment on them with the benefit of hindsight.

Peeking behind the curtain (for want of a better term), is obviously not restricted to the sphere of literature. CDs increasingly have bonus material. Classic (and some not-so-classic) albums are re-released with the original demos and extensive sleevenotes.

Musicians are generally letting us in to the creative process much more than they did in, say, the sixties. While bootlegs were always available, there seems to be a greater demand than ever, and a greater realisation of that demand – even from the old guard. Bob Dylan officially releases volumes from a “Bootleg Series”. The Grateful Dead encourage downloads of their live performances.

Technology obviously facilitates this, but perhaps this is a lingering effect of the transparency and “anyone can pick up a guitar and play” ethos of punk, and then indie music. Plus, making music, and presenting it to the world, has become so much easier, with developments from the four-track to MySpace and beyond.

DVDs have given us countless out-takes, commentaries and director’s cuts of films. While there is an argument that this is just commerce at work, making films people have already watched more attractive to buy (see also: those re-released albums), it is clear that there is a demand. Maybe it goes back to us having more time on our hands again…

To go back to the commerce argument, maybe there is something of the Tupac Syndrome about this too. Once an artist has died, the publisher/studio/record label still wants to make money out of them, particularly in the short-to-medium-term, as nothing boosts sales like death. Death creates demand, in raising awareness and in a whole culture of wanting to find out everything about the deceased. Picking over the bones.

Anyway, back to the general curtain-peek-age argument. I’m a real sucker for it. I love to find out how art happens. I enjoy the preparatory sketches as much as the masterpieces in an art gallery. I subscribe to Tape Op Magazine even though I don’t make music. And yes, I hoover up whatever I can find from my favourite writers, as I am a reader and I am one of those pesky budding/procrastinating/pseudo writers.

I do, however, have one fear. When we are peeking behind the curtain, do we lose some of the magic? Is something lost by picking apart the mechanics of art? I know that after taking a short film studies course at university it took me a long time to enjoy films as a happy/passive viewer, as I was busy focusing on the technique, for example. Do I really, genuinely have any better idea of the writer’s craft because I’ve read a Paris Review interview? Can I love a song any more for listening to several different takes of it?

Does such curiosity help us gain a better understanding and appreciation of art, and perhaps help us towards becoming artists too? Or is this ‘industry’ just another means of fleecing the consumer, or perhaps something a little morbid and unnecessary?

As ever, thoughts, comments, criticisms most welcome…

Image from University of Iowa Libraries, via Flickr