Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Year in Review, pt. 2: The Artisanal Turn

Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman (2008) makes a powerful and learned case that we have lost—and must bring back—the artisan’s tactile connection with the material to be worked. (I also recommend Jed Perl’s “The Artisanal Urge” in American Craft for June/July, 2008 , and Paul Harper’s “The Poetics of Making,” which was the keynote address at the 2008 annual meeting of The Furniture Society.) In a March/April 2007 Print magazine interview with Steven Heller, Nik Hafermaas (chair of graphic design at The Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena) discussed re-introducing drawing to the curriculum: “I saw an alarming lack of drawing skills in some portfolios. Sketching is both a way of seeing the world and of communicating your ideas.”

(For more on visual artists and the return to the traditional skills, see my note below at the asterisk.)

Writers are expressing similar concerns. John Freeman, former president of the National Book Critics Circle and now acting editor of Granta, worries in a forthcoming book that instantaneous electronic communication erodes thought and thoughtfulness: “We need time in order to grasp the political and professional ramifications of our typed correspondence. We need time to shape and design and filter our words so that we say exactly what we mean.”

Sven Birkerts, whose The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age was an eloquent, early (1994) warning, quotes in Agni (nr. 69, spring 2009) a personal letter to him from David Foster Wallace: “ ‘ I’ll tell you why I dislike writing on a computer. It’s just as you say: it makes each line too easy, too provisional. There’s none of the pressure to perfect a line before moving on to the next that script and typewriter enforce. And so on a p.c. I find myself writing way faster, more facilely...’ “

(Musicians are grappling with the same issue—see my note below at the double-asterisk.)

This is the Bauhaus question revived: how do we remain aesthetically and spiritually connected to our art while embracing new technologies? (Back to Aristotle, and a reunification of techne with its telos of moral wisdom.) Who among us will give up his or her computer? Not I, says the lobster. Not I, says the canary. But what’s the computer for? Ah, breathes the lobster, murmurs canary...

We want the ideal workshop of Aldus Manutius in 15th-century Venice or Christophe Plantin in 16th-century Antwerp, the ideal forcing ground for innovation found in Harlem’s jazz lofts of the mid-20th-century, where new technologies are wedded to traditional technique.

Fortunately, speculative fictioneers have never strayed too far from this ideal: the rich ecosystem of conventions, writing groups, ‘zines, blogs, and readings sees to that. (For a good impression, see Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, from Small Beer Press, 2005). Locus is a central hub for shoptalk, especially the interviews—those in 2009 with Michael Swanwick, Cory Doctorow and Connie Willis stick in my head.

Perhaps the spec fic infrastructure is what has caused—or at least abetted—the current wave of superb craft-oriented writers in the field. Yesterday I suggested we are in a Silver Age (at least!) for fantasy—here is my main evidence: the sheer number of active writers who are deeply knowledgeable about their literary forebears, conversant with a wide sweep of tropes and genres, and fiercely dedicated to sculpting their prose. To list just some out of many (reflecting only the taste and time of the lobster and the canary!): Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Ellen Kushner, John Crowley, Greer Gilman, Peter S. Beagle, Michael Swanwick, Delia Sherman, Jack Vance, Jeffrey Ford, Patricia McKillip, Neil Gaiman, Carole Emshwiller, Nalo Hopkinson, James Morrow.

These established figures are remarkably generous mentors to the next wave, whom I call “the New Stylists”—who are in turn very supportive of one another: Sonya Taafe, Cat Valente, Nnedi Okorafor, Theodora Goss, JoSelle Vanderhooft, Stephanie Campisi, Jeff VanderMeer, Veronica Schanoes, Jay Lake, Claude Lalumiere, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Hal Duncan, Cat Rambo, Sarah Micklem, Naomi Novik, David Anthony Durham.

Which misses, of course, the protean Kelly Link. And Maureen McHugh. Elizabeth Hand. Susanna Clarke! Further afield, but not so far away that we cannot see them: Andrea Barrett, Hannah Tinti, Z.Z. Packer, Michael Chabon, Alice Hoffman. Karen Russell, whose St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is a book-of-the-decade for me.

[*Stop* sings canary, *stop now!* Lobster, with rimy truculence, curtails his list-making.] [?but you get my point? *Toni Morrison. Joyce Carol Oates,* he mutters. *A.S. Byatt.*]

Individual voices all, yet at least one thing unites them: their evident passion for and ability with the craft of writing. The artisanal urge and poetics of making are alive and well. These wonderful writers who write about wonders are the counterparts of the Slow Food Movement. (I read an interview recently with the founder of Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, California, whose definition of “artisanal” was simple and brilliant, and mutatis mutandis applies to the writers I list here: knowing when the cheese is ready by testing it with one’s finger.) They’re the equivalent of dining at Chez Panisse or at Felidia. They’re the savor of hand-roasted coffee hand-served in a quietly busy coffee-house, one well stocked with...

....books from Small Beer Press and Chizine Publications, from Prime and Senses Five...

* More on visual artists: Brian Dillon, editor of Cabinet magazine, addresses the topic of overcoming the decay in drawing skills in The End of the Line: Attitudes in Drawing (Hayward Gallery, 2009). Feel also the uneasiness in Joanna Fiduccia’s “Original Copies: Images in the Zero Dimensions,” in Art on Paper, 13:5 (May/June, 2009). The Drawing Center in NYC and The Drawing Room in London are great antidotes to anxiety felt about the future of drawing.

** A note about similar fears among musicians: Jay Z’s “Death of Auto-Tone (D.O.A.)” on his newest album this fall is a forceful repudiation of voice-altering/enhancing technologies. Jazz artists are outspoken about the need for craft and a focus on detail. For instance, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett spent time in China, learning the language and observing Chinese ways, before he produced his fabulous 2006 album, Beyond the Wall. (He talks about his stringent attention to such details in the current issue of Downbeat.) Musicians of all sorts are finding that live performances are once more becoming the end, instead of the means to sell recordings—audiences hunger for authentic experiences, as unintermediated as possible, where craftsmanship is immediately, nakedly evident. Slow Music, if you will. Somewhere in all of this walks, and chuckles, the ghost of Walter Benjamin.

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