A plea for artistic freedom or the undisciplined meanderings of an overactive mind?
How many creatives like to always make work that fits into the same style or genre? How many visual artists want to continue using the same media throughout their career? How many musicians want their music to be routinely categorised? Certainly, commercial forces, retailers and often fans and collectors (if anyone says consumers I’ll scream—art cannot be consumed [unless it is also food]) seem to prefer their favourites to be consistent and produce something they know they will like, and I understand that. I admit that when I go into a bookshop or record emporium I will head for my preferred sections. You won’t find me lurking near the crime fiction shelves or the hippety-hoppety music for example, but I could merrily browse many other genres. I delight in creative people I admire exploring new channels of imagination.
Personally, I don’t like my creativity to be stifled by the expectations of outside influences. In the art and craft world (I refuse to use the terms sector or Creative Industries) I have noticed a prejudice from galleries, show organisers and funders against artists and makers who will not strangle themselves with a single look. I have heard it said that buyers know what they like and rely on the work to fulfil their desires—it makes commercial sense. Nonetheless, as a designer-maker of hand-carved wooden jewellery, I like to produce pieces inspired by a wide range of influences: the Arts and Crafts movement, Celtic designs, the shapes found in nature, Art Nouveau…and to be honest, every piece of art I have ever seen and liked has contributed to the swirling ocean of my imagination into which I dip my metaphorical ladle. If I was told I could only make tree designs in a particular style (and I enjoy making tree designs), I would protest in the strongest possible terms. So, okay, you might say wooden jewellery is a genre of its own, but some outlets and funders have rejected me for having too wide a range of styles.
Furthermore, as a writer, I like to fool around in multiple genres, but I suspect that when I get a publishing deal, I will be pressurised into producing more of the same (if my book sells well enough) because it will then be a safer bet and easier to promote to the right audience.
I applaud the courage of those who refuse to submit to market forces and industry pressures, those who create what they are compelled to create by their artistic drive rather than an accountant’s whip.
One such individual is the author Michel Faber, known for Under the Skin, (now a film starring Scarlett Johansson) and The Crimson Petal and the White (adapted as a BBC mini-series). Having tackled science fiction, Victorian melodrama, poetry and more, Michel has recently published a young adult novel, A Tale of Two Worlds, and is now working on a non-fiction music book. I will not say he is lucky because that might detract somewhat from his brilliance—he has had the steadfast support of his publishers because of the undeniably high quality of his writing.
I know a brilliant young drummer, Alex Palmer, who can play superbly in any genre and is a member of several bands. Luckily for him, talented drummers who are also reliable are in short supply, so I doubt he will ever be short of work. I hope that one day soon he will get a break that enables him to earn a decent living doing what he loves.
Some writers overcome pigeonholing by using different names in different genres. For example, Iain Banks wrote Sci-Fi as Iain M. Banks, and J. K. Rowling writes mystery under the name Robert Galbraith. Of course, if you are as famous as she is, or talented enough, you can call the shots. Joanne Harris became known for magical realism before branching out into dark thrillers and young adult fiction, but she has both commercial success and literary clout.
My first book was a kind of psychic, lost civilisation, New-Agey, adventure thriller, my second a futuristic, speculative, semi-dystopian escapade (watch out for these genres in bookshops soon!). I am now dabbling in memoir and scribbling a YA novel. Should I use a nom de plume? Would a secret identity appeal more to teenage readers than a straight white man in his early sixties? How about Iron Spider, Hawk Lightning or Captain Greybeard? I am open to suggestions…
Okay, I know artistic types have to earn a living and to do so in their chosen art form they may have to compromise. I will probably have to compromise. I should stop whinging on about external forces cramping my style and be grateful that I have the time and opportunity to create anything. If I get a publishing deal for my next novel, I’m sure I’ll leap at any chance to do the same again and grovel obsequiously towards the next cheque muttering, ‘Whatever you say, master. Please can I lick your boots?’ However, with only seven years until I receive a state pension, I may have the luxury of indulging in any literary follies that appeal to my multifarious whims. With my low cost and relatively non-consumerist lifestyle, I’ll be able to survive on very little and write whatever the hell I like.
(Apologies for the continued delay of the Nadifa Mohammed interview – I hope this will manifest in the near future).