Art happens when we take finite resources — like colors, materials, musical notes or words — and arrange them in an infinite number of ways. For example, a piano has only so many notes, or sounds, but the way these sounds can be combined is endless. It’s the same with writing; there are only so many words in the language, but the combinations are infinite.
I was 18 the first time I read a book for pleasure. I was in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I had just finished training as a clerk typist and awaited orders to my next assignment (which turned out to be Vietnam). I had nothing to do but wait and was bored out of my mind. A barracks mate loaned me a copy of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
I lay on my bunk and slipped quietly and easily into an entirely different world. The barracks, the Fort, the army all disappeared. This had never happened to me before. The books I had read in high school seemed difficult or flat. But this novel engaged me immediately. Occasionally, I’d stop reading and look up at the familiar, precise rows of bunks and boredom, and then I’d dive back into the book and lose myself for hours at a time (it’s a long book).
I was very impressed. Not so much at Ayn Rand’s peculiar type of politics and economics, but because she told a good story. From that time on I was hooked on reading. Even in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) I found enough books to keep me occupied. Here again, books had filled in the boring moments; I had an office job that took 30 minutes to perform and I had 8 hours to do it (many things in the army seldom made sense). However, reading almost got me killed. After three months on the job the commander caught me reading a book and fired me. I was sent up north, never to see another typewriter. .
Fiction is a form of entertainment, first and foremost, but it can also be a carrier of ideas and philosophies. Authors create characters and put words in their mouths. Sometimes these words come straight from the author’s heart, sometimes not. This is the great hocus-pocus of writing fiction; anything goes and nothing has to be “true” or proven.
Like every reader, I have my favorite authors and I know what I like and what I don’t like. I prefer stories and authors can that teach me something, while still giving me a wild ride.
However, I have a problem with authors who seem more like factories than artists. This happens most often in detective novels. The author has created a particular character, or set of characters, and writes the same book over and over. This is factory fiction — merely filling in the blanks. It’s like watching a series on TV. The detective and his buddies are the same; only the villain, the serial killer, is a new creation with a new “M.O.”
I imagine these authors staring out the window, trying to think up the most horrendous and torturous ways of killing people — something different from their last book — and then giving us the gory details. The flying bullets, blood and brains tantalize and fascinate.
Such authors write only for the paycheck, which is alright, except they crowd the book shelves with crap.