There are many things that Oscar Wilde is known for saying (or having his characters say – many of the “Oscar Wilde” quotes, I’ve noticed, tend to actually be quotes from things he’s written. Not that that makes them any less things that came from his mind – just an interesting note). One of the more famous ones is “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim”.
Now, I’d be much more of an advocate of the idea that Oscar Wilde was advocating for the divorce of the artist’s opinions from art if he wasn’t a writer of social satire.
But then, this is also the person who wrote biting social satire and once prefaced it with the sentence “All art is quite useless”.
But really, that’s a little bit like Mark Twain starting Huckleberry Finn with “Notice: Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot – by order of the author.”
Some may recognise Huckleberry Finn as one of the most discussed works of American literature in the world, which hundreds of teenagers in high schools across the English-speaking work are forced to attempt to find motive, morals and plot in every year.
I’m not going to talk about the mentality of putting instructions at the front of a book encouraging people not to analyse that book, ironically or as part of the satire or otherwise. That’s best left for when I have the time to write a really long post and the willingness to field the mess that’s going to become the comments section afterwards.
Instead, I wanted to talk a bit about revealing art and concealing the artist. Not specifically in terms of Oscar Wilde, because that’s an entire thesis right there, but in general.
I like to interpret that phrase (and I will absolutely have a different interpretation than many, many other people – we’re not going for the One True Interpretation here, I’m just using this as the setup for a mediocre blog post) as being particularly relevant to writers of social commentary in any genre. The stereotype is that social commentary is restricted to the “fiction” section of the library – not the lit fic section, but the plain ‘fiction’ section, where reside stories about normal people doing mundane things (one of these days I’ll admit that I actually don’t really know what goes on in the ‘just plain fiction’ section, and I’ll have to do some investigating into that). However, commentary crops up in pretty much any genre. The idea, I think, is to let people think about the fiction without being able to draw many conclusions about the author who wrote it.
This requires a little unpacking.
If you’re one of those people who likes their fiction to have a little bit of social commentary behind it, you have also probably come across books that make you feel like the message is being shoved down your throat for the entire book. You may not know if it’s for the entire book for certain, though, because it’s entirely possible you gave up on the book long before then. People don’t like to feel like we’re being forced into certain points of view, and we don’t like having certain messages forced on us. It tends to ruin our fiction experience if we feel like a book is preachy.
Consider it noted that one’s patience for an overt message is pretty much directly proportional to the amount that one agrees with the message, but there’s still always going to be a threshold where people start saying “OK I agree with you but dammit could you shut up and let me read in peace?”.
I do feel like part of this is because very ranty message fiction tends to have the effect of ‘pulling back the curtain’ on the author, so to speak. When we see very ranty message fiction, we tend to think “that person is very personally invested in this – they obviously can’t separate themselves from their stories or the characters”. That may or may not be true – you may have written things in the story that never have and never will happen to you. But bashing down the main character’s fictional enemies has a strong association for many readers with authors who are writing more for their own gratification than to tell a story (it’s something that we often remember ourselves doing as inexperienced writers, and we remember that righteous but immature anger and, fairly or not, project that onto the writer of the story). Passion in the author, when it becomes obvious in the book, reads as bitterness, and it’s hard to read. Having the message come across “too strong” (which is really a matter of personal opinion anyway) requires the author to act like they’re more detached from the issue than they are, but show how the characters are emotionally attached to it.
And so we get to ‘to reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim’. I think it applies a little bit to other areas as well, but fiction with social commentary is the first thing I think of when I think of that quote. I may go into it a little more later, with a post on separation of art and artist more generally, but that one is definitely going to have to wait till I have the time to write something in-depth and considered because that is one heck of a thorny topic.
So in the meantime, have a quick and highly opinionated post on social commentary.