I took a long ride on Metaphor (my imaginary horse) over the weekend, wandering more than aiming for anything in particular. On Saturday night we ended up in a little seaside town that would have been intolerable during tourist season, but was welcoming and sheltering in the windy gray of February.
After boarding Metaphor at the local stable just down the street from my hotel, I walked along the block-long main street, looking at the various storefronts and window displays. On the upwind leg I found the usual knick-knack shops and t-shirt shops, along with the local office of a national real estate brokerage, and the local office of a nationwide bank where you used to be able to borrow money to buy local real estate. On the downwind leg I surveyed the menus for fancy eateries — both promising to open again when people flew north for the summer — and one take-out joint that looked like it had died. There was a dentist’s office up a side alley, and a closed ice cream store that sold hand-packed and soft-serve, which seemed like both a commitment to customer service and a failure to commit at the same time.
And then I came across a gallery, and it was open.
Inside I found four spare walls draped with canvases of varying size. Ceiling cans blazed down on the images with full-spectrum light, making the incandescent bulb in the stained-glass lamp on the proprietor’s desk all the more yellow and warm. The proprietor himself looked a bit younger than me, but his shoulders looked like they had hauled a fair amount of rope, and I wondered if he’d ever worked the sea. Thankfully he simply looked up from his ledger and gave me a nod, then left me in peace.
I walked around the gallery, looking at the art on the walls while I warmed my tingling fingers in my pockets. Most of the paintings were oils, with a few watercolors and acrylics thrown in. The subjects, too, were mostly predictable: boats, ducks, gulls, rocky coast, sandy coast, stormy coast, beach umbrellas.
On the wall facing the door, however, I found two small paintings unlike anything in the shop. They were acrylic, and the artist had used a wild palette of saturated colors that was both balanced and emphatic at the same time. The subject in one was a small purple flower standing tall against a backdrop of gutter trash. The subject in the other was a rain-streaked window at night, through which could be seen a glowing hurricane lamp, and farther on, the outline of a lighted room behind a door left slightly ajar.
Lingering with my interest I stood in front of the paintings a second too long, prompting the proprietor to say, “You have a good eye.”
I offered the kind of smile in reply that I hoped would signal a disinterest in talking, but eye contact only served to contract the muscles in the man’s thighs, raising him from his chair. With practiced ease he walked over and stood beside me, a bit too close.
“The artist’s name is Gretchen Prentiss. She’s a local, self-taught. Her stuff doesn’t sell very well, but it’s better than most of the stuff that does. Given the people who do the buying, that’s a compliment.” He pointed at a perfectly-acceptable painting of two gulls standing on a shoreline rock. “I hate gulls,” he said, “Anybody who lives by the sea hates gulls. But you can’t tell that to the tourists.”
I eased over a few inches on the pretext of bending and looking at a nearby painting. Thankfully, the man stood his ground. “Anyway,” he said, “I tell her she should try to get into a gallery in Boston, or even New York, but all she does is laugh at me. She says she’s got her hands full raising her kids.”
I looked at the woman’s paintings again, then turned to the man. “You’re right,” I said. “She’s good.” What I wanted to ask was why that wasn’t good enough. Why did the woman need to take her work to Boston or New York? Why did she have to throw herself into the meat grinder simply because she had talent? Did he think less of her because she chose not too? Did she lack the kind of confidence or ego that made something like that seem possible? Instead, I said, “I’ll take them both.”
I left my address with the proprietor, who promised to ship the paintings on Monday morning. On my way back to the hotel I stopped in to see Metaphor, but he was dreaming about trampling wolves so I decided not to wake him. The bed in my room was a bit soft for comfort, but the blankets and walls were thick and the only sound I could hear was the rain hitting the glass in front of that beckoning hurricane lamp.
In the morning Metaphor and I struck north through hilly, snow-covered woods. As we rode I thought about what the proprietor had said, and I thought he was right. The woman was good enough to sell her work in Boston and New York. The quality was there, and if she caught the right big-city trend or fad she might even become a darling. Until the trendsetters and faddists got bored with her small-town charm and mauled her to death.
Sensing my vulnerability, Metaphor pounced. What was the difference between an amateur and a professional artist, he asked? Could you tell by judging the art — not only some of the time, with the most obvious cases, but all of the time? Did everyone who had professional talent have, or deserve to have, a professional career? Did they want to? Was desire part of the definition — and if so, desire for what? Sales? Fame?
Having had more than one long ride go sour because of Metaphor’s intellectual curiosity, I tried to silence him with the promise of an apple. Metaphor responded with a snort that I didn’t have an apple in my pocket, or a carrot, or any other cliche horse-bribing food, and even if I did he wasn’t so easily bought. Then he threw in a shrug and a hip pop, just to remind me who was really in charge.
Despite myself, Metaphor’s questions began to gnaw away as they often did. Each crested hill opened new lines of attack on the very idea of professionalism in the arts and crafts. Each rabbit bounding through the snow, every squirrel track stitching tree to tree, seemed not so much a reminder of nature’s hardiness as an eliding of the stray thoughts in my head.
As a writer, and as someone who’s been writing professionally for much of my adult life, I’d long ago come to terms with the fact that quality was only minimally associated with writing as a profession. Yes, there was a minimal degree of competence required in order to tell a story, but even at that a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign could push through a pile of copies. Hit machines weren’t only a feature of the music business: the New York Times Bestselling Author label was the book world’s version of a gold record or top-of-the-charts ranking. Far from being an objective measure of success, however, it was an often-gamed award that relied as much on timing and sales manipulation as on genuine consumer interest.
Is that what defines professionalism? Someone who merits attempted fraud because the expectation is that the lie will generate more sales? Is it the machinery that matters, as opposed to the content? Are you a professional only if somebody else says so? Somebody with a bag full of cash?
As I rode I tried to imagine a quaint, seaside bookstore stocked with works written by local authors. Most of them would be as good as the paintings I’d seen decorating the gallery walls, but there might be one or two that had that special something — however you choose to define quality as apart from the machinery of sales. If local authors put a price on their home-spun tales, just as their brother and sisters artists did with their paintings, did that make them professionals? No? Amateurs? Hobbyists? Wannabes?
In the fine arts there seems to be an implicit embrace of the amateur or hobbyist. It is not a slight to be a good painter and also a mother of five, or a florist who sells paintings on the side. It is an expression of something basic and human and honest, and it is allowed. But squeeze a tube of words onto your palette and the world takes a dim view. You’re not allowed to be an amateur writer. You’re not qualified to say what you feel or to tell the stories you want to tell unless you meet someone else’s standards of excellence — at which point they may let you leverage the cash in their bag.
When I finally turned Metaphor toward home, that, it seemed, was the truth of it. The great, gaping, sucking maw of the professional writing machine had poisoned the very idea of amateur writing to the point that the phrase was an insult. Amateur writing was vanity writing. It was self-serving, not self-expressing. It was deluded, not affirming. It was naive, not local. It was a joke, not a truth.
On the edge of town I stopped at the local outlet of a regional grocery market and bought Metaphor a one-pound package of carrots that had been grown in South America. I fed him a couple of the carrots, then used the promise of the rest as an inducement to keep quiet the rest of the way. But he didn’t need to say anything more.
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed as if professionalism owed everything to a paycheck and nothing to any objective or subjective standard of quality. If you were an amoral, backstabbing gossip who wrote turgid, sensationalistic crap for audiences interested only in masturbating to other people’s misfortunes, yet you managed to turn a profit for your publisher (if not also yourself), you qualified for the team blazer and the hurricane ball cap. If, on the other hand, you were writing for a small audience, and for reasons of your own, and trying to tell what little truth you thought you knew, then you were an amateur. Unless, of course, you had the temerity to actually pay someone to put your words in book form, in which case you were the satanic vain amateur.
Were it not for the internet we could easily go on this way, deriding anyone for thinking they can write while reserving the right to pluck (that’s always the word that’s used) new writers from the obscurity that all those other non-plucked writers so richly deserve. The act of publication is no longer a sufficient test of professionalism, and not simply because so many amateur are publishing their own words on and through the web. It’s no longer a sufficient test because published authors — and indeed publishers themselves — are using the internet to get the word out about whatever words they’re also packaging in book form. A bestselling author who is using the internet to build a base for sales of her new book is no different from the unknown author doing the same in anticipation of sales of her first book. There is no difference.
Which means, by the industry’s own definition, we’re all amateurs now.
This may, in part, explain the reluctance of some previously-published authors to engage on the internet. It’s clearly not an exalted place to be, and it clearly confers no exclusivity. That these authors swallowed the elitism hook dangled by the publishing profession may not be surprising, but in the end the only remedy is to spit the hook out. (Given that the publishing industry continues to offloaded marketing efforts onto all but the biggest-selling authors, authors ultimately have no choice in the matter.)
When we got home I fed Metaphor the rest of the carrots, rubbed him down and gave him a bit more oats than are good for him. He stomped a couple of times in mock hilarity at what he’d put me through, but rather than defend myself I just patted him on the neck and said goodnight. When I got inside I made myself an amateur cup of tea and an amateur pasta dinner which I topped off with amateur brownies and an amateur revision of this post. And all the while I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew exactly what I was doing.
— Mark Barrett
Levi Montgomery says
Just popped in to say “I never met a phor I didn’t like.” Sorry. 🙂
Great post, BTW.
And thanks for the props. 🙂
david erlewine says
I really enjoyed your post on Rumpus (Shields interview).
I love the genesis of ditchwalk. Lloyd was a badass.
“I’M INCARCERATED, LLOYD!” John Mahoney said some guy walked up to him in a restaurant and screamed that. Mahoney said the entire restaurant exploded in laughter.
I’m not sure about the Rumpus reference (I don’t think I have anything up on that site), but any reference to Say Anything makes me smile. What a great, great movie.
I’ve also been thinking lately of how odd the casting can be in what turns out to be an almost flawless film. John Cusack (lead), Ione Skye and John Mahoney in Say Anything. Bill Murray (lead), Andie MacDowall and Chris Elliott, in Groundhog Day. Chris Elliott?
Don Doggett says
Maybe it’s because of the Olympics (which are barely amateur anymore, and which I don’t watch) but I laid down a blog post at nearly the same time that compliments this wonderful essay much better than any comment I could make. It’s even got an appearance by Levi (alas, a punless Levi). Hope you don’t mind my linking to it here: http://tinyurl.com/yztppjx
Thanks for pointing me to your post. You touched on the heart of the matter both figuratively and literally. My own journey as a writer was driven by a desire to see if I could make a life out of something (storytelling) that I loved. Money was the means, not the objective.
I forget that from time to time. Thanks for reminding me.