We Don’t Need No Education

I watched an interesting video recently (Escape to the Movies, escapistmagazine.com) that suggested the strength of Stephanie Meyers’s work is that it is, more or less, professional “Outsider” art.  The idea is that Meyers isn’t a very good writer, but she also is offering something different exactly because she hasn’t been pounded and shaped by traditional artistic conventions.  The story she wrote would never be approved of in basic storytelling technique and that is why, for better or worse, it is so beloved and reviled at the same time.

I’m not interested in discussing the specific value of Meyers’s work.  Individual opinion is largely irrelevant in this case, and we can argue all day whether or not she is a good writer or if the Twilight books are worthy of the attention they received or not.  It is a circular debate, and really, the mark of success is success itself.  Meyers is far more successful than I am (or will ever be), and I’m not going to criticize her books, what they might say about her worldview, or if they’re even written well.  It’s just pointless.

But the idea of “Outsider” art is something I think worth exploring.  The truth is that there are a lot of things you learn as a professional artist that are, for better or worse, largely irrelevant to the average person.  I know as a professional novelologist, there are lot of popular stories that annoy the crap out of me.  I also know that most people aren’t professional novelologists, and they couldn’t give a damn about all the little details that we writers can obsess about.

Let’s use my most recent dead horse, the dull, plodding Skyfall.  I’ve already made my case about how, from a plot structure point of view, the “story” is a mess.  The character arcs are incomplete or inconsistent.  And the story itself only works if you ignore every needlessly clever / stupid thing everyone does throughout.  But people DO ignore that stuff.  Most people don’t even notice it, and those that do aren’t likely to care very much.  The film might be a mess, from an established artistic perspective, but it works for people because few people care about such things.

I’m not a fan of the expression “thinking too much”, but there is such a thing as being so educated in a particular subject that it’s easy to lose sight of all the people who don’t share that point of view.  Skyfall works, not as a technical piece of fiction, but as an emotional experience.  Despite the weakness of its story construction, most people walk out satisfied by the film.  They might even acknowledge how many things are “wrong” with the film without really caring.

This is definitely true of The Dark Knight Rises, where plot holes abound and nobody gives a damn.

I could name more examples, but you get the idea.

None of the above examples are exactly “Outsider” artists or creations.  By definition, they are about as mainstream as you can get, but they’re all a bit of a mess in terms of story construction.  Twilight is the story about a young woman who falls in love with her perfect love, becomes immortal, and gets to live happily forever after with no sign of sacrifice or loss.  From a dramatic story framework, it just doesn’t work.  From an emotional perspective, it struck gold.

What these stories tell us is that, for all the professional obsession over story structure, character arcs, themes, and so on, none of that matters nearly so much as connecting to the audience emotionally.  And in that way, the professional has no real advantage over the amateur, much as I hate to admit that.  In fact, under certain circumstances, the opposite happens.  Meyers’s blissful ignorance over normally accepted storytelling and even the vampire genre in general enabled her to tell a story most trained artists would never have thought of to tell.

It’s something I believe more and more.  If you want to write a good story, write something that strikes a chord with the audience.  They’ll overlook everything if you do.  They’ll nitpick you to death if you don’t.  And all the training in the world, all the meticulously plotted outlines, subtle character arcs, and adjective-per-page rules in the world don’t always help you find that sweet spot.

More than anything, that’s what I try to find when I analyze stories.  I might not like a story, but I can respect it for managing to do something I aspire to with everything I write.  And often, the best place to learn is by all those stories that break the rules (even badly) that somehow manage to succeed despite that.

Or maybe it’s because of that.

I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Posted April 4, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    You are sounding kind of down today Lee. You are definitely a much better writer than Meyer ever will be. But I get what you are saying – yes I think it was successful because all the little tweenies got all that they would have wanted for themselves which is so far from reality …and far from decent storytelling. Its so funny all the examples of things that are so successful – I don’t particularly care for. *evil laughter*

    You’re still a celebrity in the eyes of every fan who enjoys your books. At least thats how I consider the authors I enjoy. So here’s my fan girl moment for you. You so rock Lee!! *swoons*

  2. Mike C.
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    Let me get it out of my system, Twilight was utter trash in almost every way. Now that that’s out of the way, you are absolutely right about the impact of creating the emotional connection between the audience and a character/story. The stories that I enjoy the most are the ones that I am able to connect to. And the degree of the connection allows me to overlook any shortcomings to a degree. However, in my opinion those works that make use of the devices of the professional artist and make that emotional connection with the audience are the true works of art versus works of entertainment.

    That is one of the reasons that I love your books. I get both the connection to the story along with a rich narrative.

  3. Kendall L.
    Posted April 6, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    I must admit, that as a writer, I take umbrage with the concept of outsider art. A thing is either art or it isn’t; anything beyond that is purely a qualitative critique. The broader question being raised is: why are we, as a culture, so willing to ignore the plot holes and accept bad narrative?

    I recently spoke with a freshman writing student who insisted that all art, especially writing, was subjective. “No,” I said. “Art is the product of an art form. For something to be an art form, emphasis on the form part, it must have rules and conventions that create a sort of rubric, which the artist uses to inform the art.”

    Now, in no way am I trying to suggest that narrative should be reduced to a rigid formula where the writer’s job is to just color inside the lines. But, if you are going break a rule of form you have to know what it is, otherwise the break with convention is a product of ignorance and serves no purpose.

    More to the point, the reason I believe the Michael Bay and Stephanie Meyers of the world are so accepted by the non-artists of the world is because they honestly don’t know better or care to know better. The sheer volume of bad narratives that are churned out coupled with a lack of education in the arts is producing a populace expecting little more than a distraction with a pretty face on it, no need to care if it has substance because there will be another distraction waiting the next day and the next. As long as the mass market continues to emphasize aesthetic over substance, we will continue to be bludgeoned with mediocrity, which touts profit margins as validation and spurs the public to buy the lie that art is just meaningless subjectivity.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted April 7, 2013 at 3:11 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t know if I agree or disagree with your points.

      There is something unsettling to me about suggesting people don’t “know” enough to appreciate something. It smacks of dangerous superiority, and of believing one’s tastes are better than others.

      The problem is that, while I don’t necessarily believe all art is good, I do believe that to look at art that has achieved widespread acceptance (despite its flaws) as a product of an ignorant culture is silly.

      It’s easy to sit back and bemoan people for not agreeing with us, but I just can’t dismiss “bad” art because it doesn’t fit my standards of what I think “good” art should be.

      Where I do agree with you though is that saying something is popular makes it worthwhile isn’t true either.

      My point on this post is not to argue the merits of various artistic expressions, but to suggest that all the education and training in the world isn’t enough to create art that reaches people. And that it’s all well and good to dismiss “bad” art (however we might define it), but I think any artist should attempt to learn from it. Not to create bad art, but to create good art from the lessons learned from successful bad art.

      Otherwise, it just seems like sour grapes to me. Or, worse, the notion that “True Art” is too good to be understood by the masses, which I reject.

One Trackback

  1. […] According to Martinez, the appeal of Twilight comes from Meyer’s unnurtured style, being coined as outsider art. Meaning she’s been able to do very well in something she wasn’t trained or had expertise in… The story she wrote would never be approved of in basic storytelling technique and that is why, for … […]

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