Thursday, 18 October 2012

You don't need my voice girl, you have your own.

I'm currently reading Possession, A. S. Byatt's 1990 Booker Prize-winning novel about an academic quest to uncover hidden details in the biographies of two fictional Victorian writers. The title has many meanings, amongst them the feeling of ownership a writer feels for his or her subject, and the ownership the subject has over them, whether they like it or not.

Possession, by A. S. Byatt

A particular passage has stuck with me. It concerns James Blackadder, eminent scholar and biographer of fictional poet Randolph Henry Ash. We are granted a window into Blackadder's inner life as he muses upon a life spent dissecting the words of another:

"There were times when Blackadder allowed himself to see clearly that he would end his working life, that was to say his conscious thinking life, in this task, that all his thoughts would have been another man's thoughts, all his work another man's work. And then he thought it did not perhaps matter so greatly. He did after all find Ash fascinating, even after all these years. It was a pleasant subordination, if he was a subordinate."

That resonates with me because just about everything I write or have ever written dissects or repackages the words of someone else, be it authors, video game characters, journalists, musicians or designers. At work I think up ways to represent someone else's creation to a fresh audience, and when I write for myself, it is to explore those creations in more detail. Like Blackadder, I consider it a pleasant subordination, otherwise why else would I do it? (I've said it before and I'll say it again, kids, this is not where the money is, go and get a science degree.)

People who end up doing what I do ("writing", apparently) in some shape or form generally end up doing so through a desire to express what they think or feel. So much of the time, however, this takes the form of articulating what it is about someone else's expression that makes them think or feel something. I needn't point out that I started this post doing exactly that with Byatt. Whoah, meta.

This can lead to frustration. Fulfilling though it is dedicating yourself to honouring someone else's creation with the thoughtfulness it deserves, there's often the gnawing sense that you should be creating something yourself. Of course, the line between an original creation and offshoot of someone else's is extremely hard to define, if it even exists. Which, as anyone with even the remotest grounding in intertextuality will know, it arguably doesn't.

Let's take fanart. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about Deus Ex: Human Revolution fanart. It, and the GodisaGeek article on the topic, were inspired by the vast quantity of incredible pieces you can see on the official Deus Ex tumblr blog, DeviantArt or anywhere else you care to look. So many of these artists are so talented that I sometimes, in my lesser, sleep-deprived moments, wonder why they're drawing pictures inspired by a sci-fi video game as opposed to their own creations.

Icarus, by SpoonfishLee on DeviantArt, click through to the original.

The above piece is inspired by the "Icarus" thread that runs through Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a story about a period in mankind's history when its desire to better itself and push body and mind to the limits threatens its very existence. The Icarus myth, of course, tells the story of the peerless craftsman Daedalus, imprisoned in a tower by King Minos to prevent him disgorging the secrets of the labyrinth Minos had commissioned him to build.

With Daedalus is his beloved son, Icarus. Unable to bear the thought of his son growing up in captivity, Daedalus crafts a pair of wings for each of them so they can escape Minos. He warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun lest it melt the wax that holds the feathers in place. But alas, when they do escape, Icarus is so elated by the power of flight that he does not heed his father's warning. He flies too high, the wax melts, and he falls to his death in the sea.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution's protagonist, Adam Jensen, is Icarus to boss David Sarif's Daedalus. Victim of a horrific terrorist attack, Adam is again victim to his employment contract as Sarif uses a handy loophole to "augment" him with all the biotechnology firm's most advanced cybernetic enhancements, giving him incredible power. Throughout the game, the player is free to choose how close to the sun they fly, and thus whether Adam's power makes him more or less than human.

(I hadn't meant to position the game as a piece of "Icarus" fanfiction, and it certainly isn't in the way that the picture above is a piece of Deus Ex: Human Revolution fanart, but it's interesting to see how stories reference each other.)

Anyway, that picture is a powerful expression of a core theme that runs through the game, and the fact that it directly references and builds upon a specific character created by someone else doesn't make it any less valid as a piece of art than an image of an entirely new character might be, which is what I tell myself whenever I wonder what else these incredible artists might be drawing pictures of. Here's an art nouveau-inspired picture of FemShep, the female version of Commander Shepard, protagonist of the Mass Effect series:

"Commander Nouveau" by YamiSnuffles on DeviantArt, click through to the original.

Now, when I see these pictures I feel happy that there are people out there turning their love of one thing into something so beautiful, and then sad because at the moment I'm turning my love of these things into sporadic blog posts before I get tired and grumpy. At my best, I churn out well-reasoned articles which articulate something that hopefully many people realise they feel about these things, or at least get me a good mark in something, but those things don't often feel like they have a life of their own, like I feel (and I hope the artists feel) that these pictures do.

The title of this post comes from, surprise surprise, a Tori Amos lyric. The song in question isn't really about artistic expression, though she has many that are, I just thought it appropriate in this case, especially since one of my favourite books is pretty much a collection of Tori Amos fanart of the highest calibre.

Comic Book Tattoo is a collection of 51 short stories in graphic novel form, each by a different artist and writer, each based on a different Tori Amos song. Even if you're not really a fan, I would implore all people even marginally interested in graphic novels, art, or even just narrative to seek it out because it has so much power and variety.

The different stories certainly have a life of their own, how could they not? They're the pictures that come into the artists' heads when they hear the music. It's worth mentioning that it doesn't just include singles, or even album tracks, but B-sides, songs from soundtracks and even one track that hasn't been officially released since the 80s: we're talking proper fans here. The point is that here are people turning their feelings about someone else's art into a completely different kind of art, something that is far more difficult than it may at first seem.

Jessica Staley and Shane White's interpretation of "Devils and Gods".

Going back to that quote. I put a story on this blog once called "Encore", which I wrote for a creative writing course in my third year at uni. To be honest, I took that course because I knew the background reading would be minimal and that even if I only got an average mark, the time it would give me to spend on the three modules that required serious study would make it worthwhile.

It paid off. When it came to putting together my portfolio for that course, I found it was simple enough to assemble a collection of three pieces: an angst-ridden piece of travel writing about volunteer tourism (another time, readers), a faintly amusing review about a film I hated (Love Actually, the nastiest, most cynical film ever crapped out by anyone ever) and "Encore", the story I later posted to Well-Rendered.

I'm not saying "Encore" is a brilliant piece of work. It's not dreadful, but it's nothing earth-shattering, the point was I found it incredibly easy to write because although it doesn't articulate my greatest pain, it probably articulates my greatest frustration, which is that I find it easiest to communicate using the words of others. Like James Blackadder, I am a subordinate, and sometimes I do not wish to be.

One of my worst habits is making compilation CDs for people, even people my age, who might not even have the means to read optical media, now that I come to think about it. I only do it for people I really like, and I put an enormous amount of care into track selection and inlay design (the bit behind the disc itself is the best part), but the truth is it's a pretty selfish gift because you're asking people to spend an hour or so listening to stuff you like.

Really liking Tori Amos, or Deus Ex, or Mass Effect or a poet (fictional or otherwise) in such an intense way is like only being able to speak one language, and the only other people who can speak it already know everything you know so you have nothing to say to each other. If you only speak in those terms, you miss out on the really interesting conversations, that is conversations with people who know things you don't, and vice versa.

Mark Sable and Max Douglas' interpretation of "Upside Down".

The fact that people do actually read what I write and sometimes say nice things about it or get into intelligent arguments with me suggests that the exercise isn't a complete waste of time, and of course I enjoy it. But I am getting to the stage where seeing or reading art that moves me is beginning to cause me frustration as well as pleasure.

Don't worry, Well-Rendered isn't going anywhere. It's just that maybe the time has come when I start learning how to speak for myself.

This post is for Julia.

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