Thursday, December 8, 2011

What Does Artisan Mean To You?

When I wrote that post a couple of weeks ago on do-it-yourself publishing, and the Arts and Crafts movement, I got a big response of people saying, "Yeah! That!" People especially responded to the word "artisan."

But we've only just started thinking about it, so we don't really have a definition to the term "artisan writer." It's not interesting if it's just a cooler catch phrase. It's got to mean something.

This post is an opening salvo in what I hope will be a wider discussion. I'm going to give you my thoughts on this, and I hope those of you who are reading will think about it and write up your own ideas. You can put short ideas in the comments, but what I'd really love is if you posted something on your own blog, and put a link in the comments -- or maybe I'll use one of those "linky" widgets so that we can all interlink.

The key is that we don't have to all agree. It's good to start with what it all means to us personally, and then find what we have in common.

What "Artisan Writer" Means To Me

When we talk about artisan goods, we generally mean small, hand-made, non-manufactured goods. Microbreweries. My sister's small-batch hand-made jam, or Zingerman's amazing bread. It's applied to food products a lot, but also to hand-crafted toys or baskets or furniture.

And it differs from Fine Art in that these are practical and personal items -- for consuming, for using, for our entertainment and delight, but not for a museum. At the same time, it differs from amateur crafts in that it is done as a profession, and not just for fun.

So for me the term artisan evokes the place where art/passion meets entrepreneurial spirit.

And for writing and especially ebooks, it's more an attitude or philosophy than a practice.

Because, let's face it, ebooks are not -- and cannot be -- hand made. They aren't a physical object, so they aren't even made at all. And yet there can be as much difference between one ebook and another as there is between my sister's jam, and Smuckers.

So with that in mind, I have three major thoughts on what it is to be an artisan writer:

1.) Responsibility, Ownership and Control

It would be easy to say simply that self-publishing is automatically artisanal. And maybe in some ways, it is.

But self-publishing isn't a philosophy, it's a method, and nothing more. A self-publisher may see it as a path to commercial publishing. Or a self-publisher may be looking to become a commercial publisher, producing products indistinguishable from the commercial products of major publishers. Many authors these days are only self-publishing because traditional publishing is so messed up. If traditional publishing were well run, or offered them a better deal, that's what they would prefer to be doing.

In other words, those authors are happy giving up control of the final product -- who would leap at the offer of a book contract -- even if they are smart business people who go into the deal with eyes wide open and a lawyer at their side.

But there are also a lot of us with a different attitude and different goals. And some who have a foot in each camp -- they may not mind giving up control on some things, while they guard it closely on others.

Artisan Publishing is that part of us which doesn't want our work put through a "system," period. We may not do all of the work ourselves, but if we have an editor or cover artist or formatter; that person works for us.

Furthermore, because we're not interested in the system, we make no accommodation in our work to suit that system. While we might do all sorts of things to perfect a work for its own sake and for that of the audience, we don't worry about smoothing off edges which will trip a manuscript up in the traditional submission system.

I am reminded of a story:

Once a violinist complained to Beethoven that one of his works was impossible to play, that a violin couldn't do what he demanded of it. Beethoven replied "I wasn't thinking about your puny violin when I wrote it."

When an artisan writes a story, he or she doesn't think at all about that daunting gauntlet a book has to run in the traditional publishing world -- which gets weirder and more elongated with every passing day. A system which is designed mainly around making it easy on the system.

2.) Artisan Writing Is Personal

Much as I love pulp fiction -- and much as I think a pulp fiction style can be artisanal -- artisan writing is not anonymous, or interchangeable the way pulp fiction was originally supposed to be. It's not about writing to meet someone else's specs, or about blending in with a genre. Those are excellent ways to learn your skills, and should be part of the personal development of an artisan.

But one of the key elements of artisan work is the person who does the work -- the Artisan. An artisan is focused on defining and building his or her own brand or brands.

The point of being an artisan is being unique and individual. That doesn't mean an artisan is off in the clouds making incomprehensible art -- no, that's fine art -- an artisan makes ordinary, accessible things -- low brow things -- into something personal and unique.

3.) Craftsmanship

An artisan is deeply interested in craftsmanship -- even though the definition of what is great craftsmanship will vary from story to story.

In the Arts and Crafts movement, and particularly with the Pre-Raphaelite movement that preceded it, they rejected the slick, overly-sophisticated and intellectualized standards of what passed for fine art at the time. They felt that the Mannerists ruined art, warped it into something that was unnatural and elitist.

In my opinion, the writing culture has been warped similarly by the submission process.

It isn't the publishing industry itself so much as the writers striving for publication, and the agents who have lately taken the lead in "guiding" writers in the secrets of publishing. Because of the level of competition, the writing culture has become focused on tiny, trivial things they once saw as giving them an "edge" over the competition. These things, which are really just a matter of presentation, and often not even appropriate presentation (like gilding a lily), have become magnified. Suddenly such trivia is considered critical.

But in reality, they are just proofs that the writer is sophisticated in the current fashions of writing and publishing. They're polish, not craft.

An artisan is not worried about proving sophistication. Rather, the artisan is a geek who is fascinated by storytelling and words and how they affect the reader. The artisan is not interested in using the coolest tool but rather the right tool to get the affect he or she wants. An artisan is not afraid of making mistakes, because the results of mistakes are interesting.

Other things:

There are, of course, other elements which are common in artisanal craftsmanship. There is usually, but not always, a respect for tradition. (Artisans often want to revive some practice which is lost or out of style, for instance.) The work is often tied up in a political or social philosophy (hippie ice cream makers, and bread baked by monks, for instance). Artisans may eschew marketing altogether, and let word of mouth build the business slowly... but some may consider marketing to be a part of that personal branding, a gift of art in and of itself.

And, of course, there are even people out there who are taking artisan philosophy and using it to drive a more modern manufacturing style of production.

So I throw this open to you. Comment about it, blog about it, talk about it. Does the idea of an Artisan Writer movement appeal to you? What does it bring to mind? What elements mean something to you?

See you in the funny papers.


Anonymous said...

I missed your first post last week, but I've bookmarked this one because it totally sums up my approach to writing right now. Wow. And I love the term artisan writer for it — that just fits and feels so right. Thank you for this post!

Unknown said...

Great post. I'm a firm advocate that writing is an art like any medium, techniques can even be used across the mediums.

The Daring Novelist said...

Jennie: glad to hear from you. I hope you'll consider doing an artisan post of your own (or just a "my philosophy on the business of publishing/writing" post).

PW - (re techniques used across media): Absolutely! You could say that's one of the premises of this blog. Visual art, film, cooking, all have similar creative issues, and sometime surprisingly similar solutions.

For this post I was talking more about the philosophy that drives the writer than technique. But yes, there are all kinds of cross-overs.

jnfr said...

I like your thoughts on this very much, Camille. I especially like the mixture of well-crafted, individual, and accessible and useful to ordinary people. Yeah, that's a good mixture there.

I'll chew on this a while. Not sure at this moment what I might have to add.

Sarah McCabe said...

Your post makes me want to scream "This is good! This is real!" (Bonus points if you know that reference.) I agree with every word. But I'll have to mull it over for a while before I can comment on it more in depth.

The Daring Novelist said...

jnfr and Sarah:

Hey, chew on it all you need to. It took me a month to pull my thoughts together here, and it's not the kind of thing you just come up with out of the blue.

(As for the reference, I didn't get it, but I looked it up, and yep, I can see it.)

ModWitch said...

"An artisan makes ordinary, accessible things -- low brow things -- into something personal and unique."

This. 1000 times this.

I have no blog, so I'll just have to add my weight to the words you've already laid out. If I had to write a sentence that explains why my readers like my books... well, you already wrote it.

The Daring Novelist said...

Glad you liked that line. If I think about anything that is common to all kinds of artisanal goods, that's it.

(I would be willing to host a guest post or two on this topic, for folks who don't have their own blogs.)

Lee McAulay said...

Okay, here's mine!
I've linked to yours over there.

The Daring Novelist said...

Great Lee!

I'll probably mention any links that show up here in the updates posts as they come, and then if we do get a bunch, I'll post them all together.

Patricia Preston said...

I re-posted and linked from my blog for tomorrow. Such a wonderful post! I think this is the best time ever to be a writer!

David Steer said...

I thought of the term Artisan Writer this morning and now I have found your artical. For me an artisan writer is someone who rejects the ebook world (especially Amazon and the way it is destroying bookshops and it's own employees) and the classic capitalist publishing industry, and instead uses a local printer to produce a beautiful book that is sold directly by the author to other people. I have decided that this will be the way that I create my first book ...... With Love ❤️ .... my inspiration coming from French Artisan Bakers and the beautiful bread they produce.