Is Fiction Writing Art?

This discussion on the Booker Prize being dumbed down got me thinking about a play I saw called The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife — David Hedison played the allergist.  His wife was writing a literary novel and was perfectly happy that the book made utterly no sense, to the chagrin of the other characters. All that mattered was that she was being literary and artistic, and part of this seemed to be that the book shouldn’t make sense!

So is fiction writing art?  Should it be readable?  Can the two things exist together?  Is one more important than another?

Readability is pretty important because if the message of the story can’t be communicated properly, then the reader will put down the book.  Imagine a character like Dr. Brennan (Emily Deschanel) on Bones, trying to communicate with all her technical jargon.  An episode made fun of this when she had to testify in court and put the jury to sleep because she could not say things in plain English.

Art’s a different story. Washington DC has a lot of art museums.  I’ve been to see Renoir’s Little Girl With a Watering Can and Van Gogh’s Starry Night.   A Hawaiian exhibit at the American Indian Museum displayed objects like shovels as artworks.  And there’s a painting the National Art Gallery that’s a blank canvas.

Hmm.  You think I could type a header and page numbers for a 300-page manuscript, give it a title like Obscurity and call it a literary novel?

But it wouldn’t be readable.  People might comment on the message of it (whatever that might be), but they wouldn’t have an actual story to read.

So what would qualify calling a book art?  That it’s merely a literary novel seems kind of a cop-out, and a put down of books that aren’t in the literary category.  Is it because the author used language to convey mood and setting well?  Or because the author used metaphors and similes?  How about themes?  What if a mystery novel uses all those elements?  Does it become art because of that?  Or how about a science fiction or fantasy novel?  Or is it because the author decided to use dashes instead of quotation marks for dialogue?  I still think that the characters in Cold Mountain were communicating telepathically!

I don’t think there’s a clear answer to this, though it’s easy to get lost in the artsiness of techniques and gimmicks and miss the point of telling a good story.

Do you think fiction writing can be art?  If so, how would you define it?

Photo caption: In 2010, I went to a conference in downtown Atlanta, Georgia.  The statue was on Spring Street.

I hope you’ll drop in for a visit with my article Writing a Novel When You’re Right-Brained on Vision: A Resource for Writers.