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Is a Novel an Art or a Craft? A Literary Agent Offers a Unique Perspective


I know this debate seems pointless at the outset, but… Well, but nothing. That’s how it seems. “But wait,” you ask, “can’t a novel be both?” Well, not according to this totally unqualified person who doesn’t cite sources:

[Arts and crafts] are two forms of creativity that are commonly juxtaposed by [people who] don’t see any difference in them. But the fact is that art is different from the craft in a sense that art is a creative merit that comes from within whereas craft is skilled work.

(Side note: when you don’t have any on-the-surface expertise on an issue, you should probably cite sources if you want to be taken seriously.) Writing for The New York Times, art critic Margo Jefferson divides the issue a different way, between “art made to be used (crafts and design), and art made to be contemplated (painting, drawing and sculpture).”  The Swedes, I’m told, solve the issue by simply having a single word encompassing both the design of an object and the useful object in and of itself: Konsthantverk. (I love that when Chrome translates the Wikipedia page, the various types of crafts are labeled “species”). One can make an academic career out of splitting hairs over the definition of art, but I usually cede authority on the matter to Tolstoy, who famously defined art as the communication of feelings.

Yes, I took that into Photoshop and changed the comma to a semicolon. I am an OCD-riddled English teacher. Leave me alone.

A novel (a good one, at least) certainly communicates emotions from page to reader. So it’s settled then. Right? Well, not according to many successful novelists, editors and agents. In an interview featuring the world’s least-skilled cameraman, John Irving comes down firmly on the craft side, going as far as to say he doesn’t consider himself an artist at all:

I’ve heard him take the point further, in a quote I absolutely cannot find right now, in which he says he is “not even a storyteller.” I first heard Irving say that several years ago, and it ha influenced my philosophy towards writing. I made a similar point when I was interviewed by a local newspaper after the publication of my debut novel (yay shameless self promotion). So my attention was piqued when I saw literary agent Donald Maass make the following statement in his phenomenal writing guidebook Writing the Breakout Novel:

[This] is a book for dedicated craftspeople: The kind of folk whose work is so fine and apparently effortless that onlookers call it art.

Well that’s an interesting take on the issue. Writing is a craft, Maass tells us, but very good writers will have their handiwork appreciated as though it were an object of high art – something to be contemplated, a wellspring of emotion. But that’s only on the surface. Peek behind the curtain and you’ll see a mess of gears and wires, support beams that hold the structure intact, the machinery needed for a reader to suspend disbelief. Now, am I reading way too much into that quote? Probably. But it’s a neat way to acknowledge that writing is a craft, but that it can still communicate emotions. You just have to find a way to hide the wires and gears from the reader.