Art or Not

I’ve been told that in the Twin Cities you can’t swing a dead cat without bumping into a science fiction writer (and that the cat was probably a writer, too). It’s pretty much true, and its not a bad thing. It allows us to host a variety of conventions and makes it pretty easy to set up critique groups. We can discuss our work in the context of crafting and perfecting our art.

Unfortunately, fantasy, science fiction, and horror (which fall under the umbrella term of speculative fiction) are not usually considered art in our culture. These writers are labeled “genre writers” and are denied credit as real artists. A person who splatters her body with paint, then rolls around on a canvas is more likely to get funding than a science fiction writer (which is not to cast aspersions on the afore mentioned form of visual art). Evidently someone has decided that genre writers are not artists and what they create isn’t art. After all, if we were genuine artists we’d write poetry or mimic Faulkner, right?

I’ve been told that it must be easy to write science fiction and fantasy because I can just make everything up. I like to point out that the challenge lies in making the reader believe it. My peers and I use all the same elements of artistic, contemporary fiction (catchy beginning, well-developed characters, realistic dialogue, interesting plot, and a tidy ending) while setting our stories in places that may not even exist. In order for you to become invested in the story, to elicit an emotional response, we have to make you believe it.

According to Merriam Webster, art is “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.”

Like our culture, art is not stagnant. It is constantly evolving to meet the needs of a changing audience. While some past forms of art remain appealing today, others don’t. Painters and poets are obviously artists, but it’s critical to note that they aren’t the only artists.

There is no doubt that art enhances and improves our lives. Regardless of their genre, writers use their medium to explore the strengths and weaknesses of humanity and where our future may lay.

In this society where we have apparently deemed art unnecessary and yet also unaffordable, where we have defined art in such narrow parameters that few of us could actually meet, we have the audacity to judge past civilizations by their art. We look at their pottery, their buildings and their writings. We build up scenarios about them and their culture. We figure out what they ate for lunch. 

I wonder how we will measure up when examined by those who follow us.

Teeth in Soft Places

Bee was a vampire teddy bear.  While his plush siblings clamored to frolic with children in the sun, he preferred the shadows and shady areas.  It wasn’t that he was in danger of bursting into flames or abruptly deteriorating, because that’s one of those vampire myths that just isn’t true.  He was simply of a darker nature and preferred a habitat to match.  He often found himself grossly misjudged by his appearance.  Baby blue fur and a pelt-matching satin necktie did not fit the stereotype of a vampire.  Sharp functional fangs didn’t fit the expectations of a teddy bear.

No other vampires were produced at the facility where he was made, and it seemed his state was accidental.  Still, quality control had passed him through, possibly because a despondent man was responsible for ensuring that each plush animal, of the type produced that day, was as free of flaws as the next.  The man never had his own teddy bear, and had since been conditioned to believe he didn’t need one. Despite his on-site training, he was not an expert on appropriate features for stuffed animals.  

Other teddy bears found his fangs, and the lisp they caused, a bit too creepy for their liking.  He worked hard to limit his accent, practicing  in private since he’d decided it was best to keep his fuzzy muzzle shut as much as possible around others.  He often found himself the recipient of unsolicited advice.

“Go back to the manufacturer,” they said.  “They can repair your defects.  Do it now, before you have to endure the humiliation of a recall.“

Bee didn’t want to be recalled, but he couldn’t bring himself to seek a change.  What if his vampirism was merely a difference without a defect?  He was just as cheerful and friendly as the other stuffed toys.  And he couldn’t help but fear what would happen to him back at the factory.  If he weren’t merely discarded as unsalvageable, would he come out of the repair changed beyond all recognition?  Would he lose himself?

No. Despite his loneliness he would not go back to the factory.  Not without a stake driven through his plush little heart (contrary to media indications, this merely transfixes vampires, rather than killing them).

So Bee sat on a shelf in the toy department at Target, crammed in with other soft animals who constantly fidgeted to avoid touching him.

“It’s not contagious,” he insisted, marveling at the irony of judgmental stuffed animals.

He heard the grumbling of the other toys in their secret club meetings well before the threats started appearing.  Instead of learning to accept him when it became clear that he wasn’t evil, they seemed to believe he was merely waiting to launch some vicious attack.  One day he woke to find a collection of candles from the home decor department beside him.  The wicks bore evidence of applied heat without successful ignition.  A disposable lighter from the checkout lay out of its packaging on the floor as though dropped in haste (vampires can be injured by fire, like anyone or anything else, though it is not the cure-all some might expect).

“It will end badly for you,” a plastic fire truck muttered in passing.  “You should leave. Now, before something worse happens.“

Both terrified for his life and horrified by the actions of those who should have been his friends, Bee considered leaving.  But he knew he was ill prepared to face the outdoor world.  He’d be lucky to last a season.  And he still clung to the hope that he might be seen as an appropriate toy for some child.  He kept his fur clean and fluffy, checked his bow tie daily, and made sure to look cheerful during business hours, for all the good it did him.  Parents and children alike mocked him, recoiling from his fangs.

“This one’s creepy,” a woman said with a shudder, shoving him aside.

“What a weird looking bear, I can’t imagine who’d want it,” another said.

The plush animals who had attempted to murder Bee in his sleep were taken home to be cuddled and played with, while he stayed on the shelf.  He feared he would never be bought, never be loved.  He worried that if someone did buy him, it would be for some unpleasant purpose, possibly involving large dogs with serviceable teeth.

Bee was feeling rather glum the day he was finally picked up off the shelf.  “Check this one out,“ a woman said, frantically waving him at a man wearing a stylish sport coat and brightly artistic tie.  “It’s perfect!”

At last, he was perfect, but for what?  He was duly scanned and paid for.  Tucked into a plastic bag, he traveled blindly away from the store toward his destiny.  The crinkling of the bag obscured the conversation of his new owners, though he strained his white satin-lined ears.  Before long, they arrived at a party, where he discovered that he was not alone.

At night Bee is now tucked snugly into a toddler bed with a three-year old vampire who periodically hugs him with all his might.  He is both friend and nighttime guardian.  He doesn’t mind the occasional teething nibbles on his neck, after all he heals quickly (as all vampires do) and tolerance is easy to come by now that he’s found his place.