Breaking a Genre Gently: Thoughts on What Makes Art Work

Conversations about good art versus bad art often talk about using the medium well.

For example, one might discuss whether the latest Ted Dekker novel works well as a thriller, based on other examples of what makes a good thriller novel. Or on a different level, one could discuss whether that novel works well as a novel. A reviewer might say something like “this book has exciting descriptions and a good pace, and would work well as a movie. As a novel though…”

In other words, there are certain things which work well in a certain genre or medium. There are things which work in a movie that don’t work well in novels, and both have things which don’t work well in plays. The form changes what you can talk about.

This raises an interesting question though: do you have to use the medium or genre well?

Is it possible to make a piece of art that deliberately pushes against the rules, works against the normal impulses, and is still good art?

The strange answer is yes.

A couple of years ago I did a 3-part series on what sets allegory apart from symbolism. One part I tried to make is that true allegories, stories that just allegories and not mishmashes of that genre with something else, are very hard to do.

One reason allegories are hard to do is that they deliberately fight against a concept called “willing suspension of disbelief.” Most good storytelling is about creating a world and characters who exist within it, and making those characters and events feel plausible. The author wants you to get involved in the story and never stop thinking about the fact it’s a story until you’re finished. If something happens which seems fake, readers stop and lose interest. The willing suspension of disbelief has been broken.

Allegories want you to lose your suspension of disbelief by the end. By the time you get to the end of The Pilgrim’s Progress, you know it’s about a spiritual journey, not about two guys on a walking trip. By naming the characters after attributes and keeping the details minimal, you’re constantly being reminded this isn’t a story for its own sake. It’s a lesson thinly packaged as a story.

So, allegories walk a thin line. They have to make you interested in the characters, while constantly reminding you they are only characters. They push against one of the most basic storytelling rules ever, but push softly enough not to break it.

It’s hard to walk that line well, and that may explain why true allegories are a niche genre. Try to ask somebody about a full-fledged allegory other than Pilgrim’s Progress, The Faerie Queen or Animal Farm. There are other allegories out there, and of course there are plenty of what we might call “quasi-allegories” like G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. But it’s truly hard to come up with too many examples, especially in the last century or so.

This leads us to a follow-up conclusion: Yes you can make good art that goes against the grain, the things which make the medium or genre work. But it’s very hard to do, especially multiple times over.

A few months ago I talked about Paul Schrader. Along with making some very interesting films, Schrader’s also known for writing Transcendental Style in Film, which talks about three filmmakers he argues made movies that simulated what it felt like to have a spiritual experience. In the reissued version of the book, he includes a new introduction which examines the general movement that led to transcendental style, a movement he calls “slow cinema.” He cites some examples of slow cinema films that have come out since 1972 (when the original edition of the book appeared), but notes that there aren’t that many examples. The style is so hard to do well that few people have dared to do much with it.

Does this mean it’s not worth exploring? Does trying to go against what makes a genre or medium work have too high a price?

I would say no. On the rare occasion that it’s done well, this kind of art is rewarding and thought-provoking. It just means that we need to carefully think about what makes different kinds of art work, and if our craft is good enough we have a reasonably change of making it work. We also need to consider if what we’re trying to do with a piece of conflicts or coincides with what makes the medium work. Sometimes, just sometimes, what an artist is trying to say works precisely because the art goes against the grain.

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