I recently discovered a wonderful blog, written by Stanley Fish for the New York Times. The first article that I read, “Why Do Writers Write?”, was an intriguing discussion of, well, the title question. Mr. Fish answered that writers write because they want to create something beautiful, not because their writing answers to any external need in the outside world. “Writing is about crafting sentences and building them into paragraphs and building the paragraphs into arguments and narratives…[not] so that you will feel better or…so that the world will become a better place.”
At first glance, I purely disagreed with Mr. Fish’s argument. Even when one creates art, one cannot step out of the moral sphere. Every act has moral content, no matter how trivial—not because every choice is a morally charged choice, but because we are morally charged people. For example, it may not matter very much whether I spend my time building a robot or writing a novel, but it matters whether I do my work cheerfully or cruelly, generously or selfishly, with diligence or with apathy. Because all art, including literature, is made by human beings in order to be seen by human beings, its content, not just its style, is of the utmost importance.
It is a common fallacy to believe that just because we can do something, we ought to do it. Biologists make it when they do embryonic stem cell research. Physicists make it when they create weapons capable of destroying the world. Moviemakers do it when they show scenes of unbridled carnage. Perhaps some of these things are morally permissible; in fact, perhaps they definitely ought to be done. However, we must have better justifications for our actions than simply “we can”. We must first look closely at our assumptions about the nature of humanity, or war, or art, to ensure that we are not betraying more important concepts for the sake of progress. Similarly, writers can create any number of beautifully crafted stories, but the acknowledgement of this ability cannot be the end of all their thinking. The moral import of their work must also be considered. This does not mean that all art must be saccharinely sweet or dustily didactic; art must also be profoundly challenging and reflective of this broken world we live in. However, the artist must at least consider why, and not just what, he is creating.
However, Mr. Fish does have an important point. The beauty, technique, and inner allure of any sort of work is, in fact, profoundly important, apart from any world-changing possibility. Unfortunately, all too often we are trapped in a way of thinking that focuses purely on results, rather than the intrinsic excellence of a piece of work. It is precisely because the work that we do has moral importance that we must pay attention, not just to the results, but to the work itself. A purely pragmatic, results-based view of the work we do is in fact a profound devaluation of our labor, an extension of the compartmentalizing mindset that has us pray on Sunday mornings, work from nine to five, and spend the rest of our time living our “real lives”. Mr. Fish is rightly wary of separating our duty and our delight, but a more serious commitment to excellence in our work, rather than leading to a divorce between craft and effect, would integrate the two. Because the work we do is important in itself, we ought to pay attention to how we do it; but because it is so important, we must also pay attention to what we do.