July 25, 2011

Wine and Fiction - Have we turned art into science?

Several months ago I was home sick on a Sunday and was flipping through television channels (since putting in a DVD would have required getting off of the couch). I came across a documentary about wine making and, since it was the only thing on that struck me as remotely interesting, I watched a few minutes of it.
Up to that point, I had considered wine-making to be a relatively simple process:
- Pick the grapes.
- Smash the grapes.
- Let the grape juice ferment.
- Put fermented grape juice in barrels and let it age for a few years.
- Voila. Wine.
Okay, so there has always been a little more to it than that, but you get the idea. As I watched the documentary on it, though, I was blown away by how complex and delicate the wine-making process has become over time.
The vineyards are monitored constantly as harvest time approaches, waiting for the exact moment when their internal sugar content is just right. When the sugar content level hits that perfect magic number the supervisors are looking for, they start picking and pick around the clock until the harvest is complete. The grapes are rushed straight into the processing facility where they are pressed and the juice is poured into vats. The sugar content of the juice in the vats is also monitored with pinpoint accuracy. If the sugar level falls below the desired number by even a single percentage point, the supervisors may call off the harvesting process until the grapes ripen further.
The entire process is that way--monitored with painstaking precision, start to finish. I understand that wine-making is an art that's been around for millennia, but I can't help wondering if the craft and skill in the art has been carried too far. Has an art been forced into becoming a science?
Now, maybe the precision of the modern process makes modern wine taste far better than vintage. I've never tasted wine, so I wouldn't know.
What I do know is that I see hints of a similar trend in the art and craft of fiction writing.
In the days of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and L.M.Montgomery (all of whom are considered masters of their craft), good characters, a good plot, and a good feel for storytelling were enough to make a novel an international hit. In spite of literary 'sins' such as the use of omniscient point of view and long passages of author narrative, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Anne of Green Gables were successes in their hay day and are still popular today.
Writing was simpler then. Today, story narrative has to be embedded so deeply into the main character's psyche that the readers think they are that character. Every little action, every feeling, every thought, has to grab the readers in a choke hold or else risk being 'distant'. Every scene and every plot point has to be highly calculated for effect and possible repercussions, as though the writer is about to launch a missile rather than just tell a story.
I believe there are a lot of contributing factors behind this trend--too many to discuss in this post. And while I agree whole-heartedly that fiction writing is an art that requires skill and hard work to master, I worry that the art itself is slowly being lost to the science we've made of the skills.
Underneath the science, the formulas, the step-by-step processes, and the calculations, storytelling is an art. A gift. An ability and style as unique as the storyteller.
It was an art before we made it into a science. Let's not lose sight of that.

Do you storytelling is in danger of becoming a science rather than an art? Or do you see today's formulas and calculations as simply refining the art?


  1. That's tough one.
    On the one hand I can see the creative flow being squashed by an author being so concerned over the 'rules' that they start walking on egg shells rather than telling a great story.
    On the other hand, I can see a writer with a great story getting shelved because the writer hasn't learned to tighten the story enough to keep the attention of the modern day, Seasame Street, MTV generation.

    I always like to write my first draft pretending the rules don't apply to me. Creativity flows better that way.
    It's when we get down to the nitty-gritty of empowering and tightening that a writer should consider the rules. Even then, remember, they really are more like suggestions than hard and fast rules.
    MHOO (my humble opinion only)

  2. I agree completely. I often wish I could just write... write without worrying if I'm putting too much information in (when I think the information needs to be there), without worrying that describing a character is unnecessary, or that if I don't describe the character, no one will know what he looks like. Without worrying that my characters aren't developed enough. Good grief, plenty of people have written really good books without their characters being completely fleshed out.
    Whew, what a rant. Sorry :)

  3. A very good point. That's one reason I hated Story Engineering so much--it was scientifically precise.


What are your thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear your comments, questions, or ideas, even if you don't agree with me. Please be aware that I reserve the right to delete comments that are uncivil or vulgar, however.