What Does it Mean to Be a Literary Artist?

As a writer in the modern world, it is hard to get people to take you seriously as an artist. I am constantly bombarded with criticisms like, “Oh, you’re a writer? Anyone can do that,” or “Everyone is a writer these days.” Now that ink has become so affordable it exists in a digital form accessible to most, the art of writing can be seen as a lost practice, defining the profession of “writer” as one who simply forms sentences on any platform where they can be heard. In contrast to this common misconception, there is still a great value to writing and therefore a purpose in being a literary artist.

Jokes in Literary Circles

There are often jokes we hear as outsiders that we don’t understand because they come from within certain circles we don’t, won’t, or simply can’t belong to. Only members of these circles (or groups, congregations, etc., you can choose) will laugh at them because we do not get the punch line, nor the elements taken to build up to it. Whether it is because of jargon or circumstance, this type of joke provides a sense of belonging to those on the inside because of its exclusion of others. However, when it comes to the field of writing, the jokes that are contained within literary circles begin to blur the boundaries between inclusion and exclusion.

There are not many differences between regular jokes and jokes contained within literary circles, but they do exist. Take the notion of kitsch. Originally, it refers to the type of art that is mass produced using popular cultural icons, and generally encompasses gaudy design or unsubstantial work. The essence of kitsch is noted as being that of imitation, such as in the film Driving Lessons starring Rupert Grint and Laura Linney, where we have an expiring actress reading samples from others’ works at a small-time event.

The purpose? To make the speaker feel like they are worth something, while at the same time blindly hiding the fact that they are actually highlighting the speaker’s unworthiness. The joke here, then, is different than allowing an inclusiveness to those on the telling and receiving end because it purposely excludes the subject.

Similarly, Jonathan Swift’s concept of satire, namely it as a mirror, plays on the fact that the joke arises out of the teller’s knowing and the victim’s lack thereof. Quoted from The Battle of the Books and Other Short Pieces, Swift’s perception of the genre reads directly as: “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” Normally when we tell jokes, the speaker and the listener end up on the same page. Another joke in literary circles is that “Poets either die young or stay young.” But what does that mean? We all age, and a lot of us manage to still maintain that “forever young” spirit. What is different about the literary artist? What makes them stand out from the rest of the crowd?


The Artist and the Child

One argument for art overall beyond the inner circles of literature is that as an artist, you are able to remain young because you have been able to hold onto what most of us lose as we age. Many of the Greats of the nineteenth century firmly showed in their work the belief that a child views life purely, and an adult no longer does. These works including authors such as William Wordworth’s poems, William Blake’s “Infant Joy,” as well as visual artist Pablo Picasso. Similarly, they professed the view that as an artist, your practice allows you to channel the same perspective a child sees in a message that other adults are capable of understanding, and that you rest somewhere in between the two, in a sort of no-man’s land.

Is the argument, then, that artists do not die young or stay young, that they simply just are? Is everyone else aging, while the artist has made a new, untold discovery by finding a way to remain stable? Are stability and innocence the same thing? Interestingly, it is often thought that artists are unstable, and that this is the cause of an early death. The reason that poets or literary artists either die young or stay young must be that they are young, this being a state that is both physical and mental. Instead of it merely being a state of physicality in which we unconsciously are forced to participate in, youth is also a state of mind we must harbour in order to preserve its effects through the activities of art.

Picasso quote


The literary artist is a visionary, one who can see the pure life everyone did in the beginning as a child. What is it in particular, though, about writing? What is it about the literary artist that sets them apart from the others?

Not all of us understand how to draw a perfect circle, how to perform or calculate an intricate dance move, or how to make finished products from natural goods. But we do know how to speak, we do know words, and we can all communicate the same ones on some level, whether it be through English, Sign, or another language. This is not to say, however, that we do not understand and know the elements involved in other art forms. Rather, we simply are less capable of reproducing them in their individual representations.

The literary artist, then, is the biggest joke of them all. Crafting together narratives out of pieces called words, their art communicates directly with its audience. Although other art forms communicate with their audiences, language is our most direct form of communication with each other, and messages can be made clearer through words as opposed to physical objects that need words to create that interpretation of communication.

What Does it All Mean?

The literary artist is ultimately doomed to a future of exclusion from all communities. Without a proper sense of belonging to their own artists because of their clever jokes, other members of the arts community or the general public because of their craft, literary artists are left to wander through life alone. Walking somewhere in between the secure life of an adult and the restless mind of a child, the literary artist writes the joke, tells the joke, and becomes the joke. The reason poets are able to stay youthful is because they are made young. They will forever remain a child inside of a confused adult, a visionary adult born out of a confused child, with nothing but the physical spaces words take up to truly exist in.

As a writer, the literary artist must choose to be chosen as the communicator of pure life – the bridge between the youthful innocence and the adult world of responsibility. In the end, then, it all means that being a literary artist is to lead with the heaviest responsibility of them all: to maintain stability of the bridge in order to keep the parts of society together.

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  1. The literary artist is a thinker.

  2. Silverman

    “A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no words written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished because undisturbed: and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided.”

    ― Edgar Allan Poe

  3. Hodgson

    I think calling yourself an artist or being called an artist situates you on a continuum.

  4. YsabelGo

    Your argument about the literary artist keeping their child-like qualities reminds me of the book, ‘The Little Prince’, which questions the difference between children and adults and their mentalities.

    I being an artist is to have a different outlook on life, and to be able to express these thoughts into words. I agree that many people think writing is easy, but if it were, there would be more writing jobs then.

    Thanks for your article!

  5. Article really flows nicely; appreciated majority of the points made! Especially liked the notes on child and youthful approach to writing! 🙂

  6. SeeTrent

    I think a writer to keep an eye on in the future is Stephen Graham Jones. He’s written some mindblowing books and he’s just in his late-30’s.

  7. Palumbo

    This is good stuff, I’m a hopeless bookworm.

  8. Words are words.

  9. Luemens

    Most of the people that pooped into my mind when I saw this post Willam Gass, Diane Williams, Vollmann, Cormac McCarthy, Barry Hannah etc.

    • If I had to supplement:

      Mary Robison
      Galway Kinnell
      Salman Rushdie (I know)
      Philip Roth (I know, I know)
      Deborah Eisenberg
      Kenzaburo Oe

    • I’d add Stephen Wright (doesn’t have 8 books, but each of his is worth at least two of most other living writers), Denis Johnson and Samuel Delany (if only for the monumental Dhalgren). I’d also clutter my own list with poets like John Ashbery, John Koethe, Brenda Hillman, CD Wright, Michael Palmer, Albert Goldbarth…

  10. Write well and you’ll outlive your children.

  11. Isadora Cho

    The role of the literary artist is the same today as it has always been.

  12. Read on!

  13. Padgett

    Literary artists have always been interested in holding themselves up as a mirror for their audiences to see themselves.

  14. More than a child’s mentality, just being open to taking in and depicting the world around you is probably the most difficult part of becoming that elusive “literary artist.” It is a mindset that cannot be replicated by just anyone no matter how much technology is at our disposal.

    When we mature and go through life, it does indeed become harder to maintain an open mind. Pablo Picasso may have been equaling a child’s perspective with creativity but even children can eventually become fixed in their attitudes and no longer receptive to new input. Again, it is taking in all those experiences and recognizing them as they are before boiling them down to an ultimate truth that is most crucial to any writing.

    Therefore, this article covers a very relevant issue in that regard; as a writer, I struggle everyday to maintain a sense of acceptance so that there wouldn’t preferably be any biases seeping through that’ll block off whatever I may address in a piece.

  15. I think your conclusion begins a train of thoughts that should begin a new article. You mention a number of interesting points throughout–the moments where you invoke a particular quote or briefly analyze an artist stand out–and I’d like to see a bit more of this. I’m a bit confused about the “joke” part toward the end, but I think you have a lot more to say about such a topic. I’d be interested to read a follow-up article with more examples and references. You analysis of the child-like qualities of the artists also deserves its own article, especially the works of William Blake–his “Songs of Innocence and Experience” contain a multitude of the ideas you mention here.

  16. Tisdale

    This is great!

  17. I think what is unique about writers is that, when you get right down to it, what a writer does is decipher and interpret their thoughts. Thoughts are essentially an abstract cloud of memories, ideas, hopes, etc., and when we write, we tap into that cloud and try to make sense of it, to express what we think, whatever that may be. When you look at writing as an art, it isn’t about aesthetics in the traditional sense, we don’t try to make the word’s look as visually pleasing as possible. What writers do is organize words into codes that others can decipher, allowing us to understand, to some degree, someone else’s thoughts. The expansion of the mind comes from two places: deeper understanding of the self and deeper understanding of the world. When I write, I sometimes find myself learning more about the world from myself. When you begin to tap into that cloud of thought, it opens to door to deeper introspection. People are always capable of more than they think, and writing is the art closest to that untapped potential. Words carry more weight than visuals when it comes to a deeper understanding of anything. When you look at a painting, you can observe it for hours but until you begin to discuss it, using words to express what you see, you’re understanding will be limited. That is why writing, as an art, is so different.

  18. If you call yourself an artist, you are inviting people to relate your work to this evolving body of art.

  19. PaulieWawg

    If I were constantly bombarded with criticisms such as those you encounter, I’d rightfully go insane. I’d also seriously question whether, underneath it all, I am actually seeking the approval of those who believe “anyone” can write and other nonsensical naysayers. Personally, I write because it is an intrinsic need I must fill. Thinking I can control the outcome of this (recently chosen) profession, one way or the other, is a fallacy. I do like how “Literary Artist” rolls off the tongue though.

  20. Nof

    Well written article! you make some great points and examples. This is true for any writer. I get the same confused look from every person that asks what I’m majoring in and I say Professional Writing. The sad thing is people immediately think I’m going into journalism, but really there is so much more to writing than news. Many seem to be very ignorant in this matter.

  21. Really liked the bit about writes the joke, tells the joke, and becomes the joke.

  22. I like the bit about artists being young and dying young. The article was relatable to me because I am an artist and feel misunderstood. I remember being questioned about wanting to be an writer. I love the metaphors used in the article.

  23. This article is well written and the metaphors is spot on.

  24. I believe creative people are stigmatized by those who lack imagination, mostly due to jealousy.

  25. Artistry is a tool that few can handle properly, but it can blossom into something incredibly beautiful when handled correctly.

  26. What does it really mean to be a child? Is it innocence? Is it unrestrained creativity? An open mind? Writing transcends age and destabilizes all other forms of hierarchy. The clearest purpose of writing is to communicate, to reveal my mind, my experiences, my perspective. Writers are consistently scrutinized because their art is not tangible, you cannot see it or touch it. It is an art of the mind, in its purest form. Many people do not wish to see beyond the other entertaining forms of art.

  27. Writing communicates in the purest form. Not with pictures. Not with moving screens. With words, words which require careful attention. In today’s onslaught of visual entertainment, it’s no small wonder that reading, and thus professional writing, seems superfluous. Our purest form of communication makes way for senseless entertainment.

  28. Alaina

    I hear that all the time…writing is a dying field and blah blah blah. We do it for the people..and for ourselves.

  29. There exists a gargantuan difference between people who call themselves writers. People who write are simply writers – no more than that. However, people who convey emotion, entertainment, statements on an aspect of art or culture, and bend the boundaries of feeling and sensory perception in their craft are writers, a.k.a. Literary Artists. Definitions can still vary within the wording I just used. Therefore, if you write because your soul craves the word, then you’re a literary artist, writer, etc. If you write just for paycheck, then you’re just a writer.

  30. I cannot say what a literary artist is; and I cannot comment on your whole article in such a brief post, but I will say this—

    As to your section on youth and being an artist, I think you touch on something quite important. We all experience “the bloom,” a time when we are youthful but matured, and then we all experience the time after that, as our leaves begin to descend toward the ground, shrivel and die. I think Hemingway wrote about it well—the existential crisis of this realization. Perhaps more than any, artists (whether literary or other, but “real” artists) have quite a time coping with life post-bloom and attempt on some level to express their feelings of it.

    Perhaps then, at least in my view, instead of being a poet and being young, an artist needs for most of his or her life to grieve the loss of his or her youth, to preemptively grieve the loss (to come) of those he or she loves, including the self. When one walks around feeling this loss for years upon years, and then writes about it, I would say one is a literary artist. The trick, I think, is in surviving this grieving for as long as possible. Some do it for longer than others.

  31. Thank you.

    It’s a heavy bag, but writers can always imagine something to make it easier to carry.

    I always call myself an artist. Also, most of the time, regardless of what a person specializes in, an artist is an artist, and the creativity branches out to all different subjects and interests.

  32. The child argument is an interesting one. It’s true that Wordsworth will praise the child-like figure (I’m thinking his Lucy poems here), but only in relation to the function of the poet. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, he specifically maps out the poet as someone who is more sensitive to the society he lives in. The poet has the moral obligation to purify language and reconnect men to more elementary feelings, prompted by a more elementary stimulus (i.e. nature). I don’t think the valuing of a child-like poet or artist is being advocated here though. There’s also other works by Wordsworth which don’t really praise the child-like perspective. Poor Susan (the revised 1800 edition) does not particularly praise Susan, but mourns her fallen state. Other poems like Tintern Abbey rely on the poet to reconnect two versions of himself through a landscape: the earlier version of himself is presumably himself as a child and is not praised, but rather condemned because it lacks the ability to problematize and question its own existence unlike the adult narrator.

  33. I agree. Being an authentic literary artist isn’t all about just being able to construct and express with words. It’s really about being real and honest, reflecting not only our individual shades and temperaments but society’s or perhaps the entire world’s entire conditions, whether good or bad. Literary art is simply the entirety of life as a whole. Thank you for this 🙂

  34. So insightful.. So amazing!!! So true!!!

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