Writing and the Art of Provocation

Writing and the Art of Provocation

At last year’s Readercon I participated in a panel called Myth, Midrash, and Misappropriation (actually, I was the leader/moderator) with an interesting group of writers and Claude Lalumière. The panel was supposed to be about the appeals and challenges of creating fiction from a religious source and how to avoid or deal with the dangers of cultural appropriation and/or offending people.

I won’t recap the entire discussion for you, but the major highlight of the panel (for me) was when, in his introduction, Claude announced that the purpose of art is to be offensive or to offend people I can’t remember if he initially said offensive or to offend, but this was definitely the core of his argument. Art should offend! He said more than once until he started to backpedal pretty hard in the middle of the panel.

Not knowing much about Claude before that moment, I was unprepared for the douchewankery he brought to the discussion[1]. He was unprepared for how hard I would not allow him to get away with that statement or how prepared I was to challenge him on it. And he was super unprepared for how much the audience was not on his side when question time came. That’s when the backpedaling started.

We spent a good deal of time on the panel unpacking that initial statement and talking about all the ways in which it’s completely problematic (along with all the other problematic stuff he said such as how it’s okay for him to use any religious or spiritual trappings from any culture because he’s an atheist, anyway, and doesn’t believe in them oh and also he is from French Canada so he understands what it means to come from an oppressed, occupied culture). I believe it was Jack Haringa who, after initially agreeing with his understanding of what Claude meant, actually came around to something more like: artists may hope to offend if their message is aimed at a group or idea that they find offensive. Writing with an eye toward pointing out a horrible injustice, say. The ones perpetrating that injustice may be offended — good.

I sort of agreed with that as well, but still didn’t feel it was quite the right way to think about art. In the many months since I’ve poked at the idea more and more, but still hadn’t come up with a better way to think about what Jack was getting at. Then last month someone else came along and nailed it.

NPR’s Weekend Edition interviewed National Book Award-winning poet Nikki Finney, and toward the end of that interview she said this:

Art is about being provocative; art is also about beauty and if you leave the latter out, the former doesn’t matter.

I immediately thought: YES, THAT. That is what we were reaching for around the 600 pound gorilla of Claude’s initial statement.

There is no beauty in being offensive. Offending someone, especially when you’re coming from a place of privilege and oppression, is not the basis for great art, for beautiful art, even if the beauty you’re reaching for is terrible and tragic and real.

Consider the context in which Finney made this statement:

As a young poet, I grew up in the ’60s and early ’70s, when difficult things were being said and shouted and screamed,” Finney says. “I remember saying to myself, those things are very, very important to hear, but there must be another way to say them so that they will truly be heard. I mean, that’s what art is. Art is about being provocative; art is also about beauty and if you leave the latter out, the former doesn’t matter.

I haven’t read any of this woman’s poetry yet, but I want to. I feel like she can teach me the art of saying difficult things. I am often among those who say and shout and scream because that’s important, too. And I know for a fact that engaging in this mode of discourse does result in being heard, because I often have conversations with people who listened and appreciate it. But I’d also like to be adept at that other way she speaks of.


  1. Later, when I related the goings on to others, several people said “Oh, you didn’t know? Claude Lalumiere is a total douchecanoe.” No one warned me![]