Yesterday afternoon, my younger son, David, wanted to close out the old year by watching a martial arts film. I opted for Jet Li’s Fearless, which I hadn’t seen before. It’s a version, you might say, of the life of the Chinese martial artist, Huo Yuanjia. As you would expect, the martial arts portion of the film was impressive. There was an emphasis on not using your kung fu to beat up other people/take revenge on your enemies that I appreciated, especially since I was watching the film with my eleven year old, red belt son.
What struck me most, though, was a scene towards the end of the film, when Jet Li’s character is having tea with a Japanese karate master he’ll soon face in combat. Huo Yuanjia, as he’s portrayed here, puts forth the idea that there is no single martial art that’s the best. They’re all valid; there are simply better and worse practitioners of them. So why compete against one another? the karate master asks. To find out what our individual shortcomings are, Huo Yuanjia says, and work to better ourselves.
From what little I know of martial arts, this strikes me as pretty much the case. (As my Sa Bom Nim likes to say, “What’s the best martial art if you’re attacked? The one you know.”) And however hokey the scene in which it was expressed, the sentiment seems equally applicable to a variety of contexts, particularly the arts. Since writing is what I do, I’m thinking of it specifically in that way. Yes, there are plenty of kinds of narrative, plenty of genres, and within each one, all sorts of subdivisions. But I have yet to see any compelling evidence that one type of narrative or another is intrinsically superior to the rest. (Which is not to say that I haven’t read a lot of assertions to that effect.) What I have seen are individual writers whose use of a particular genre, or one of its subdivisions, allows them to create brilliant art.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t deny the usefulness of larger categories of narrative, either to serve as a frame for the writer to work within, or to aid the critic attempting to interpret and contextualize the writer’s work. The martial arts comparison applies: the specific styles and schools allow you a way to direct your individual development. If it helps you as a writer to see yourself as part of a larger movement, to publish manifestos, to align yourself with this writer or that writer who’s gone before, then by all means, do what helps your writing. I cheerfully identify myself as a horror writer, and am happy to place myself within a tradition that includes Stephen King, Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, and Robert E. Howard, to name a few. I try not to confuse my identification with the genre, however, and my love and respect for it, with any sense that it’s superior to the other kinds of narratives people choose to write.
Ultimately, my real contest is with myself, to try to be a better writer tomorrow than I was today. The more I’ve practiced Tang Soo Do, the more I’ve discovered I’m able to do. (Flying side kicks–it’s crazy.) The more I’ve written, the more I’ve discovered I’m able to write. Horror, weird, strange, bizarro: whatever you call what you’re doing, use it to help you become a better artist. Your contest isn’t with your fellow writers: it’s with yourself.