Dragonoak and the Politics of Production Value

Over the years, I’ve noticed a divide in the kinds of media that my friends and I consume. Most of the time, across mediums, my tastes tend strongly towards work with high production value; I’m all about skilled musicianship and a clean mix, and typo-ridden or trope-heavy writing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t believe production value is the be-all end-all of art, but I’m way more likely to give something a chance if whatever sample I’m checking out bears the hallmarks of careful craftsmanship.  This means that a lot of the styles of media my friends love (like bedroom folk-punk and fanfiction) never really grab me.  We’ll come back to that, but first, I need to tell you about how I couldn’t stop yelling about Dragonoak.

I finished the first Dragonoak novel, “The Complete History of Kastelir”, last week.  It’s political drama for people who hate political drama, it’s sword and sorcery thrills, it’s a timid but sweet tribute to queer relationships, it’s a great book and you should check it out. Sam Farren’s characters felt like real people–their principles are as complex and diverse as they are, and they care about each other relentlessly, sometimes to the point where those principles are put in jeopardy. Part of what makes the characters so successful is the level of psychic distance between us and Farren’s protagonist Rowan–there’s almost none. It’s as close a first person narrative as I’ve ever read, and while it slows the pace of dialogue significantly, it means that we get that much more out of  every word spoken as Rowan’s mind fills in the emotional context.

That wasn’t what got me hollering, though.  Sam Farren’s writing style is a little awkward; it doesn’t always feel polished from a technical standpoint, and when their characters make logical leaps that I can’t follow, it’s hard for me to tell if it’s the prose or the character’s  thought process that baffle me. These are issues that would make me put down most books, but Dragonoak is not most books; relative to its substance, these deal-breaker issues of technicality and style feel like the nitpicky gripes of someone who sleeps with Strunk & White under their pillow. That was what set me off and made this book feel so exceptional–I noticed flaws in the writing, and I was so engrossed that I didn’t care.

My friend who lent me the book (and received the brunt of my screeching) had heard similar sentiments about Farren’s writing before. In their eyes, those who get caught up in the details of the craft and miss out on Dragonoak‘s story are being choosy beggars. There’s so little queer media out there, and even less by independent LGBTQ+ creators, that if you’re going to seek it out, you should be prepared to celebrate it by virtue of it being queer media  at all.

Initially, I didn’t agree entirely, and in a way, that disagreement felt like a bit of a betrayal on my part.  While I don’t necessarily think that a piece of media being queer or made by queer creators excuses all its other flaws, I know that not every creator has the time or money to make a beautifully rendered video game or a high definition film or a studio quality recording or an immaculately edited text.  That doesn’t mean that the creator cared any less about their final product, or put any less work into it, or has any less of a message. There is also a solidarity component to my guilt; my queer friends and I create queer art not just because we love it, but also to express our experience as marginalized people. Without art from the margins, we would be left with mainstream, commercial media, where polish is second only to profit as a measure of quality, and our voices would disappear entirely.

It’s easy to take that guilt and run with it, to say that it’s bad politics to care about production quality. I don’t think that’s accurate; after talking to my friend about Dragonoak last week, I realized that it not only requires a perceptual shift to see past the glitz, or lack thereof, but it might require a reframing of one’s notions of the purpose of art.

It’s been my opinion that whether it’s the work of one human being or many, most of us make art to transmit an idea, or a few ideas from a single source, and that it is the work of the artist(s) to transmit that idea as faithfully and accurately as possible.  From this perspective, higher production quality is usually a good thing because it allows us as creators to display our vision more clearly.  But for some, I’ve come to realize that art is primarily a facet of culture and is inherently communal. From this viewpoint, what a piece of media says, the sorts of people it reaches out to, and the spirit in which it is made are more important than technical quality by a long shot.

Dragonoak is about relationships, the confusing nitty-gritty of interpersonal, interracial, international, and environmental interactions. Sam Farren encourages the reader to examine questions of loyalty and its components (social debt, obligation, hierarchy, trust) as they apply to Rowan’s life and your own, and they encourage you at all times to reach out and seek a clearer understanding of the people around you. As the vision of a single author, it succeeds, but as a document in social context, as a call for connection, it shines.

Next time you have a chance to consume some media that seems promising, but is too slick or too rough around the edges for your taste, I invite you to ask yourself if you’re getting caught up in the details, and to peer deeper, to follow that feeling of this has promise. Doing so, and thinking through it, made me feel better equipped in my search of an ever-expanding horizon.