Beware the Forces of Dehumanization in Storytelling, Part 2

If an author writes to connect to an audience, then how much should she or he try to anticipate what an audiences wants, or what will sell, as the book is being written?

Well, this is a complicated question, I believe.

Writers need audiences, of course. And, since no one lives on air alone, artists need to be paid for their work. So this commercial reality should be kept in mind when writing, one would think.

Or should it?

Well maybe it is not quite as simple as that. Most writers want to engage as many people as they can—that is a given. There is an entirely human desire to be understood and appreciated, and to communicate exactly what we are trying to say.

Writers also know that accurate expression is not easy or obvious. Just because you want to be understood, doesn’t mean that you will be. Writers are not born, but made, and every writer must work hard to develop his or her craft. And sometimes guidance from another is exactly what is required.

But, of course, guidance—no matter how well-meaning or logically consistent—is not always useful.

I think it is difficult to define what constitutes useful guidance, and what doesn’t. For when we advance past basic considerations of language and style, and into the very heart of storytelling, the area is murkier than one might imagine.

But I think that, in general, if the intention is to help the work gain a kind of internal consistency, or to align it closer to itself, then this kind of guidance can be very useful indeed. The very best editors are wonderfully perceptive, and can see what an author is trying to accomplish on many levels. They can offer ideas on how a story might become a more complete version of itself—even their questions can lead to interesting discoveries. It is indeed both exciting and reassuring to receive this level of insight into your work.

In a sense, this is also a “commercial” concern, and one that both audiences and writers have a stake in. But there are other sorts of commercial concerns that are not about authors or audiences, but about products and consumers. These concerns are about how much product can be moved, often thought to be predicated on how much a similar product has moved in the past. In this sense, a work of art is no different than a bar of soap.

I think it is important to distinguish between these types of commercial considerations in our minds. Because there is a difference between wanting our work to be better in some way, and, with this improved work, hopefully reach more people—or to sell as many copies as possible, no matter what. And, we must ask ourselves, do those who seek to benefit from our work seem to be striving for option A or option B?

Because, if the answer is option B, it means that you have not written a book but a commodity, and, according to this definition, that commodity has no value outside its ability to make $$$.

But what about a hybrid, you might say. I, perhaps, care for my own work, but I want my capitalist overlord publisher to be as huge and ruthless as possible. That, my friend, is business.

Maybe. But it is also true that many of us are not entirely convinced that this dissociated worldview with its neat and artificial distinctions will bring us the results that we hope for. Perhaps it is inevitable that companies structured to care little for anything past the next quarter’s earnings call will also care little for people who work with them, people they sell to, any greater mission involving art, or, for that matter, the future of the planet.

Any work of art, whether it be a poem, a painting, a novel, or any other art-form, even if it is the result of a collaboration, is an expression of a individual, or a collectively agreed-upon, artistic vision. You cannot separate artists from their artwork, and they must maintain an intimate—though not easily defined—connection to it.

If an artwork loses its connection to its creator, or if it relinquishes its animating spark, the situation is dire. In fact, it usually appears on the scene DOA.

But there seems to be less interest in the artists or artwork these days, and more in the commoditization of art. Artists and others who seek to promote art—often sensitive and well-meaning souls—have felt the incredibly hostile pressure of this hyper-commercialized environment, and sometimes have struggled with, doubted, and eventually turned against their own deeper instincts. They may set out with a desire to create, or to promote creation, innovation and honest expression, but have come to define themselves more and more by external measures in this “market-knows-best” world.

This means that when an artist is told to dismiss or change some part of an artwork—not to make it more coherently itself or fulfill any artistic vision, but to attract a potentially larger audience or to conform to some industry standard—the artist may be inclined to believe it. That sick feeling that comes with dismissing or devaluing creative instincts may easily be ignored and rationalized.

Or, even if you do stand by your artistic vision and can form point-by-point counter-arguments, these days such behavior can be seen as a strange throwback, even laughable. An artist runs the risk of being labelled a prima donna who doesn’t understand the consumer environment, an anachronism, a hardliner on an ego trip. According to this worldview, after all, sales and art are indistinguishable—if you don’t sell your art, you are not an artist. The difficult-to-define goal of artistic vision or expression has been replaced by entirely measurable “success”.

The irony is that hyper-commercialization will eventually destroy the same companies who seek to benefit from it. Because the more conservative, predictable, derivative and formulaic storytelling—or any other art—becomes, the less audiences will relate to the lifeless art they are being marketed.

They will turn elsewhere, like to the eternal spark of the classics, still alive on the canvas and page.

Click here to read part 1