Thursday, May 20, 2010

Wind, sails...

What took the wind out of my sails was the idea that I was pissing on people's dreams.

I'm talking about why I haven't posted to this blog in a long, long time. And this happened more than once. The implication that the best-seller list--or commercial success--doesn't necessarily correlate with artistic merit isn't just challenging to many people, it's insulting.

People I like, and wouldn't want to insult, became LIVID at this suggestion. They said it was not just an insult to their TASTE, but to their DREAMS. Because, they courted that traditional commercial success and felt these traditional measures of publishing with a big house or making a best-seller list or getting a movie deal, and so on would be a good metric for their own worth as artists. So many writers say "I just want to get something published." Like one publisher's opinion of your work will validate your life.

Yeah, I don't think anyone can really believe it if they think about it. Which is why making people think about it gets them so angry. And I never wanted to piss on people's dreams.

Yet no one has told me I'm wrong.

Because capitalism is simple: Public, for-profit, corporate publishers don't buy books on the basis of "quality." Or "merit." They buy books that are marketable and salable.

So, simply put, it would be erroneous to conflate "publication" with "quality." And it would be erroneous to conflate publication with a "big house" with "bigger quality."

That's not to say something can't be a big house best-seller and also have "quality" and artistic merit. Just that the two don't necessarily go together, and well, a poor seller published by a small indie press might have higher quality and greater artistic merit.

Nobody who understands business, economics or art will tell you otherwise.

Fleshing out this argument, lets look at:

Kinds of "quality" publishers HATE!

That's right, there are objective factors that are widely accepted by nearly everyone as measures of "quality" that publishers will necessarily select against, because of the profit motive.

--Perspectives on "otherness." Guess who buys books. We all know the answer: well-to-do, middle-class white folks. Mostly white women. Interestingly, Big Publishing mostly sells books about things that middle-class white women would be interested in. Now, maybe this situation implies "supply and demand." Nobody else would buy books anyway. But, if you're clever, perhaps you see a chicken or the egg situation here....

But the stories of the unrepresented others in our society have a widely-recognized artistic merit, in that they "speak truth to power" in a sense. They show inconvenient truths to a reading ruling class that would usually rather look the other way. These stories bare their quality through innovation, rather than repeating the same old stories of an insular reading culture. And yet, there's an undeniable and obvious pressure for Big Publishing to select against books exactly BECAUSE they have these marks of quality. This includes the perspectives of:
--Cultural norms different from Western norms
--The poor
--the "unclean," by which I mean moral norms different from Western Standard norms
--Those uninitiated into proper middle-class grammar
--The under-educated
--Perspectives outside of popular culture
--The A-politically correct.

--Innovation. Again, a universally recognized sign of quality. But a virtual death warrant in Big Publishing. Big Publishing has a huge economic incentive to publish books for established audiences. All kinds of innovation are generally discouraged, from "form," formatting, story arch, characterization, media, business model, intended audience. A whole "workshop" business has arisen essentially to squash innovation in favor of wrote imitation of "proven" consumer products.

--Artistic Language. Nobody talks the way they talk in the Davinci code. Except for a few Librarians and people I want to punch. Think of any definition of "art" or beauty. Concepts such as "truth=beauty," "art reflects life," art "creates something new" or whatever other definitions you like. I'm certain that NONE of them would apply to the kind of phony, made-up language you'll find in best-sellers. Yet, Big Publishing selects for books that use this fake language as opposed to the kind of language real people use. There's nothing artistic about that in the least.

--Copyright considerations. Big Publishing selects against forms of reference and satire common in earlier eras of art.

--"Relevance." Universal stories are selected against in favor of news-headline fads.

--Uniqueness. Team-sourced art consumer products are easier to sell than the unique and idiosyncratic works of eccentric genius.

And finally, Big Publishing has an economic incentive to basically cater to the lowest common denominator.

...And yet there are so many creative people, who cannot imagine any other way to define their own artistic merit outside the approval of Rupert urdoch....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your blog, man. Write whatever you choose. I read too many great books that have never seen the NYTBS list to concern myself with it that much.
What I want is to write a book that's fun to read that people will remember. What makes a bestseller isn't necessarily your first book, it's the one people buy because they remember your name and knew they liked reading your other books. But still, there are all kinds of delicious books out there that haven't enjoyed widespread attention by authors who have written for decades.
I don't think you're pissing on anyone's dreams anymore than if you quoted the odds of winning the lottery.
First, you have to write a good book of entertaining prose or a story concept that captures popular imagination--and lots of people do, but secondly, people have to read it,and think enough of it to talk about it, discuss it in groups so more people buy your next book.
This "dream" is equal to desired destination of salmon: where do they think they're going?

Jerry B. Flory