Artistic Freedom

Last time, I wrote about artistic purity and how the divide between popularity and meaning was muddy and not really worth all the kerfuffle. There is, though, one facet of the argument I neglected shamefully. Namely: When writing for a commercial market, where does the intention of the author end?

This is an argument that fuels much of the self-publishing vs. traditional publishing debate. Self-publishing proponents hold that one of the major advantages of self-publishing is that the author retains creative control, without all those editors telling you how to present your creative vision.

Traditionally published writers mostly insist that the self-publishing crowd have grossly misunderstood the purpose of an editor. I mostly agree with the trad publishers on this one, but the self-publishers have a good point. An editor, even one who supports your creative vision and artistic autonomy all the way, will suggest changes ranging from word choice to removing or rewriting entire scenes or chapters.

Self-publishers also hire editors, but they have the option to ignore every suggestion that the editor makes, without it affecting whether the book gets published.


But we’ll get back to that concept. Let’s step back to basics: What do both self-published and traditionally published authors do?

Ask friends for advice.


Talk to other authors, and discuss favourite and particularly hated tropes.

If you, as an author, talk through a tough scene with a friend and that friend suggests a solution that you then use, is that book entirely your creative output anymore? What if your friend suggests several solutions, but you reject most of them? Does the fact that you have veto power over those ideas mean you retain your creative control, or does the fact that you were influenced by someone outside yourself override that?

I’ve known authors who refused to read books in their genre while they write. Generally, it’s because they are either concerned about their voice being influenced by similar stories, or about accidentally copying elements of other stories.

I’ve also known authors who refuse to read in their genre ever, for those reasons.

I sort of get the first group. I know when I read a book I connect with, it tends to stick around in my head and influence my daily life for a while. I get not wanting to have one’s writing affected by that, at the very least to avoid extra editing work later.

To the second group, I ask: What made you want to write in your genre in the first place? Didn’t you once read voraciously in the genre? So, isn’t the damage already done? You’ve already been influenced by other authors; now you’re just limiting who you’ve been influenced by. Do you still keep up with genre changes and conventions in other ways? Do you feel it necessary to keep up with genre conventions?

I mean, if it works for you as an author, then far be it from me to tell you you’re wrong. Honestly, if you’re one of those people, I’d love you to chip in in the comments! I feel like my interpretation of the thought process is simplistic, and I’d love a more fleshed-out idea of it.


Back to the editors, and since their functions are very similar, I’ll include beta readers in this discussion. I’ve seen a lot of arguments, especially online, between authors who insist that beta readers and editors are a necessity for any book that the author intends to release to the public, and authors who insist that having someone else read the work and make suggestions muddies the creative waters, and that they’re entirely unnecessary.

I fall in the previous camp, as you can probably guess. I mean, I’ve gone back to read over drafts and had no idea what I was going on about myself. I like the security of having someone else read over things just to make sure that the things I think I said and the things I actually said line up. Preferably several people.

But that’s probably not what most people who dislike editors are concerned about. Let’s look at the concept of the ‘director’s cut’, or ‘author’s edition’.

Every so often, something will be released, get popular, and then a different version will be released. Often it’s a longer version, released now it’s been established that the audience will be interested enough to spend more time on the story. Let’s take the first Alien movie, for an example. The director’s cut of Alien contained more scenes than the theatrical version, and most of the extra scenes were exposition on the Alien and its biology. The tradeoff here is that, in the director’s cut, more curiosity is satisfied, some of the twists have better foreshadowing, and it’s a little easier to understand what the Alien is doing in certain scenes. Plus, some of the characters are better developed. However, the theatrical release is tenser, has better pacing, and having less information does enhance the horror elements.

In cases like this, the quality isn’t actually affected that much – it all comes down to the preference of the audience. But if you were asked to discuss the Alien movie, which one would you choose as your reference?

This problem is quite common when studying literature. Ask a Shakespeare scholar about the quarto or folio versions of King Lear sometime – trust me, it’s educational. The basic idea is that there are scenes that got rearranged and added, and nobody can quite figure out which edits were made by Shakespeare and which weren’t, not to mention which versions came first, and how to decide on a definitive edition to teach and study. Similarly, Franz Kafka’s famous novel, The Trial, was published posthumously by his friends, who didn’t know what order he’d wanted the chapters in, and so they made a best guess. On one hand, what if we’re reading it entirely out of order. Would that change how we interpreted the novel? Given The Trial is written so that none of the chapters rely heavily on information from previous chapters, and the fact that the entire book is based on confusing and esoteric government structures, with the reader meant to feel bewildered by the ‘logic’ of the court, it may be that reading the chapters out of order actually enhances Kafka’s message. We can’t tell if Kafka would have approved of our reading of the book, but I’m not really sure it matters what Kafka thinks. After all, every person will interpret every book slightly differently, so nobody really gets the ‘intended message’ 100% accurately anyway. I’ve always seen the study of literature as being more about the discussion than about being ‘right’, so it’s always seemed fairly natural to me that the author’s intended message may guide the audience, but if the audience finds other things in there (whether the author intended them or not), that can be just as interesting and valid for discussion. If you watch a movie that was intended to be serious, but instead comes across as funny (for whatever reason: the acting, the writing …), do you say that the intention of the piece was more important, or do you try to dissect why the piece failed to deliver on that intention?


That’s the thing – when you have a book in a commercial market, it’s read, interpreted, discussed and re-interpreted by so many readers that it’s sort of inevitable that the message gets lost along the way, at least a little bit.


But here’s the thing: This entire blog post is relying on the idea that the writer wants their book to be published commercially and to some sort of acclaim, whether that’s popular or niche, either for being ‘entertaining’ or being a thematically sound work with a profound message. None of this is going to matter a lick to the person who posts on a blog and is happy with the occasional viewer dropping in, browsing and leaving a comment, nor to the person whose art is only for their inner circle, or for their own reading. As well it shouldn’t – at that point, the audience ceases to be a consideration.

Perhaps it’s just my own perspective, but I’m honestly having trouble thinking of a situation where the intent behind releasing art is for commercial success or to reach readers outside the artist’s immediate circle where the audience can’t be a consideration in the decision-making process. As someone who believes that the author’s intent only matters so far as the audience received it, I’m predisposed to believe that the audience’s perspective should always matter in these cases, even though I know that’s not a universal truth. In some ways, I can feel a little self-serving for that belief. I mean, I’m essentially discounting the author’s intent in order to allow my interpretations of art to take precedence – or at least, dismissing the idea that the author’s intent can be more important than the collective interpretations of the readers. This feels reasonable to me, but I can see why it would rankle a lot of authors. Authors work hard on their creations, and many of them put a lot of effort into crafting subtext in their stories. It’s hard to then be told that doesn’t matter, especially when you find the replacement interpretation wrong or insulting.

Not to mention the amount of time high schools spend asking us “yes, but what did the author mean by this?”, which kind of ingrains the idea that the author always has conscious thematic ownership of the text. The fact that an idea is taken for granted doesn’t always mean it’s incorrect, but it does make it hard to examine the idea later.


In short: I have no idea how to go about answering this question, and I’ve just spent the better part of an essay explaining why. Personally, I think the author needs to be aware of their message but also aware of how it’s transmitted to others, even if that means changing their original vision based on feedback. My artistic freedom is useful to me only as far as it helps me get my point across, and no further, and there is a certain artistic freedom in taking feedback and then deciding what to do with it. Where that line falls for others, I don’t know. But it would be interesting to find out!

(Translation: Please comment! Being a nerd is more fun with other people.)

4 thoughts on “Artistic Freedom

  1. Greetings, I hope you don’t mind me commenting on your blog ( if you don’t want me invading your personal space, then I totally understand ).

    I think this is a really good question – there’s a lot to address with it ( sorry if this comment turns into a rambling set of thoughts not entirely unlike an essay ( although I imagine at this point you might expect that ) ).

    I don’t ask friends for advice – I don’t have any friends ( I don’t want any friends, and I’m not sure I fully understand those who do ( read: almost everyone else ) ( what do you mean most people don’t want to live the life of an insular, introverted hermit? ( is “insular, introverted” a tautology? ( I googled it. I think I now know less about the word “insular” than I did before ) ) ) ). I don’t have beta readers either.

    Which isn’t to say that I look down upon those who have either ( as if I’m some sort of high and mighty God-King-Queen-Jack-Ace-Ten of literature ), but because of my genre, ( horror ( yes, it’s my genre. I own it ( I bought it on a website ( I even have a certificate ) ) ) ) I generally intend to evoke unpleasant imagery and provoke negative feelings ( if I’m doing it right ) – I usually want to offend people ( with an intent in mind, I’m not a complete jerk ), and being told something is too offensive, or some event is too weird would annoy me, because that’s the bloody point.

    Also, I’m a planner. I’m actually quite meticulous with my preparation before writing ( I generally get my plan down to dot points, where each point is equivalent to a few hundred words ), and, as such, have very little fluff ( so telling me “this scene needs to be changed”, tends to have an enormous impact on the plot, because it will have a direct impact on something relevant ). I’m also unconcerned with whether people understand my intent, because I almost never have an exact Aesop – I try not to have a message, just a series of ideas in which I’m curious what your conclusion will be. In that way, I’m entirely OK with people interpreting it differently, because I don’t want my stories to be about me, I want them to be about the reader. and what they think. What interests me is how people interpret my stories – not whether they interpret it “correctly”.

    I actually think it’s good to read books in your genre, because I think part of being a good creator of any art form involves having the capacity to see something you like and be able to extract, with great specificity, what it is you like ( without doing a copy-paste ) and putting your own spin on it ( take Spider-man, for example. Let’s say you like Spider-man. Well, what is it you like? If you analyse it closely, you might find, for example, you really like the punny quips he’s always saying in the middle of chaos. That’s something you can extract, and not be infringing on anyone’s intellectual property ( an actual discussion on that, what it means in today’s world, and what it should mean, is a topic for another day ( do you take requests? Would you consider that as a topic for a post? ) ). Not only that, but if you do that with one work, and then find another, such as really enjoying the dark, unforgiving world of Spawn, and you merge them together, suddenly you come up with something interesting that you weren’t expecting. Something that’s you, that you want to write about – that combines your interests. Which is ultimately what I think we’re all trying to do ).

    What were we talking about? Genre. Yes. I like horror, although I don’t necessarily keep up with “the trends” ( I have no idea how you’d even do that. Is there, like, a website you can subscribe to? Or do you just have to read a million books and observe the broad sweeping trends yourself? ), mostly because my genre isn’t strictly “horror”, it’s more “surreal horror” – more broadly speaking, I’m not trying to evoke blockbusters, I’m trying to evoke indie films that don’t really care if it’s not broadly appealing, because that’s not the point of my stories ( if I wanted to, I could write your typical modern techno-thriller with a plot you’ve seen a million times before, a hero with the kind of charisma and skill that tend to far outweigh his ( and let’s be honest, in your average book, it would be a “he” ( diversity in fiction and the tumultuous politics surrounding that, being a discussion for another day ( oh, that’s another request – if you take them, that is ) ) ) relatively minor arseholish tendencies, with a dark and troubled past that manages to save day and get the girl. But then I would hate myself and it, but mostly myself ).

    The last thing I want to do is be “marketable”. I don’t mind if people hate what I write, I don’t mind if people think my stories are just provocative for the sake of egoism, I don’t mind if people think I’m just doing the public, literary equivalent of S&M ( maybe don’t think too hard on that image ( hehe, hard ) ). I want to write the stories that I want to write – I want to be able to write a story in which the topic of suicide isn’t skirted around, but tackled directly, I want to write a weird, surrealist story about a guy who writes about storytellers. I don’t want to be hamstrung by beta readers ( or, heaven forbid, a publisher ) declaring that this isn’t to their taste ( or, in the case of a publisher, not “marketable” ).

    I’m curious what other people think – but I’m unconcerned if they don’t like it. Creating any sort of art form is like screaming into the void – there’s no guarantee that anyone can hear you, and if they do, whether they care. Which is why I don’t think anyone should engage in that with the express intent of being heard – because once people are listening, what exactly are you going to say? ( Have you even considered what you’ll say once people are listening? )

    You might be thinking, at this point, that surely I must be done. Nope – like a rant by Harlan Ellison, I keep going.

    You mentioned editors. I have an editor ( tee hee ), who’s the only person whose opinion on my work I will let influence how and what I write ( as that’s kind of what I pay her for ). The number of times I’ve gone against her suggestions can be counted on one hand with a finger or two missing – and every time I’ve had a reason AND I’ve asked myself the question “Am I OK with this criticism of my story?” – to which the answer has been yes, in the instances I’ve gone against. There was one time, fairly recently ( The Bleeding Man Season 4 ), where I took her criticisms and, rather than adhering to her suggestion to cut out sections of the story, took it as a realisation that the various villains that pop up didn’t coherently connect to the plot. So rather than write them out, I changed scenes to demonstrate that the central villain ( who appears at the end ) is directly influencing them, which brought those events back into the overarching plot.

    Because of my planning nature ( ha! It’s time to jump topics again! ) I don’t tend to do more than one draft ( I read over that draft several times, and perform edits on that draft, but I don’t rewrite entire sections ). I personally see writing stories as similar to building a chair – taking a million tries to get it write doesn’t make you poor carpenter, just a poor planner ( and I feel that you’d take less tries if you planned a little more ). Not only that, because of my insistence on writing the story I want to write, I won’t have multiple versions of the story and you’re guaranteed to get the version of the story I want you to read ( I feel that, sometimes, when there’s a publisher or studio involved in making an artwork, that criticisms of that artwork may not relate to the artist, because of their influence. Which means legitimate criticisms may fall on deaf ears, as huge chunks of it may not even be there in the way the artist intended ).

    Now, I don’t want you to end this comment thinking I’m one of these jerks who think only the most starving artist makes the most legitimate work. That’s bollocks. Just because something looks deep, doesn’t mean it is, and just because something is commercial and marketable doesn’t preclude it from being deeply meaningful. I just want you to understand that I highly value my autonomy with regards to writing stories and want to take the opportunity to write stories that no publisher would want to try and market ( oh, my plan for the end of the Spire series pretty much guarantees it couldn’t be marketed ).

    And now, for my dramatic conclusion … I’ve forgotten the question. I don’t even remember what my point was. I’m pretty sure there’s a point here somewhere. Maybe if you squint a bit.

    • I don’t mind you commenting at all! Blogging is a bit like writing in that it’s mostly screaming into the void, and I like to think that sometimes the void takes time to scream back.

      I think it’s very important to draw the line between “taking input” and “letting someone else write it for you”. There’s this whole grey area where it’s possible to get outside opinion but not do anything with it, get outside opinion and make minor changes, and even get outside opinion and make major changes without actually affecting your own vision or intent. It all depends on how good you are at looking at that opinion and deciding how it will affect your story and your vision.

      Just curious – you say both that you are very protective of your artistic intent and that you add weird and confronting things to your books but only for specific reasons. Then you also say that you don’t mind what readers read into the books, or if your intent gets across. How do you, personally, reconcile those? I mean, I’m a bit the same, personally I reconcile them mostly by saying ‘here’s what I mean, but I’m interested in what other people take from this. I’ll just work as hard towards this subtext as possible because I want to avoid implying any of the really terrible accidental subtext.’
      I’d be interested to hear your approach, though.

      As for requests, I definitely take requests, and I’m going to be doing a few posts dancing around those particular topics because they are on my list. I might not do posts directly addressing Diversity because, well, that’s a big topic and a blog post is only so big, so I might break that one down into more bite-sized chunks. I really do want to address infringing on intellectual property, especially because of the arguments surrounding fan-made content and that whole mess (which I’m writing my Master’s thesis on in a few months, so I’ll be getting Very Opinionated about that pretty soon).

      • I tend to take input very seriously ( which is probably related to my, compared to most authors I’m aware of, needless detailed plans ). I guess I’m not very good at differentiating “influence” from “changes to my original vision”.

        What I mean is that I don’t just do weird or confronting for the sake of it, I generally have a sub-textual reason for it ( I feel that legitimises what I’m writing, as well as gives me direction ( as opposed to having weird shit that goes nowhere and means nothing ) ). However, in spite of having a reason for the stuff in my stories, I’m not too concerned if people choose to interpret it differently ( even up to having the opinion that it’s just weird for the sake of weird ). I suppose I’m protective about my ability to write something weird and confronting, because I feel my part and begins and ends with knowing, from my perspective, that I did right the thing by writing it for a purpose and because other people’s opinions are outside of the scope of that, I’m not too concerned if no-one else ever stumbles on those original intentions ( but that’s also part of my belief that stories are defined more by the audience’s opinions of it, than of the intent of the writer ( although I still believe the right thing to do is to have an intent to begin with ) – there have been plenty of artworks that the creator considers their magnum opus that have are long forgotten in the public eye, whereas the one everyone knows is a work that creator did very quickly and just for the money ( oh, that’s another request – a look at magnum opus dissonance; the relationship between an author’s opinion of their work versus the audience’s opinion of the work ( sorry about throwing these requests at you, I just genuinely like your well thought out observations. It reminds of YouTube series that I watch – like “Brows Held High” and “Loose Canon” ( both of which I recommend ) ) ) ).

        Part of that also means I’m not actually worried if there’s some terrible accidental subtext – if someone reads into my story and declares that it’s sexist or racist then I’m quite OK with that. It’s entirely possible that it is, and that I’m in the wrong. I’m not afraid to be wrong – being wrong is the first step in moving toward being right ( sometimes I feel like we live in a rather vindictive time that has forgotten that mistakes shouldn’t mean the end of the world ).

        Ooh, I’m glad you take requests. I’m genuinely interested in what you have to say ( and I’ll totally understand, especially with a topic like “Diversity”, if you want to tread carefully, considering people have brought down half of the internet onto themselves for saying what a bunch of less than pleasant people decided was “the wrong thing” ( and also because you may not be interested in political proseltyzing ( I never realised how wrong the world “proseltyzing” looked before. It literally just looks like a jumble of letters masquerading as a word ) ) ). Also, your thesis sounds really cool – on a tangentially related note ( because I didn’t choose to go on and do a Masters at University ), assuming all goes well, will your thesis be published in one of those fancy journals?

      • I may have occasionally sat down and watched Brows Held High for way too many hours at a time. I love that series dearly, but I’ll have to check out Loose Canon.

        I definitely worry a lot about whether something I write has sexist/racist/ableist/etc. subtext in it, so I would definitely prefer to be told about it than to have people get hurt by something I write without me ever getting the chance to address it. Also, if I’m not told about it, I might do it again, which would be terrible. I do agree with you that the reader’s interpretation is, to the reader at least, more important than the author’s intention.

        I’m taking down all these requests. I’ll try and address them as best I can, but some of them might need to be in the works for a while!

        Also, not sure how it works with a Master’s thesis – I think it might just get fancy binding and a spot in the University library plus a copy for me to take home, but I could very well be wrong on that.

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