Art as Product vs. Art as Idea

Since it seems like recently I’m on a spree of writing all the blog posts I vaguely hinted at in previous posts but hadn’t written up until now. Sorry about the sequel barrage – I promise I’ll start coming up with actually new content soon.

So there’s an idea that I dance around a lot on this blog, or an amalgamation of a few ideas. It’s the idea of whether we create things in order to create a product for other people to consume, or whether we create art that we like, and if other people happen to like it as well, then so much the better. I’ve said before that I think this is a sliding scale, and that it’s a bit disingenuous to treat it as a binary all-one-or-the-other thing (though let’s face it, this is how Internet arguments tend to play out because that’s how the Internet tends to go).

I think this ties into another binary as well: there’s the idea of art for others vs art for self, too. Whether you create art as a thing for other people to consume or whether you make art in order to express yourself. This, too, is a sliding scale that tends to get overblown into a binary. I think that the core idea of these two things is very similar: it comes down to the level of approbation or validation from others that the creator wants, versus how much it matters to them to get their thought down on the page unadulterated and unaffected by outside concerns. I will only be talking about the product vs idea side of things here, but keep in mind that a lot of my points can apply equally to this false dichotomy as well.

Let’s start, as usual, with our conflict of interest declaration: I’m definitely on the sliding scale rather than fully on one end or the other. If I had to put numbers do it, I’d say I’m probably on 70% others/30% self and about 60% product/40% idea. But I did have to debate that second set of numbers pretty extensively with myself before I wrote it down, so take that with the grain of salt it deserves. I think any where between that, 50/50 even split, and 60% idea/40% product would all be pretty fair assessments of my views depending on how you defined things.

And of course, I’ll be writing this from the perspective of an author so that I can talk about genres and things with some degree of authority. This absolutely applies to any creative pursuit, it just so happens that writing is the one I know most about.

So: art as product. If you want to take the quintessential, all-the-way argument, this is that if you’re producing art that goes out into the world (especially if you’re asking money for it), you’re producing a product to be purchased and consumed, and you should deport yourself as such. Awareness of current trends is emphasised so that you can be aware what people are tired of and not likely to spend money on, and what is popular right now and thus is likely to be purchased. There is another side to this, too: the people who want to make art simply for enjoyment. The genres this is most stereotypically part of are thrillers and romance novels (which is absolutely not to say that these are always or always have to be mindless genres: there are also certainly fantasy and sci-fi novels whose authors have this approach. It’s just that when having this discussion, these genres are often the ones that are chosen to typify this kind of outlook). In this category there’s also the argument, which has some merit, that due to how things are arranged these days, writers need to be popular in order to be listened to at all, since there are so many books and so much other media vying for our attention, so one must pay attention at least a little to one’s readership in order to continue to make books.

The other side is art as expression, or art as idea. This side of the argument looks down on works that are (or seem to be) paint-by-numbers, the same story with the serial numbers filed off to capitalise on a trend or an existing audience without innovating. The creative process, according to this group, is the reason why we create: why make art if you’re not trying to bring something new to the table? This group tends to pay attention to genres and tropes because they want to know what’s already been done, where the new avenues are, and what they can tweak and change to subvert expectations. It’s all very well to get paid, they say, but stories written for mass consumption tend to be bland things, made to please all and offend nobody, and is it really worth producing something if you’re too afraid to say what you actually mean?

As I said above, I don’t believe these concerns are mutually exclusive (you may have noticed that binaries aren’t really my thing in general). I do believe that the question is more one of balance.

I do, for example, think that it’s totally fine to just want to write a really fun story that a lot of people will enjoy and that will sell very well, without really wanting to push any particular personal message, or explore any deep concepts. Goodness knows that, now of all times, any book that provides escapism is worth its weight in Unobtainium. And clearly, the reading public wants these books. If we want to read them, someone’s gotta write them. That’s fine. Just don’t expect to also be changing minds and lives – you might, but there’s no shame in being someone’s go-to mindless comfort read either.

I also think it’s totally fine to write a book that’s weird, innovative, incredibly specific to you, labyrinthine, difficult to understand, or just a 500 page rant about whatever it is that’s on your mind. We need those too – if the envelope’s gonna fall off the table, there’s gotta be someone pushing it. We need people experimenting with weird formats, new genres or combinations of genres, and unusual stories. That’s how we figure out new ways to do things, new ideas, new ways to tell stories. That’s also fine. If you want to be on the bleeding edge, though, you can’t also expect to be super popular, widely known, and you’ll probably be sacrificing income. But you’re probably happy with that exchange if you’re this sort of writer. Again, you might end up lucking onto the Next Big Thing, and that’s awesome. But you can’t expect it going in.

My approach is, and always has been, to find the balance you want, and aim for that. I make no secret of this – I want to earn enough money that I can make writing my full-time job. Well, writing and writing-adjacent pursuits, but close enough. I’m not sure I’m the sort of person who is ever realistically going to be doing only one job at any given time. For better or worse. I want to write stories that other people enjoy, and I am absolutely the kind of person who crafts stories to get specific reactions out of the readers.

But there’s also a reason I did an English degree and it’s because I’m a complete wanker. Technical term. I do also want to write stories that mess with media and formats, with tropes and expectations, to convey ideas and create experiences that people haven’t found before. I am happy to sacrifice some marketability in order to write something that’s a bit more experimental. I’m happy to be the kind of writer that the ‘real’ literary writers look down on for being fake-deep, for doing a little bit with theme and medium, but of course any literary reader worth their salt could name three other writers who did the same thing first, and probably more adventurously. Would I like to create something truly new? Sure, that’d be awesome. Am I going to? Only if I get very, very lucky.

Now, the million-dollar question: Do I think it’s possible to do both? I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive, sure, but do I think it’s possible to really it that perfect 50% split, where you’re trying to do both as much as possible at once?

Well …

There are some trade-offs to make, sure. I think it’s probably impossible, but not necessarily for the reasons you might expect.

I don’t, for example, think it’s necessarily true that a book that’s experimental with style can’t be readable, enjoyable, and thrilling. I don’t think all books that are artistic and innovative also have to be dense and impenetrable. I also don’t think that books that are enjoyable romps can’t also have symbolic, artistic or structural depth and innovation to them. On that count, no, I don’t think you have to choose one or the other, and I think it’s very possible to do both at once.

But.

This is where demographics come in.

Now I reject the idea that people today only want mindless entertainment, and the volume of ‘lowbrow’ genre fiction on the shelves versus the ‘highbrow’ literary fiction is indicative of a lack of general intelligence or a willingness to ‘settle for less’ out of art. For several reasons, I think this is a pile of [insert uncharitable comparison here].

But it is true that not everyone wants your literary deconstruction in their wizard duels.

Books that are true to genre, that use tropes and don’t mess with them too much, and are in formats and media we’re familiar with are by definition easier to read,and people are likely to read more of them. People who read exclusively for escapism are, yes, likely to actively avoid books that mess with the formula too much. And they have different buying habits from people who want to read mainly books that challenge them, make them think, and possibly require them to sit with the book, read deeply and process it. If you do want to make money, then that’s something that you’ll have to be aware of. You might not care if you’re an art-for-art’s-sake writer, but remember we’re not talking about those: we’re talking about people who want to both write commercially viable products and be innovative.

Essentially, the problem is that you’re trying to write a book that satisfies two different needs. You want a book that people have to really pay attention to and sit with and think about, but also a book that feels inviting and accessible to the reader. Not mutually exclusive, obviously, but that’s a real fine tightrope to walk.

Another thing: innovation requires experimentation. Experimentation requires doing things that you aren’t sure will work. Writing is a hard thing to make money on: the sheer number of books on the market means competition is stiff, and any survey of industry data will tell you that most authors don’t earn enough to quit their day job, if they earn anything at all. Especially if you’re new on the scene (in terms of number of published works, not necessarily experience), then how many failed experiments can you afford to make per moderate seller? On top of that, if you’re really thinking your books through and paying attention to your craft, your symbolism, your word choice, how many books could you realistically publish per year? Or will it take you several years to write each book?

Now, that’s not to judge the amount of time it takes you to write a book – write one every five years, one every five months, you do you. Just that writers who want to pay attention to the craft side of things tend to take longer to write books than those who are more interested in marketability (on average, and on a very informal data gathering technique known as ‘people the author of this post has had experience with’). It’s purely for the marketing maths. If you’re an author who publishes only one book every, say, two years, how many of those need to be successes over a ten-year period to keep you commercially viable?

This is what happens when you introduce commercial concerns into writing. I’m not going to deny that this type of thinking can absolutely stifle creativity. After all, it’s incredibly daunting to an author who already feels their career is precarious to also be confronting the possibility that their first works, while people are still forming their opinions about the author, could tank their career forever. That’d absolutely make a lot of people play it safer, write something maybe less adventurous but that they know will have a better chance of success. And then there’s the whole problem of people who start writing ‘crowd-pleasers’ to get a platform and then find that they’re worried about what will happen to their ‘brand’ if they start writing something new now. That sucks, and it’s something that the people who aren’t trying to be commercially viable don’t have to worry about, for sure.

But if you do want to make writing something that pays the bills, well, they’re the decisions you’ll need to make, the factors you’ll need to consider when you’re writing. Me, I’m going to continue to try and be experimental, and to offset the chance of failure with quantity. But then, a solid sleeping schedule and a knowledge of my own limitations haven’t ever really been my strong points, so make of that what you will.

And of course, don’t be afraid to just make art that you think is fun. We need that sort of thing, too, and I’m not here to tell you that anything that isn’t highbrow isn’t worth spending time on. I’m certainly not sacrificing fun in order to experiment. If that’s what it takes to get invited to the Literary party, then that’s not a party I want to be invited to, thanks.

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