Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Art and Commercialism

In college, there was a patch of grass on campus surrounded by signs insisting the students keep off the grass. While walking to class one day with a friend of mine (majoring in accounting), he veered to the left, obeying the sign's declaration of dominion. I went straight--through the grass. He stopped in a moment of uncertainty. We were late for class. The grass would cut out several minutes of walking time. And I showed not the slightest inclination of choosing his direction over mine.

With a grumbling sort of growl, he gave into peer pressure and scurried over the lawn to walk with me. "The sign says stay off the grass!" He waved his arms wildly around as though I failed to notice I was doing the exact opposite.

"I'm an artist," I said. "I pen my own rules." And with that, continued on my merry way to class. We were still late, even with the short cut over the lawn.

Writers, dancers, artists, musicians--we're kind of an arrogant lot--moody, tempermental, we expect things to go our way simply because we're artists. We think outside the box and expect to be able to walk outside the box too.

Recently a book came out that caused quite a stir. It was literary (word 'literary' said with a slight accent as you lift your nose in condescension). The publisher sent out many review copies to various active reviewers and then threw a tantrum when the reviews came pouring in--most of them negative.

I've heard it a lot, "Don't you people understand art?"

Well, maybe . . . maybe not. I know what I like. I know what kind of music I want to listen to, what kind of paintings I want to look at and hang in my house, what kind of books I like to read. If your art doesn't fit with my tastes that doesn't mean it isn't art, but it doesn't mean I have bad taste either. It just means that our minds didn't meet. Big deal, right?

Well it is a big deal if you're an author looking to make a few dollars on your work--at least enough money to pay for your paper and ink.

I totally get wanting to push boundaries and wanting to be unique, but you have to ask yourself one vital question, "Who am I writing this for?" If your goal is to sell books, then you need to have an audience in mind. It sounds base and crass to consider peddling your art like that, but even the most brilliant artist needs to eat.

Commercialism really isn't evil. What good is a really artsy book that no one wants to read?

Readers expect certain things from every genre. In romance, the guy MUST get the girl. In mystery, you MUST discover who the murderer is before he strikes that final time. Rules . . . even for the artist.

Who is your audience and are you writing the best book you can for them? And if your audience is not the mainstream, be smart and don't send review copies out to mainstream reviewers. If you didn't write for them, then they aren't likely to appreciate your product and will end up hurting sales more than helping. And if you find yourself writing a book with a particular audience in mind, but the book you're writing will betray that audience by going places that audience doesn't want to go, you might want to look at a few signs like "stay off the grass."

There may be a more profound message there.


Kimberly said...

Fascinating insight there, Julie. I wonder if I'm stomping on the grass too much...hmm...

Melanie J said...

Excellent analysis. It's silly to shake things up and then complain if it makes a mess. I'm all for new and different but I reserve the right to disagree with an artist's interpretation of a theme or idea. You are absolutely correct that people need to consider their audience and not complain if they challenge conventions and it makes people uncomfortable. The writer has perhaps chosen the wrong audience, in that case.

Stephanie Humphreys said...

Well said, Julie. A little grass stomping never hurt, but it is bound to upset some people. And if we as writer's didn't bow to a little commercialism, who would read what we write anyway.

melissa c said...

That is very good advice. There have been many times I have picked up a book with a catchy title and great intro only to discover it isn't worth my time to read.

Little things can make you lose an audience. Even if the book IS on Oprah's book club.

Heather B. Moore said...

Great post. While artists might forge their own path across the grass, they shouldn't necessarily set the grass on fire and then complain that everyone ran away from the smoke.

Anonymous said...

Walk around next time. Then you'll be ready for heaven. Even if you're an angel who falls softly.


Pink Ink said...

*What good is a really artsy book that no one wants to read?*

I try not to rail on "literary" writers because I think there is something good to be said about the beauty of language. However, I have read some books before that I am just scratching my head wondering what the story is about, and I don't think any writer should put a reader through that. Or maybe I'm just a dense reader, I don't know :-).