Sellin’ Out With My Baby

by Tom Ingram

One of the questions science fiction authors dread being asked is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Whether it’s Lawrence Watt-Evans, Neil Gaiman, or Charles Stross, they all seem to be baffled by this question. How do you not get ideas? The question is so common and so annoying that a prominent science fiction author (Douglas Adams or Harlan Ellison, depending on who you ask) took to answering, “a small mail-order firm in Indiana”.

But the question persists. It seems that the story-reading public has a misplaced emphasis. While they seem to believe that good science fiction (and good literature in general) comes from coming up with the Right Ideas due to your truly Creative nature, the authors maintain that no, there really is no trick. You just make shit up. The hard part is putting the ideas together in a way that makes sense and is interesting to read.

I suspect the reason for this disparity is that the actual writing process is dangerously close to work. There’s a popular image of authors as free spirits who achieve riches without ever having to do real work. After all, you come up with a great idea. After that the rest is easy. But whatever it is, there’s a side effect to this persistent delusion: it devalues a creative person’s actual effort in our minds.

That brings me to an old bugbear: the idea that doing anything creative for money is “selling out”. This is a prominent theme in The Catcher in the Rye, where Holden says his brother is “prostituting himself” by writing for Hollywood, and it’s taken for granted that a real, talented creative person has no business in business.

This is a bad idea. It’s harmful to creative types first and foremost. Established artists are cynically sneered at, told they’ve “sold out”, and lose some fans. That’s not so bad, but the real harm is to up-and-comers who are convinced that money taints art, and resolve to have nothing to do with it. Either they self-publish to avoid contaminating their vision with editors and quality, or else they try to lead Bohemian, beret-wearing lives where it’s OK to make art for money, so long as you don’t enjoy it and all the money is spent on recreational chemicals.

But the “selling out” mindset also hurts the people who believes in it. It makes you into an arrogant, elitist prick that no one wants to be around. It makes you miss anything with populist appeal or, in extreme cases, anything that anyone else has heard of. It blinds you to the truth: sometimes a piece of art is “indie” because the suits can’t understand its unique vision. But more often, it’s “indie” because it’s too shitty to find a real market.

The fact is that while it’s good to have a small number of people involved in a creative endeavour to avoid diluting it, editors, producers, and other “stuffed suits” play an important role in keeping the artist’s unstable mind in check. It’s a truism in literature that once an author becomes popular and gains more pull with their editor, there’s a risk that they’ll start putting out crap unedited because they can*. The editor provides sobre second thought from a (relatively) normal person and prevents the author from making a fool of themselves in public. The producer of a rock album keeps the drugged out and irresponsible musicians on track. They prevent the lead guitarist from abruptly changing the heavy metal-themed album into a gypsy jazz project upon discovering “Minor Swing”.

The Lesson for Starving Artists: Sometimes “the man keeping you down” is the only thing preventing you from hurtling off the face of the Earth and into a ravenous void of retardation and insanity.

Cracked Topics: George Lucas

These people have a much more important job, though. They know the markets. They know what people like and what will sell. Crucially, they know that what people say they like and what they actually buy doesn’t necessarily coincide. According to one story, Lois McMaster Bujold hated the garish space opera covers Baen provided for her books. She once convinced the publisher to change one of the covers to something less horrifying. That became her worst-selling book. She grudgingly admitted that while she knows how to keep a reader entertained, she’s got nothing on the publisher when it comes to moving product.

You might be horrified by this degrading description of art as an item for sale. How could somebody think of literature, the truest of True Art, like that? Well, this is how it is: a book, the collection of words that tell a story, is a piece of art that changes people’s lives, has relevance to the human condition, et cetera et cetera. A book, the collection of papers bound with a cover, is one of many units to be sold. Literature is a form of business as much as art. That’s the way it should be.

Art is useless if it doesn’t mean anything to anybody. That’s why Justin Bieber is a better musician than John Cage. While Bieber might be a manufactured tweenie-pop icon**, he pumps out music that people like. It means something to them.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, John Cage was a highly trained classical pianist. But now he’s only a joke, a punchline. He’s only remembered for one thing these days: the piece 4’33”. It consists of nothing but four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. He even wrote a score that consists of nothing but rests (or, in the condensed edition, a tacet on each movement). While John Cage was, by any reasonable standard, an excellent composer and talented musician, nobody cares about his music except as a cautionary tale of True Artists who lost perspective and became ridiculous caricatures.

Ideally the message in the art is something weighty and important, but it’s more crucial that the message actually gets out there. It gets out there by being sold, and it gets sold by having a broad appeal. It gets a broad appeal by making compromises. The most important novel of all time will be worthless if nobody reads it.

I like people who have sold out. There’s a kind of hardworking sincerity in that kind of art that’s missing in the Bohemian elitist type. They don’t turn up your nose if you don’t get it. Instead, they recognize that their job is to help you get it. A poorly understood, confusing, obscure work of art is a bad work of art.

* See, for example, Robert A Heinlein. [return]

** Although as far as this type goes, he’s not bad. [return]