Is popular literature as innovative as other creative disciplines? May the unanswerable argument commence!
Never has there been a subject with so much, er, subjectivity. But the thought that popular literature is less innovative than other creative forms, such as music, art, film and dance, is certainly an interesting one. What does “innovative” exactly mean in this context? Well, I suppose one way of measuring innovation is by looking at the relationship between genre and success. In popular literature, it could be argued, what is successful is determined greatly by the genre of writing. For this reason publishing houses compete to produce the next big thriller/romance/historical fiction etc. Unless, as a budding writer, your project fits into one of the mainstream categories of established readership tastes, it is very unlikely you will be able to secure an agent, or a publishing deal. However, in music this relationship is somewhat reversed – what is successful defines what becomes a new genre. Sure, there’s the manufactured Cowell end of things, but if one were to look at the amount of music genres considered part of popular culture one would quickly see how this art form is constantly spawning new areas of interest and new mediums of expression: Brit rock, garage rock, post-punk, heavy metal, new rave, Nu-folk, dubstep, synthpop – all of these genres contain a multiplicity of sub-genres.
Now of course, I can hear some people standing up at this moment and shouting at the screen, nay, attacking it even for giving such a poor account of literature in the modern age. Of course there are those incredible works that blaze a trail for a new wave of writers, and works which are daring in their ingenuity. But these are often left to dwell in the distant fringes of the mainstream literature scene, struggling to fight their way to the front and attain the same status as their more conventional counterparts.
So the crux of the question is this – what is it about the creative disciplines that determines its rate of growth into new areas. Why should mainstream music, art and even cinema (e.g. The Artist) be pushing the boundaries of innovation when mainstream literature remains more yoked to its traditional genre forms? There is no answer, because this is a subjective viewpoint, but there’s no harm in looking at some of the contributing factors that determine the course of a creative process.
Before there is the idea, there is the person whohas it. The number of people contributing to an art form has a huge impact on its success, without them the libraries and galleries would be very bland indeed. With regards to literature, luckily we live in a country of high literacy rates, so the skill to form prose is more or less open to everyone. With music and art, however, a degree of equipment may be required to execute ideas, which can have an effect on the number of people able to take part. In film, this element is even greater – unless you have the money, expertise, and manpower, and equipment it would be impossible to execute ideas. Even though all of these costs can be reduced by favours, the pressure factor still denies those film makers who have great ideas but simply no connections to help it progress. On the basis of participation, then, you would have to say that literature should be doing very well.
It’s all very well having an idea, but converting it from the mind into something that can be consumed by others is an altogether different task. This is perhaps where literature begins to lose ground on its creative counterparts in terms of success. Obviously the type of project in hand has a large bearing on the ability to pull it off, but writing a novel is a very large and complicated feat to attempt, similar to perhaps creating a feature length film in this regard. That’s not to say either art or music is easy, but that they come packed in smaller creative units, such as the song or a painting which, on their own, have the power to achieve success. An author would struggle to submit one chapter for the adoration of the world because the story will always remain incomplete. So the size of the creative project has a large bearing on its ability to be executed. This in turn affects the number of ideas that reach the next point, dissemination.
Ok, you’ve made the masterpiece. The hard work is done, sit back and relax, oh wait…no…scratch that, the hard work is only just starting. That’s right, many a creative person has been worn down, even killed in some drastic cases, by the sudden realisation that their masterpiece does not have legs. You’ve got to get it out there yourself. Now with words that’s not so difficult, just press Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V and boom, you’re there. But if it’s a novel, that’s not going to work. Novels are expensive to print, expensive to store, and expensive to distribute. How much does an author make from a book that retails for, say, £8? Well, depending on the publisher, a majority of writers will struggle to get past the one pound barrier.
What about other genres? Well, low budget cinema can have an easier life when it come to dissemination, because we now live in a world of media software such as youtube that can help promote material with ease. Music also can be spread about in a purely virtual fashion with relative ease. The equipment needed, such as microphones and software usually come free with most laptops, and uploading work to a major distributer, such as itunes, can take a relatively short and inexpensive period of time. There aren’t so many middle men you see, and middle men have a big say on what is going to happen. For instance, generally it is very hard to get a large scale publisher without the attention of the agent, yet the agent will be looking to see what sells in the first place. If taken on, the publisher may then consult their marketing team, who will consult their advisors to see what might sell, and the next thing you know the editors are doing redrafts after redrafts.
The model is therefore very much top-down in large scale popular literature in terms of who controls the creative process. If you go the unofficial dissemination route of self-publishing, it is very hard to gain the right exposure and cost effective economies of scale. For this reason dissemination is the stage that can really catch out a number of literary works seeking success.
Yum yum, it’s time to be appreciated as the adoring fans gobble up your latest offering – but here’s the last big problem in the jigsaw – with no established fans the whole creative process can end up redundant and unloved if the attempts at dissemination have failed. Budding writers discover this to their peril. Having journeyed to the edge of reason, and in most cases base-jumped over to the other side where insanity dwells, writers can be crushed to find out that no one is interested in their sacrifice. This is where the established genre has a big bearing on what makes it into mainstream literature. Books that slot into their pre-existing cannon, such as the thrillers, the crime novels, the fantasy, the romance are successful, because there is already a readership waiting to munch on more of the same. Because of the generally top-down nature of the creative process in literature, publishers are often unwilling to take a gamble on work that might challenge conventional tastes if it strays too far off the beaten track, no matter how brilliant and insightful it is.
In other genres, the pressure constraints are also immense. A production company won’t take on a film it doesn’t think will target an audience; neither will a gallery, neither will a record company. The situation is pretty much the same across the board – if you want to make it on your own, you have to be simply brilliant to bend the people at the top to your will. Otherwise you will find yourself bending to theirs. And they like to limbo, so watch out.
FOOTNOTE: There are lots of factors I have left out here, and I know I haven’t given as much detail to the other creative forms as I have of literature. But I wanted to stimulate thoughts so I have kept things short and sweet rather than long and frankly boring.