Avoiding the Cookie-cutter AND Being Too Weird
When you create art, you must make a decision about how far from the center of the crowd you feel comfortable standing. Too close to the mainstream, and you may get only a few critics who laud your minor variation on a previous story or trope. Too close to the fringe, and only a small handful of critics recognize your daring genius. Where is that middle ground between novelty and familiarity?
Humans are functionally herd animals. Our tribal social structure has more to do with wolf packs and herds of cattle than solitary spiders and raptors. We band together so that the sick and weak are protected. We work together to gather what food we can for the good of our tribe. And in community, we pass along knowledge to multiply our experiential knowledge.
One way we transmit tribal knowledge is through art. The earliest cave paintings and written languages allowed humans to transmit values and knowledge beyond the living members of their tribe. Early art and literature shows evidence of slowly making a transition from recounting perceived truth (journalism, accounting) to a creative expression of something hoped for. At first, that was just a religious/magical invocation of a future we wanted to see: a successful hunt, a bountiful harvest, a big family.
Eventually, story became a way that we transmitted values. Parables and fairy tales taught the young social custom, morality, and ethics. For example, the fairy tale of Snow White includes the big message that a pure and kind heart will always win out over selfishness and evil, but it also cautions the innocent about being too trusting; someone may give you a poison apple.
As art drifted further from morality plays and fairy tales, the artistic impulse melded with the scientific explosion. The same impetus that gave us penicillin gave us Madame Bovary. A desire to give audiences a new experience, to broaden their experience and challenge them, became the goal of art.
And then it got a bit weird. Some artists got so far out there, they were difficult to appreciate. I know there are some ardent fans of abstract expressionism and the avant-garde, but I am not one of them. I remember as a child in the 1970s going to a band camp in Madison, Wisconsin, and being asked to improvise based on a sheet of paper filled with circles of various sizes. That seemed too silly to me.
At the same time, I have watched, especially in digital entertainments, how one ill-advised sequel births yet another. In my humble opinion, the Die Hard franchise could have stopped back in 1988 after one film, and the world might have become a better place for that mercy. Even one of the most august defenders of originality, the opera, has fallen prey to the onslaught of too many entertainment choices and offered to stage “The Shining” (from the novel, but after a film and a miniseries) and “The Exterminating Angel” (from the film).
I see this reliance on the comforting repetition in the book publishing industry as well. Books are still sold in decreasing frequency to book stores, and in that process, the poor salesperson calling a book buyer has to convince him or her to take more than one test copy of a book that has no track record to boast. So they make comparisons:
This is the new Girl with the Dragon Tattoo!
This is a mashup of Twilight and Avatar!
Comps, as literary agents have shortened these deplorable tags to, are increasingly the standard by which they judge a new story’s marketability. The assumption is that if you can’t tie it to what’s come before, you are too far out for any publisher to sign you.
Too many professionals in publishing who rely on comps don’t seem to realize how they are killing creativity. If I know when I start a new novel that I’m going to need to boil it down to one or two predecessors, I will unconsciously start to limit my creative choices.
When I write (or when I compose for that matter), I am naturally going to draw on what has come before. Each art form and genre within them has expectations as basic as what parts of a canvas you paint on to how early in a murder mystery novel you need to produce a corpse. But do I really need to end a musical phrase on the tonic? Do I really need to limit myself to one point-of-view character at a time?
I long ago discarded any notion that I needed to fit in. I found that learning new things, experiencing new things made me feel the most alive. So when you see a gathering of published authors in the future, you will probably see me on the fringe. Not in another room or crammed into a corner, but I want to be able to look out from the crowd and see the world, not just the other artists around me.
I urge you, in your life in general, but most definitely in your art, to step out a bit from the crowd. Dare to be rejected or criticized. And when you join us on the edge, doing weird stuff with your art, you will find comrades.
And it will be glorious!