There is a romantic, and elitist, view that artists are gifted with an insight the public (and the apparatus that distributes their gift to the public) doesn’t have. That when this gift is discovered and shared, it is to be pondered, and where necessary interpreted by scholars that have devoted themselves to the study of these artists’ work.
It’s a view that has enabled the traditional publishing industry to operate in a cloister, deeming certain works worthy of publication; and it has been a practical view because there just wasn’t enough money, time or shelf-space to publish every book out there. There had to be a selection process of some sort and, subjectivity just had to be trusted.
Of course technology put a big fat boot on this thinking and made what once seemed impractical, totally possible. Mundane even. Now, we don’t have to have our reading choices filtered or curated for us by literary agents and publishers if we don’t want to, though most of us still want and need them to be given the sheer volumes of digital literary content now available to consume. The floodgates have been opened via (mostly) affordable self-publishing tools, social media promotion engines and platforms that enable writers to take more control of the business of writing.
In “Books, Just Like You Wanted,” writer David Streitfeld notes that technology is enabling novelists to receive precise data and, in the process, influencing some to cater more directly to their readers.
“If you write as a business, you have to sell books,” Streitfeld quotes young adult author Quinn Loftis. “To do that, you have to cater to the market. I don’t want to write a novel because I want to write it. I want to write it because people will enjoy it.”
Loftis’ raison d’ecrit defies the aforementioned romance of the artist’s process. Instead of tortured, the artist is pragmatic and democratic. The reader comes first, and so the artist has a higher propensity to sell. This doesn’t have to mean the writer is a sell-out, losing her or his voice in the process as some of Streitfeld’s commenters suggests.
Writers are gifted with the ability to express what most cannot easily put in words, and to hold up a mirror to the reader. If they are true to that gift it does not have to be compromised by readers’ feedback or metrics. If anything, these should be honing agents.
Nor does it have to mean “popular” is/will be the enemy of “good.” Cultural arbiters love to make the distinction between pop-culture and highbrow art, but in a society that is increasingly globalized via the internet–Beyoncé says she came across author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk on feminism on YouTube, before choosing to sample it on her song “***Flawless”–what does that separation even mean anymore? And what will it mean? Andy Warhol’s “pop-art” wasn’t initially popular with the elite–now only the wealthy can afford to buy it. Both “good” and “popular” are moving targets as society evolves.
That said, I think it’s necessary to decide what to preserve. Culture is built on a bedrock of been-there-tried-thats. The goal is to take things forward. But at the same same, we can’t be afraid to make the decision of what’s worthy of preservation more democratic. The conversation about what should survive the next generation should be heated; fire purifies. And when it’s done, if we lose the argument, we just have to love what we love anyway (perhaps preserve it on the internet?).
In Streitfeld’s piece, a spokeswoman for Oyster Books which plans to share metrics with writers, reveals, data is also exposing that people might not be as into the classics and other “highbrow” literature as they say they are. “[E]veryone is nostalgic about the classics from A.P. English, but no one actually finishes them,” she says. It’s okay to admit you didn’t like Anna Karenina or can’t get into The Iliad. It’s also cool if you never could finish Eat, Pray, Love or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or Tar Baby or Gone Girl or The God of Small Things. Also perfectly fair to have loved all of these books and the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.
At the end of the day, writing is about the connection the writer makes with the reader or viewer, and the reader, the writer. Like love, that connection isn’t quantifiable, or static. It’s why you read a book or watch a play/movie at a certain time in your life and it resonates on every level, then just doesn’t years later. And why writers need discerning readers (aka editors and kind friends) to help them shape their work. Metrics will never change that. If anything, they help lead writers to the ones that get them, and in turn help consumers find the ones they’ve been looking for amidst all the clutter.