Just how many times a day is Law & Order on anyway? Can’t we just give it its own network and be done with it? Really. I’m totally cool with that. I’d probably even watch it. Meanwhile, I can’t get a single Knight Rider rerun. Where’s the justice in this universe? Sure, I could spring for the DVDs, but should I have to? Isn’t it odd that we have so many more hours of television available to us yet it seems like we have less and less variety.
This is my primary complaint with Syfy channel. Do we really need another Stargate spinoff? And, all things considered, does Caprica serve any useful purpose? Short answer: No. I’m not criticizing these shows (well, yes, I am, but I’m just one guy with one opinion) but it just bugs me that we keep repackaging the same ideas. We always have, but at least we used to hide it, slap on a nice coat of paint, invent new names for old concepts. Now that’s just not commercial enough.
Of course, the television networks, movie executives, and publishing houses will reply, “But we’re just giving the audience what they want.” And it’s hard to argue with that. But this is my blog and I like to throw out unusual points of view, so I’ll give it a shot.
Art and entertainment is not a one-way street. Most artists don’t sit around in the dark, waiting to be told what to create by the audience. I know that when I write a book I do so based on what idea seizes me, what strikes me as worth writing about. I’ll admit I’m a brave soul. Heck, I’m one of a handful of modern fantasy writers that has yet to write a series or even stick with a specific fantasy sub-genre. Am I unique? Hardly. But it is an unusual enough position that it is worth noting.
And, let’s be straight about this, I get requests for sequels. At one point, I have gotten these requests for all of my books. These are always complimentary, and I’m always glad to hear them. But sequels and series just don’t interest me. So, yes, while I love every single fan, I’m also perfectly willing to ignore them to a certain degree. Even when they’re offering encouraging words.
This is part of my job as a creator. I can’t always give the audience what it wants. Or I could, but I choose not to. Why? Is it arrogance? Is it stupidity? Is it artistic integrity? Or is it none of the above? I don’t know. Honestly, at times I find it all of these things. Couldn’t it be perceived as arrogant to dismiss the requests of people that are paying you good money to make up stories? Isn’t it a bit stupid to deny fans the right to pay you for a product their clamoring for? And couldn’t it be thought of as having integrity to refuse to write something I’m just not excited about because if I’m not excited, how can I expect the audience to be?
Beats the hell out of me.
My point though is that my career has had its ups and downs and my lack of a defining series makes me something of an anomaly. Yet I’m doing pretty good. People are still paying me to write. Fans might like a Gil’s sequel or an Automatic Detective sequel or another adventure of Monster. But they also seem to like the other things I write too.
In short, I’m denying the audience something, but I’m giving them something else in return. Something that I definitely think is worth giving. And I have fans. (Forgive me for repeating myself on that point, but it still kind of surprises me.) And those fans might have a favorite book, but they do still like what I write because there are people out there who like awesome things. And I love writing about awesome things, so it all works out just super for everyone.
The problem with giving the audience what it wants is that there is no faster way to stagnation. I’m not critizing the audience for loving familiar characters and worlds and wanting to see more of them. But, well, that’s something that is worth mentioning. While it might be good for an artist’s living to give the audience exactly what they request, it isn’t necessarily good for either the audience or the artist in the long run.
As a long time comic book fan, I see the cost of stagnation in a medium I used to love. If you love Wolverine, Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, you can buy these guys out the yin yang. If you’re a fan of the new Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, or Gravity, you’re out of luck. And it’s true that Blue Beetle is not going to sell as many comic books as Wolverine will. But Wolverine wasn’t a sales phenomenon out of the gate. It took time to develop the character, his place in the world, his personality. It took time for him to build an audience. It’s easy to forget that the X-Men weren’t a commercial juggernaut for many years. In today’s give the audience what it wants world, the original X-men comic would’ve been canceled unceremoniously.
The audience doesn’t always know what it wants.
Let’s just assume that many people reading this right now are fans of mine. (Have I mentioned I have fans?) And let’s assume that many of these fans enjoyed The Automatic Detective. Before reading that book, did these fans wake up thinking, “I really wish there were more retro-sci fi pulp, crime noir robot detective pastiche stories being written.” I seriously doubt it. And was anyone asking for a story of modern gods sitting on the sofa, watching Spanish soap operas?
Whenever someone tells me, even with the best of intentions, that they wish I would write a sequel to X, I always wonder if they disliked all my other novels. If they only enjoyed one book, then I can see where they’re coming from. But if they liked two or three of my novels, then don’t they realize that if I wrote a series, then one of their favorite books (hey, it’s my blog. allow me to fantasize.) would never have existed.
But, just to show that I’m not using this as an excuse to simply write about myself, I’d like to offer a more culturally relevant example.
A movie like Iron Man 2 is supported by a massive advertising campaign. The movie makes millions at the box office. Meanwhile, a smaller film flounders in obscurity. Is the success or failure of either due entirely to giving the audience what they want? Or can we see a cycle unfolding where a constant stream of media exposure and well executed marketing campaign succeeds in creating demand? Add to this the good will and eagerness of an audience that enjoyed the original Iron Man film, and it’s not hard to see that the audience isn’t necessarily the sole force deciding what it gets.
This isn’t a criticism of Iron Man. I rather enjoyed the original movie, and I’m cautiously optimistic that the sequel will be good. Though I’ll admit I’m a touch worried that it’s already strayed into the superhero movie trap of having way too many characters and plot points for its own good. But that’s another blog entry.
I suppose my point here is that, even if one believes that all the audience wants is sequels, spinoffs, and series, that’s not necessarily a good reason to give that to them. Because the audience is smarter, more imaginative, and more eager to enjoy an original story than they themselves realize. And why shouldn’t that be true? It’s not the audience’s job to be creative. That’s the creator’s job. If you could write your own cannibal witch love story, you wouldn’t need me now, would you?
Of course, it’s easy for me to say that because I’m fortunate enough to be successful following that philosophy. Trust me, I know how damned lucky I am too. Still, I don’t think I’m so fabulously talented that more people couldn’t be doing what I do. There are plenty of talented artists out there. Tons of them. And I in no way want to suggest that they’re selling out or less talented for writing series, but I don’t think it’s a tremendous leap to also suggest that perhaps some writers find themselves trapped in a trap of audience expectations.
Giving the audience what it wants isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t always a good thing either. How many Saw movies do we really need at this point? Sure, they make money, and people line up every Halloween to see them, almost like it’s become more of a tradition than anything else. And do we really need a re-imagining of Star Trek? Yes, it was a fun film that I enjoyed immensely, but can’t we do more than slick repackaging of old ideas that the audience will eagerly devour.
I suppose my complaint here is not that these films and books exist, but that they continue to dominate because the powers that be throw all their support behind them and then use this endless cycle of audience conditioning and expectations to justify stagnation and unimaginative offerings. Perhaps the best thing about Cameron’s Avatar was that it proved you could make an original film that made a billion dollars that didn’t have to be based on anything else. I didn’t love the film, but, for all those who criticized its originality, I can only say it isn’t another sequel or spinoff. And that’s something I can respect.
OK-Go has managed to build a solid fanbase by eschewing conventional marketing, and instead, trusting that creative, low-budget music videos and songs that they like writing and performing will be commercially viable. They chose to discard the traditional music label route because they found it too restrictive. It seems to be working.
The cycle can be broken, but it’s not the sole responsibility of either the artist or the audience to break it. Because neither is fully responsible for it, but as long as they continue to foist the responsibility on the other, they’ll always have an excuse for playing it safe.
The creators have to trust the audience will enjoy an original idea. The audience has to expect more than the same old idea. Creators have to be willing to sacrifice some short term succes for long term gains. And audiences have to be willing to take a risk on something that doesn’t come with pre-approved characters and concepts. Otherwise, we’re just stuck in an endless loop of empty nostalgia and going through the motions, all in the name of giving the audience what it wants.
We can do better. We just have to be willing to take chances.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,