Every artist (or most, I hope) struggles with the question of whether artistic success is the same as artistic merit. The easy answer is that they aren’t the same thing, and I think we all agree on that more or less. We all have obscure artistic failures that we love and mainstream creations we hate. We all understand that taste is subjective, even if we tend to place more value on our own tastes. The answer is easy, but where it leads us isn’t so easy.
From a purely financial point of view, good art is relatively easy to produce. It’s never that easy to create something people will like and be willing to give you money for. Even the greatest artists in the world have their failures and disappointments. But once you develop an audience, once you’ve convinced the audience to like you, and once you give them exactly what you promise them, it’s harder to fail than not.
Most of the time, the audience isn’t dissecting an artistic expression. Most of the time, they audience is just looking for something they can enjoy. The term Brain Candy gets thrown around a hell of a lot, but most media is exactly that. Because the term has Candy as part of it, it’s usually applied to vapid, saccharine confections. Uninspired romantic comedies, silly slapstick, etc. But Brain Candy is ubiquitious. It comes in hundreds of flavors.
For the mature viewer, it can be stories about the Holocaust with respected English actors reciting dramatic monologues.
For tearjerkers, it’s two people falling in love while one of them is dying.
For horror fans, it’s tales of indestructible serial killers and sadistic madmen who throw people in contrived deathtraps.
For Christian audiences, it’s tales of faith lost and regained.
And so on and so on.
The flavors vary. The result is still the same. Most art is not designed to challenge the audience. Most art is designed to give the targeted audience exactly what it wants. No surprises. And that’s not a bad thing. When I order a cheeseburger, I don’t want an experimental goat cheese and alpaca meat sandwich. I want something very specific, and I’m cool with that. We’re all cool with that.
But there’s also a question of value beyond merely entertaining us. I don’t need every story I read to be one that challenges my perceptions of morality or attempts to make me see the world in a different light. But just because something is entertaining, it doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. Brain Candy versus Artistic Merit is a false argument, and one that gets made far too often.
Worse than that, it’s often unfair. I don’t know if A Game of Thrones is great art or not. It’s not my thing. I’m okay with acknowledging that. But, rarely, will it be called frivolous. And maybe it isn’t. But maybe it’s more candy, this one deliberately designed to shock us with its unpleasantness. People open the bag every week and gobble it down, and sometimes, they bite into some horrible confection. Then they sit around talking about how much better their candy is than other people’s candy because it isn’t always sweet.
Is it the unpleasantness that makes art great? I’ve never believed that. There is fantastic unpleasant art, but The Incredibles remains my favorite film of all time. It’s not unpleasant. It’s thrilling, touching, and beautiful. It has robots and superheroes and absurd adventure, and I can devour it readily. It doesn’t need to shock me to be a great story.
Yet I continue to struggle against this assumption. I don’t want to kill off my characters just to show I’m serious, and I don’t want to trade on a brand loyalty either. I honestly want the audience to be excited by the idea, by the discovery, by the chance to enjoy something and possibly provoke a thought or two. I want to be a serious writer in that I want to be taken seriously. I don’t want to write serious books to do it. I used to think that was an ambitious goal. I’m beginning to think it’s just stupid.
I’m not looking for sympathy. Hard to feel sorry for a guy who has managed to make a living writing silly books for the last ten years. Books, I’ll add, I’m very proud of and think are unique and rewarding experiences. No one can say what makes great art or not, but I’d like to think I made some great art along the way now and then. I’d like to think there is something worthwhile among all the robots, monsters, and weirdness.
Are my books candy? Yes.
But the great thing about great art is that it can be candy and still be good for you. I’d like to believe that about my stories too.
Thanks for listening, Action Force.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,