Monday, 14 December 2009

Bread and circuses

Well… almost. Plenty of circuses. Very little bread. Make we should all just eat cake?

We went shopping the other day. Not the weekly stock-up-the-larder scrum, but a let’s-go-to-the-big-town-and-see-if-there-any-treats scrum. We needn’t have bothered. It was a scrum (no disappointment there), but treats? It’s the same old stuff with a bit of tinsel (and not much of that in evidence – it gets in the way of commercial greed, I suppose).

What I did come away with was confirmation of something I already knew, but which was thrown into sharp contrast. That is, we now live in a society that celebrates mediocrity and rewards failure. I could go on about bankers here (stop sniggering) and their truly sickening whining about how you have to pay lots of money to get the best. Lots of money was paid. I doubt whether it was the best staff they got. Cos the system came to the point of collapse and I, along with millions of others who had never been in debt, find ourselves saddled with an effective overdraft in the tens of thousands to keep those idle, useless, greedy, grasping, fuckwit tossers in a job in this country. Frankly, I’d rather they all did fuck off elsewhere; but like all the other wealthy wankers who whine about tax and how they’ll leave the country if it goes up a percentage point or two, they never do. Because they know this is Treasure Island for the rich and greedy.

Oh. Look. I did go on about bankers. I could do the same for politicians. Corrupt. Greedy. Criminal. Lazy-arsed bastards who sat on their backside raking in the dosh, handing out tax money to all their in-bred chums who run consultancies and investment banks and then whining when they get caught out with their noses in the swill. The Big Stink in London no longer comes from all the sewage in the Thames. It comes from all the sewage at Westminster (and Hollyrood etc).

I’ll get to the point eventually, but if I don’t let off a little steam about all the corrupt ignoramuses who make everyone else’s life a misery, my head will explode. And that would make such a mess of the computer screen.

So. For my birthday I was treated to a set of DVDs of Buster Keaton’s full length silent movies. Now, this guy was not perfect; but look at the work he created. Monochrome. Silent. Without the benefit of CGI or stunt doubles. Working both sides of the (sometimes hand-cranked) camera. You don’t have to like his work to appreciate the fact that he took pride in it, worked hard at it, and produced some of the most influential films of all time. Technically brilliant and innovative, funny, entertaining, popular, and at times thought provoking. And nearly lost to us (but that’s a whole other story).

When we went on that shopping trip, I had Buster Keaton on my mind. Not specifically him or his films, but the notion of excellence, the idea that in all our endeavours we should [a] try to do the best we can and [b] celebrate what is good and reward what is good. When it comes to the arts, tastes vary. I like Buster Keaton but cannot stand Charlie Chaplin (although I recognise he was talented); but it seems we are not longer allowed even that choice. The gatekeepers and arbiters have themselves become mediocre. This is to do with money.

The ‘arts’ have become an ‘industry’. Industry must, first and foremost these days, make a return for its investors and shareholders. The majority of shareholders in the larger corporations are… other corporations and pension funds. Their primary concern is maximising their own investment. They do not care about the ‘product’; as long as it sells, that’s fine. In order to maximise profits, they insist that the people in charge, the ones with executive powers, are people whose expertise is money. They in turn hire people whose expertise is selling.

All of these people think in the short term. They like to find cash cows and then milk them as hard and as fast as they can before going in search of the next cow. They are incapable of considering long-term strategies and the health of the herd. Consequently, the cows are put in a position of competing one with another. Only those with a high yield survive (for the moment).

Yield, in this case, is not the amount or quality of what they produce. It is what that can be sold for. It is the profit that can be made. Profit means producing and marketing as cheaply as possible (in relation to the income). This means working to a well-known pattern, using techniques that have worked before. These are the dog (to shift the metaphor) that wags the tail. The tail? That is the piece of creative work.

The creative work, if it is to be chosen for publication (or recording, production, etc), must now conform to a pattern laid down not by artistic sensibilities, but by marketing strategies and financial considerations that go beyond the basic notion of making a profit. Bringing in a penny more than you spent on producing something is a profit. But that is not enough. Far from it. It has to make profit for the agent, for the production company, for the distribution company, for the storage company, the transport company, for the investors, for the shareholders – all those people with their finger in the pie; all those people leeching off the endeavour of an individual.

Artists, of whatever type, carry a vast weight on their backs. If the work they produce is too far out of the ordinary, the marketing people don’t know what to do with it. If they haven’t a clue, the piece is fucked.

Writers, artists, musicians, performers, are expected to conform, to produce the equivalent of the cheap plastic toy. Bright, primary colours, attractive on the surface (with a sickly cute factor), yet on close inspection, badly made, even malformed. And thrown away after it fails to deliver any depth.

Here’s a case in point. Some time ago I wrote a short story. It was accepted by a print magazine but for reasons unconnected with sales, the magazine foundered. I dusted the story off recently as I saw another magazine that looked like it might be the right sort of home for the piece. The rejection had nothing to do with the quality of the writing (or if it did the editor didn’t mention that). What seemed to concern them were aspects of the story that were fundamental to its structure, the story it was telling, and the point it was making. Change those and you have a completely different story. Change them and you have a dumbed down version.

One objection to the story was that it contained short passages in a language other than English. Well, yes. The sections of the story are each separated by a verse from a Tibetan Buddhist prayer. There are some fairly obvious clues in the text. The story is set in Tibet. One of the characters, near the beginning, starts to say a prayer. The prayer is relevant to the story, one of themes of which is the destruction of Tibetan culture, hence the preservation of the Tibetan language. Not a particularly subtle point, and in this day and age anyone curious could find the prayer online (as I did) and find a translation. That also was part of the intention – to engage the reader and get them to go beyond the story and think about these things. Too difficult for the readers of that magazine? I doubt it.

Another objection was that the story was short. Well, yes. The story is that length on purpose. It is just the right length to tell the story. There is no padding, no fluff. There is no padding in the lives of Tibetans. Their lives have been stripped bare by Chinese occupation. The story was stripped bare. The information that comes out of Tibet is also sparse. We get brief glimpses before our view is closed off again by censorship and lies. That is what the story does – it uses this form to convey that sense. Too difficult a concept to grasp? Only if you aren’t engaged in making sense of what you read.

Yet another reason given was that the story was fragmented. Well, yes. For the reasons given above, that also was on purpose. It wasn’t because I couldn’t be bothered to pad out a lengthy narrative that gave us all the details and added a sugary message of hope. I am using language and the structure of the story to convey the fragmentation of Tibetan society.

The editor who rejected the story saw what I had done, but didn’t seem to get the idea that it was done on purpose; that a message can be conveyed by the form of a piece of writing as much as by the words themselves. I am showing, not telling.

Perhaps the readers of that magazine prefer to be spoon fed. Perhaps they are intellectual babies who need pap pushed into their minds. I doubt that is the case, but an editor is deciding for them, instead of allowing them the opportunity to engage with the work and find it difficult and wonder why I have used certain techniques.

Like everyone else, I like to read as a form of relaxation; but even then I want that writing to be of good quality (which is why I like Jack Trevor Story’s Sexton Blake novels – fun, entertaining, and well written). But I also like to read challenging stuff; stuff that jams a spanner in the cogs of my brain and makes me re-assemble things in a different order to get it all working again; things that make me think, challenge my preconceptions, get me wondering about why the author did something in a particular way. Because I know that authors sweat over this kind of thing. They don’t just hammer out words… Well, given the content of book shops these days (with notable and worthy exceptions) you’d be forgiven for thinking that that’s exactly what happens.

I was further exercised by some comments made recently by a literary agent. If you are writing fantasy it had better be between 100,000 and 120,000 words or no one is going to be interested. It explains a lot. It raises a hell of a lot more questions. It certainly explains why we have all those bloated fantasy epics that have clearly been padded out from rather thin short stories… It certainly explains why most fantasy is just so fucking dull, endless bloody re-writes of Tolkien; all that faux renaissance fayre tweeness; all those bloody talking dragons; all those texts that read like someone has vomited the contents of their thesaurus across the page.

A book should be the length it needs to be to tell the story. If that is 60,000 or 70,000 words, that should be fine. If it is 250,000 words – great. To dictate the length… Well, who decided that? Who decided that fantasy should be between 100,000 and 120,000? Some marketing nonentity, I would guess; some pillock who can’t tell the difference between quality and quantity. These people shouldn’t be in charge of editorial decisions. And if they are, they should be shown the quality fiction of the past – fantasy novels (or any other genres if it comes to that) all over, done, and dusted in 180 pages. 180 pages with quality writing, exciting stories, not a single ounce of fat; all of it leaving the reader wanting more.

I know writing is a commercial enterprise, but who let the bean counters in? Why are we letting them get away with it? Why are agents acquiescing in this? Why are we celebrating mediocrity? Especially when the big publishers are shedding their mid-list authors. Why aren’t we celebrating them, instead? All those hardworking writers who produced sturdy, competent, and often very good books. Why have they been given the elbow only to be replaced by the drivel that hack ghosts turn out for the ‘celebs’? And even worse (as most ghosts have some skill) why are some celebs given a free hand to write their own books?

Nobody would think of signing me up as a premier league footballer. Is the publishing industry in the hands of such idiots that it cannot see the revolution that is coming. That real writers, the ones who have honed their skills over years, the ones who have written their million apprentice words and can turn their hand to producing well-crafted, lean, interesting books, now have the power to produce their own books. Readers will eventually get tired of the gaudy, badly made toys being thrown in front of them – some of them already are. They will start looking elsewhere and they will find those authors rejected by the publishers because they didn’t fit the mould. They will find them and they will buy directly from them. The authors will be happy. They won’t sell as many books this way, but they won’t have to because they won’t have to pay all those hangers on – all the leeches who contribute nothing to the creative process yet take the lion’s share. Readers will be happy as they will find new, interesting, and out of the ordinary books.

There will still be all the standard genre works along with a flowering of experimental writings. There will still be crap. But at least we will know that the crap isn’t soaking up all the money and squeezing out the good stuff.

See what happens when I don’t come in here for a while. It builds up and then boils over. You’ve heard it all before – especially from me. So next year, when I have fulfilled current contractual obligations, I will be putting my money (if the piggy bank is full) where my large mouth is. Watch this space for news of progress towards the launching of my works of fiction.

Oh yes, and if you know an artist (preferably a monkey as I’ll only be able to pay peanuts) who wants to do some cover artwork, please point them toward me. That way they’ll know just who to avoid when the begging bowl gets put out.


Carol said...

Yep, there needs to be a fundamental change in society!! People need to stop always thinking about me me me and start looking at we!! Get rid of the blame culture 'Oh they are on benefits because they are lazy' and start looking at the power structures who's main purpose is to keep people down!!

A collective voice is too powerful so what have the politicians and the money makers done....divide and conquer!! If the population are too busy blaming each other then they will not take the time to stop and really think about who that finger should be pointing at!!

We live in a two tier society!!

Still, all we can keep doing is shouting about it and hope we recruit a few people along the way!!

C x

Pom said...

Excellent, my friend! So happy to have read this entire post - you have NO idea! Loved every scathing flaming word of it and I feel your pain and frustration thoroughly. Carry on and I wish you the best of luck. May the Gods be with you on this endeavor and may it be all you hope for and everything you deserve!

Graeme K Talboys said...

Thank you, both. That was such a long rant I had to go and have an equally long lie down afterwards.