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Art and Commerce

Last week I came across an op-ed piece, K’naan, on Censoring Himself For Success – NYTimes.com that really stuck with me. In his essay, Somali born rapper and musician K’naan discussed a down-side of his considerable success, the pressure he felt to court and retain a mainstream audience. His record label was keen to see his lyrics, which had been steeped in the politics and history of his home country, “all the baggage of Somalia — of my grandfather’s poetry, of pounding rhythms, of the war, of being an immigrant, of being an artist” to be more accessible, familiar, American.

“If this was censorship, I thought, it was a new kind — one I had to do to myself. The label wasn’t telling me what to do. No, it was just giving me choices and information, about my audience — 15-year-old American girls, mostly, who knew little of Somalia. How much better to sing them songs about Americans.”

I realize that K’naan’s dilemma is no perfect analogue, and that the book business and the music business are different in a thousand substantive ways. In book publishing, I think the field is both broader and more fractured and the financial stakes lower, but the author’s central dilemma, tugged between the countervailing poles of personal expression and the broader marketplace, between remaining true to an inner voice and figuring out how best to broadcast it, is probably familiar to many writers. In an era when publishers and agents exhort writers to build a platform, create a brand and market yourselves, to what degree do you think these pressures affect the creative process? Do you find that marketing concerns influence the content of what you write? Or do you think that there is no inherent contradiction in writing a book and then figuring out how, and to whom, to sell it?

11 Responses to Art and Commerce

  1. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    I don’t consider K’naan did to be “censorship”, just pragmatic marketing-you can express your particular talent in a lot of directions, but I think it’s utter folly to refuse to acknowledge market trends and audience tradewinds; as a YA writer, I’ve had to change tack several times; I dropped a comical boy-band tell-all several years back because the music scene was too fragmented and ephemeral to support a reader base (maybe I should dig that one out of mothballs, hmmm….) and I pulled Prince Charming’s memoir off the scene because gatekeepers these days are on the lookout for funny, ironic, and heroic teenage girls; boys with a similar resume are routinely pepper-sprayed and thrown off the premises. (this last one has nothing to do with readers, oddly enough) So, I’ve got my strong resolute heroine…Dodging Gestapo agents and falling bombs in wartime Berlin-which scares most risk-averse gatekeepers to death, of course, and never mind how long The Book Thief’s been on the bestseller list. But, hey, a guy’s got to have SOME integrity at the end of the day, doncha think?

  2. Joelle says:

    As a Canadian American author, I find setting is influenced by the market. I live in Canada, but so far have set all my books in the U.S. Partially because they make sense there and I grew up there, so I feel a bit more comfortable setting them there anyway. But also because my agent’s advice is to stick with US locations for the most part. To be clear, he doesn’t mean for forever, or not to set a book in Canada if I have a good reason. I’m okay with this so far, but part of me wants to belong to my new country, to give my Canadian readers something, too. I have a new book I’ve set in the US, but if it ends up selling, I plan to ask if I can reset it in Canada. While setting is important and not always interchangeable, the city I grew up in, Portland, and Victoria BC are very similar, so I think they could be interchangeable.

    Aside from my own experience, I know Canadian writers who have never lived in the US but set their books there because they want American publishers. I also know Canadians (Susan Juby, in particular) who sets her books here in BC and has tapped into the US market. But whatever you choose to do, I do think the market comes in to it one way or another unless you write without it in mind on purpose.

  3. Matt Voss says:

    Another good yet also imperfect analogue is that of technological innovation. If an author is fortunate enough to have the ability to develop novel ideas, then they will approach writing in the same way that Steve Jobs approached technology. He said that people don’t know what they want until you show them. Instead of giving the market what it’s asking for, show the market what it wants. Instead of accommodating the current market, create a new market.

    If an author also develops a good strength of character, as any author should, then the best way that the author can contrive to broadcast their inner voice will not only be compatible with but will entice the broader marketplace.

  4. Andrea says:

    I’m not American and I don’t live in the US either, but I doubt very much that it’s true that Americans only want to read stories set in the States, or listen to songs about Americans in the case of K’naan. It seems odd to me. Isn’t part of the point of the story (or music, or art in general) that it broadens your horizons and that it shows you a different place and time from your own? That it inspires to think differently? Or am I just incredibly naive? I’m sure that Somalia is very different from the US, but things like being an immigrant, war, being an artist, rhythms… surely those themes can be approached as something universal, something all people share in a way? And wouldn’t his being Somali add a highly personal and therefore original touch to his music?

    It’s probably easy for me to say what I’m going to say next because I’m still an unpublished writer, but I’m going to say it anyway. I’d rather be unpublished and still write what I want and what I truly believe in, than be published and forced to write what some people think that other people want to read.
    I do hope to be published (not self-published) in the US one day, but I write fantasy and invent my own worlds, so I don’t have the same problem with setting, and I would be open to minor changes that increase the novel’s chances of getting sold, as long as it doesn’t compromise the “bigger picture”, the reason I wrote it in the first place. So no, I don’t write thinking about marketing because that would completely demotivate me and I would take up fly-flishing as a hobby instead. I write for my ideal reader, who is open-minded and capable of critical thought.

    And I agree with Matt, above, who says what I wanted to say but couldn’t find the right words for.

    • Joelle says:

      I think you’re absolutely right…Americans don’t necessarily want to only read about American things. Growing up, I loved all things British. And books set abroad intrigued me then (even ones set in other regions of the US I knew nothing about seemed foreign and exciting). I do think however that American publishers (and apparently music producers) tend to look for books set in the US unless there’s a reason for them to be elsewhere because THEY believe that.

    • D.C. DaCosta says:

      Andrea — Excellent points!

      I think “Americans only want to read stories set in the States” is a sign that the publisher is convinced that his audience is ignorant and happy to remain so. He is afraid to rock the boat and do the work involved in actually selling something new and (gasp!) instructive or educational.

  5. Katie says:

    At the end of the day, writing is a job. Sure their are differences between the job of an author and say a cleaning lady, but both have to fulfill contracts or they don’t get paid.

    K’naan is smart. He undertands he has to acculturate (not assimilate) to his listeners in order to be successful in the U.S. market. Once he gains a base of followers he can negotiate and use his resources to bring awareness to the problems in his country (Wyclef did this in Haiti).

    Also, setting is very different then writing lyrics that are unrelatable to Americans. A friend of mine is from Liberia. She had to leave her country when she was 13 because war broke out, literally, in her backyard. Her family saw people get killed and raped. The hardships people face in the U.S. are very different. Eminem does a fantastic job uncensoring himself to deliver a message both inner-city and suburbanites can relate to.

    Peronally, I don’t think about the market. I write what I want to read. But I know a handful of authors who chase the market, and make a good living doing so. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, and if I were in their circumstances, I might do the same. As far as pressure to build a platform interfering with my creativity: If I thought of it this way, it would probably be a detriment. I look at social networking as buidling relationships with people. People inspire me to write, so it goes hand in hand.

  6. D.C. DaCosta says:

    My fiction is mostly written from the point of view of my religion, which (for me, anyway) is nearly as much a culture as a faith. It is present in every facet of my life and of the lives of my characters, as well. However, the focus is on the fiction; I’m not proselytizing.

    I’d love to make my hero attend certain worship services or celebrate a holiday a certain way…but I’m pretty sure that would perplex some readers and alienate others. My stuff doesn’t qualify as “inspirational romance”, so at present, my “niche” doesn’t exist.

    It seems to me that ultimately you have to ask yourself:
    1. do I want to write what I want to read (and what, perhaps, nobody else wants)?
    2. Or do I want to be published?

    I suppose the answers to both questions CAN be “yes”…but I suspect you have to achieve the second before you have luxury of doing the first.

  7. I’m not sure I’d go as far as to call it censorship, but I do think that most writers, when they start thinking about trying to go pro, start to worry about marketability and how they should adjust their content. This could manifest as anything from playing down the violence of one’s past to Westernizing one’s settings and characters to simply asking, “Is this too weird?” and axing out-there story elements. Of course, many people figure out great ways to stay true to their content while making a great name for themselves and selling well anyway. As Katie above said, eventually Wyclef was able to make music about Haiti and bring a lot of attention to its problems. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and it seems like every year I’m seeing more and more non-Western settings as people grow less afraid (and more excited about) “exotic” locales. And China Miéville writes some of the weirdest ideas I can think of without concern for his market. But a lot of us fear those may be the exceptions, and even they probably went through a period of growing pains where they had to determine whether they’d temper their voice in order to be successful in the market.

  8. Ryan Field says:

    This is a very interesting topic, and I did an interesting experiment last year with a small venture of my own. I have over 100 published works out in the erotic romance market (according to goodreads), and I’ve always maintained that erotic romance is a story with erotic scenes. If you take the erotic scenes out of the book, the story should still stand on its own. In other words, the sex shouldn’t be what the book is about. The only problem is you can say that, but no publisher will ever do it. In a way, it’s censorship and defeats the purpose of erotic romance and what readers want.

    However, as an experiment, last year I indie published…completley on my own with KDP…an abridged version of an erotic romance novel, without the sex scenes. I don’t like to call it self-censorship because I only removed about 7,000 words of erotica. I also published the unabridged version at the same time. I did this to give readers choices, and to prove once and for all an erotic romance can stand alone without the sex scenes.

    It’s been an interesting experience, mainly because critics who have said I write too many erotic scenes went dead silent with the abridged version that had no sex scenes. Not one comment. And nothing in the storyline changed.

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