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?