WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Cheaper by the dozen: the selling of creativity

160x160starry4Thomas Frank had an interesting column in the June issue of Harper’s (subscribers only), writing about the creativity and innovation business and how those “thinkers” who specialize in that sort of thing are not especially — creative. Take Jonah Lehrer’s now-stained book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. Not only did Lehrer manufacture quotes from Bob Dylan (which, now that I think of is kind of creative), he cited as landmarks of innovation the same anecdotes every other writer in the field has been citing for ages: the Post-It note, the Swiffer, Velcro, Dylan, The Beatles, etc. & etc.

As Frank puts it, interpreting Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, “Innovation…exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does.” Csikszentmihalyi was referring to Van Gogh’s acceptance as an important figure when a tipping point of expert opinion reached that conclusion, but it’s the same in every discipline. I think this is because creativity and innovation have become a sort of commodity, things that can have monetary value applied and then be bought and sold. This is why, as Frank points out, is seems the TED Talks feature a disproportionate share of billionaires.

We see it in publishing, of course, in the mindless repetitiveness of the kinds of books that sell. It’s like cloning, which is the antithesis of creativity. Novels are the supposed epitome of “creative writing,” yet there’s this tendency of publishers to “genericise” them and peddle them like Chips Ahoy. In a market like that, creativity becomes a negative, except insofar as it can be used within the agreed-upon confines of the particular genre. We use formulaic as a pejorative term, but nearly everyone acknowledges that the reason books in these categories are successful is that they adhere to formulas that their readers appreciate and use as shorthand. It makes it easier to consume them.

Real creativity, the kind that destroys formulas and challenges prevailing standards, is almost by definition excluded from the corporate marketplace. There is literally no audience for it because the works that are borne of true creativity are too unfamiliar. Any prospective sponsor couldn’t expect to profit from it, at least not until enough of the arbiters of taste determine that the thing has value.

This is why I have possibly irrational hope in the potential of electronic publishing — which can comprise not just writing, but also music, graphic novels, photography, and any other mode of expression that can be digitized and uploaded. Individuals can practice their art on their own terms and display it, try to sell it, give it away, or even just store it for their own edification. They can sew together their own audience. They can ignore the criticism of judges they don’t respect. They can, if they’re so inclined, start their own movements and aesthetic schools, by and for other artists like themselves.

What’s missing are the rigid, vacuous, and stolid creativity brokers, who are always in it for the money.

7 comments on “Cheaper by the dozen: the selling of creativity

  1. 1WriteWay
    June 25, 2013

    You sum it up so nicely here: “Novels are the supposed epitome of “creative writing,” yet there’s this tendency of publishers to “genericise” them and peddle them like Chips Ahoy.” As someone who spends a lot of time browsing through her local Barnes & Noble, I see that tendency on display often. The content being pushed has less to do with great (or even good) writing and more to do with market values: hey, vampire chick lit is in so let’s all publish vampire chick lit. I’ve nothing against vampire chick lit; it’s just the idea that the publisher is more interested in pushing whatever the lowest common denominator happens to be at the time. Have you read the article on Barbara Pym in Sunday New York Times? (Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/books/review/pride-and-perseverance.html?smid=pl-share) I haven’t read any of Pym’s work, but the article was very informative in showing how fickle the publishing industry can be. Fortunately, for Ms. Pym, it eventually worked in her favor, but her experience only strengthens the argument that, no matter how good a writer you are, you can’t rely on traditional publishers for continued support.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 25, 2013

      Oops I did it again. Replied in a new box…See below!

  2. Kevin Brennan
    June 25, 2013

    This has bugged me for a long time, and I think the culture has taken a hit because of it. When “art” is thought of as a commodity, it can be mass-produced, watered down, easily dismissed, or rendered trivial. Chicken McNuggets for the brain.

    I did read the Pym article, thanks to your Tweet! Infuriating that a writer’s career can be derailed because of the whim of a single executive, and nowadays that executive isn’t even an editor — he’s a salesman. I’m glad Pym was able to resurrect her career, but I have a feeling that kind of rising from the ashes is pretty rare now.

  3. Phillip McCollum
    June 25, 2013

    Interesting post, Kevin and I believe you really nailed the issue to it’s core.

    I think creativity that doesn’t just push the envelope, but out-and-out shreds it to pieces, will never be commercial enough for wide distribution. It usually takes a work that straddles the middle and introduces those concepts in a ‘lite’ format. Those who are intrigued by the snippets will usually dive into the hard stuff and therefore increase the audience.

    An example that comes to mind is “The Matrix.” It touches gently upon some deep philosophical ideas through stimulating, bad-ass special effects, and those that are interested can follow the breadcrumbs to Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation.”

    This example touches on content, but I think the same could be said about different types of presentation.

    The great part of self-publishing is that it makes it easier for that audience to connect with those that are interested in discussing the hard stuff through their own writing.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 25, 2013

      You’re absolutely right, Phillip. It’s always baby steps. Or academics writing/composing/painting for other academics.

      It does seem like the self-pubbing trend might offer more freedom for artists ultimately.

  4. SFF Madman
    June 25, 2013

    Well said, Kevin. I couldn’t agree more.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 26, 2013

      Thanks, Madman. It’s one of those “sad but true” things.

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