If You Can't Please Yourself ...

The other night we got to talking about the problem of pleasing others with one's work, a problem I've come to think of as inherently intractable. Works don't exist to please audiences. They exist to give audiences that many more options to choose from, any of which may or may not please them. Whether or not they're pleased is really up to them. But as with any other insight in this vein, you do have to keep from letting that become an excuse for bad work.

Towards the end of last year, I went to have my car serviced (it really, really needed it), and spent most of half a day in the showroom waiting for them. When they were finished, they handed me a laundry list of all the things they'd worked on, and I signed off on it and paid them a pile of money. There was little to no ambiguity about what needed to be done: the brakes needed to be checked, the oil changed, the filters replaced, the tires rotated, etc. They'd done what I had expected them to do.

It's tempting to think fiction and creativity generally can work like service industries, especially when we have plenty of real-world examples where they behave just like that. The audience gives you their money — or, more specifically, they give you their time and attention — and you reward them with a certain set of emotional and visceral payoffs. If they don't get those things, they feel cheated. They want their expectations fulfilled, and to not have that can feel like a wound was gratuitously inflicted on them. And if their expectations are hopelessly out of line or inherently unmeetable, then you get nonsense like the fan edit of The Last Jedi.

This applies most directly for fiction, or creative experience, that's sold with specific labels attached to it, typically genre labels. Nobody pays to see Star Wars and gets Pride And Prejudice, even if they are a Jane Austen fan. I enjoy both of those things, and I'd be peeved if I got that bait-and-switch.

At some point, though, creators have to stop second-guessing the audience. At some point you have to find the confidence to stake out something that is entirely yours and not worry about how to justify its existence to every naysayer that might walk in the door with a gripe on their tongue. You have to be willing to write things that someone, somewhere, may want nothing to do with, or actively dislike. The point is not to please everyone; the point is to please the right people, the ones who come looking for something that only you can give them, whether or not they know they're looking for it.

Now that I've given that advice, I need to step back and qualify it. None of this is to be used as an excuse to do things that leave no room for anyone else to come in. There always has to be a point of entry for an audience, some way for them to feel emotional or personal or aesthetic connection to what you're doing. You can build an ivory tower if you really, really want to, but they tend to be pretty terrible places to live. (The heating bills alone, man...)

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At one point my highest ideal for a creative work was something like Codex Seraphinianus or Finnegans Wake, a work that people could only approach by climbing the most jagged side of the highest mountain, so to speak. It didn't take long to realize the problem wasn't just that vanishingly few people would ever bother to make that climb, but that many of the people who did make it up to such stratospheres would not always do so out of charity or curiosity. Some would do it just to spit on you and climb back down again. Intelligence and refinement of aesthetics do not necessarily drive pettiness out of the soul.

The point is also not to do things that are engineered to be annoying or offensive to people. That's just second-guessing of an obverse variety. It typically comes in the form of someone bragging, "If I've pissed off [this kind of person], then I'll know I'm doing something right!" Once I smirked right along with such things, but I smirk no longer. If someone takes offense at your work, that hardly implies a larger virtue at work on your part; they may just be thin-skinned and looking for a fight, and you were unlucky enough to give them the excuse. Better exercise can be found than by mud-wrestling with pigs.

Early on in the current phase of my career, I gave a copy of one of my books to someone who got maybe thirty pages in before they bailed. They found it boring and uninvolving. I found, to my pleasant surprise, that I didn't take it personally (where before I might well have). Different scenes for different genes, 'n all that. But I also listened down into that reaction as deeply as I could, and found something else there. As much as it pleased me to know I wasn't taking it personally, I also had to make sure I didn't let that turn into an excuse to think any old thing I did was okay, or that the only audience worth talking to was the one who would cross the desert barefoot to reach me.

Tags: audiences  creativity  creators 

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2018/01/19 08:00.

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