Storytelling

My apologies for not posting Saturday–I worked six days last week.

So, anyway, I mentioned in week before last’s post that there had been a fight going on the the gaming and sci-fi communities over “story as entertainment” vs. “story as message delivery.” This is true, but as I thought about it I remembered that this kind of thing has been going on for years decades centuries.

Here’s what I mean. Artists have long been trying to resolve the issue of how to deal with the tension between what they want to produce and what their audience is willing to pay them to do. This can have multiple resolutions, with the two extremes being the hack and the auteur. The hack, stereotypically, runs on “give the people what they want, and hang creativity and artistry.” See Michael Bay and the writers of mass-produced romannces, westerns, and kid’s books. The auteur, stereotypically, runs on “I have a vision, and hang the audience.” See Tommy Wiseau and people who write experimental fiction. There is, of course, a broad spectrum here–for example, J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer are both on the “hack” end rather than the “auteur” end–but there does seem to be a degree of mutual contempt between those on one side of the spectrum and those on the other. The hacks consider the auteurs pretentious twits who cover up their bad writing by saying it’s “above the people,” while the auteurs consider the hacks soulless slaves to Mammon and the corporate machine who cover up their bad writing by saying “it sells.”

Both of these have a degree of truth to them, as most stereotypes do. However, with the advent of the e-book and self-publishing, both auteurs and hacks are able to find a much wider audience (and make more money) than they would with the traditional model of publishing. This also means there’s a lot of dreck to wade through, but let’s face it–that was always the case, and a lot of what was pushed as awesome in olden times was, in fact, lousy.

But here’s the thing: The auteurs, generally, want to get a message out. Unfortunately, they tend to forget that getting a message out involves people actually reading the message. And, as a general rule, people do not read things they do not enjoy. (I am convinced that one reason that kids in America don’t read is what they are assigned in school, even from an early age. If the only experience I’d had with reading early on had the been the Junie B. Jones series, I’d hate it.) If the tastes and values of the masses are not borne in mind–or, worse, actively and obviously conspired against–they will not consume the product, and your message will lie moldering on the shelves or in the internet, unperused except by your close friends and, perhaps, the literati, who will praise your for being subversive and transgressive and whatnot.

The hacks, however, who want to make money, can forget (although most don’t) that a story that sells in large amounts requires some sort of vision behind it beyond “Profit!” It needs some kind of message, because the stories that people tell their friends about are the ones with some kind of heart and brain to them, as opposed to merely gears. This leads to more people reading your writing, which leads to more money going into your pocket.

You might have noticed that I have a bit more sympathy for the hacks than the auteurs. There is a reason for that. For one thing, I have some aspirations in the writing line, and know I am not an auteur. For another, I think the hacks have a better idea of the purpose of storytelling than the auteurs do. To put it simply, storytelling is a form of communication, and the purpose of communication is the delivery and/or exchange of information. If no one is listening to the communication, its purpose has not been fulfilled.

There are two ways to deal with this. One is to rage against the audience, while the other is to adapt one’s style (not substance) to the audience. The second tends to result in more people listening, which leads to more people hearing one’s message, which also leads to receiving more money, thereby satisfying (to a degree) both auteurs and hacks.

In other words, this conflict, like a lot of other conceptual, as opposed to ideological conflicts (and yes, there is a difference) is a false dichotomy. Unfortunately, because people, really, really like dichotomies (especially literary critics, who are silly like that), don’t expect it to change anytime soon. Just…if you’re a writer, please rise above it.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness

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