Monday, June 22, 2009
This was inspired by a conversation I had, or at least a couple of tweets I
exchanged, this morning with @digitalfiction.
Is it fiction? Or Content?
But it's an important distinction. Are we doing this for the sake of art
or are we in it for the money? Or both? These days, what is the Writer?
Let me get my personal nonsense out of the way first: if I'm any good as a
writer it's because there is a part of me that wants to be a craftsman.
I'm slightly too cynical to consider myself an Artist (and perhaps too self
conscious to risk making that claim) and I'm deeply suspicious of anything
that sounds like management speak. It sounds like the world is once again
relegating the writer to a mere backroom person, a shadowy figure wreathed
in whisky sweat, swearing and cigarette smoke who emerges from some troglodyte
twilight world clutching double spaced typewritten paper. It sounds like
the delivery mechanism exists to be provided with content, as if the writer
is enslaved by it.
There are writers apparently in thrall to the blank page, who cannot see a
space without attempting to fill it with words and ideas. I am not one of
them, as evidenced by my startling output this year alone. I think the
rest of us write for different reasons.
One of them appears to be theb ability to create short items of almost no value that nevertheless trigger Google to place interesting adverts. A lot of content provision systems rely on this targeted writing, most of which it devoid of character, usefulness, interest or spark. Believe me, I've tried it. It soon palls and you wish you were doing something else. Preferably something creative.
I think this might be a cart before the horse issue. Folks want to make money, preferably not by going to work for someone else in a cubicle. It occurs to them that they have two markets - people who like to read things and people who want to write things. They can probably monetize the website with adsense or something very like it. There are business models that will provide an actual income stream from a site that's set up the right way. At this point, it doesn't matter what the content is. You could, potentially, make money out of bloody awful slash or fanfic (if it
wasn't someone else's IP and the faast route to having your rear sued off by a major publisher or studio), because it attracts a loyal audience. If you include a way for writers to communicate with readers, you've got another reason for people to stay on the site and spend time abnsorbing the ads.
As I said, at this point it doesn't matter what the content is because it's camouflage for the advertising. That's content provision and the sole intention of the site is to provide the owner with an income stream; it has the secondary effect of making amateur writers feel important. I know this because it's the exact reason I've wanted to contribute to similar sites -
you find a market that pays actual money and it makes you feel like a legit writer, no matter how amateur you really are.
So I suspect the answer to whether we are content providers or writers depends entirely on why we do what we do.
It's not only the online world that behaves in this way. The standard publishing industry also behaves in a manner more or less guaranteed to restrict the author. The publishing industry would like more than a few authors to become brand names, because that guarantees sales. This is something I learned from the Fantasy genre, and Dave Langford (way back when he was writing a review column for White Dwarf (which, at the time, was a magazine about more than one game), and I'm showing my age now). Why are there so many fantasy trilogies? Because fans cut their teeth on Lord of the Rings and expect these types of book to come in threes. These days at least threes. Or in multiples of three. Or five. Which makes life really interesting if you've got a really good idea for a stand alone fantasy novel.
The desire for more of the same - the McDonalds Instinct - is the desire for what we know to be comfortable and safe; we will buy what we already know we like. People who refuse to live in that comfort zone are strange, hard to advertise to, and interesting.
I'm straying. Essentially, the publishing industry wants writers to be deliverers of content too and it's a rare author that refuses to stay put (Neil Gaiman seems to pretty much do what he wants when he wants to, and it generally turns out rather well) or finds a place in which to write anything that they want whilst kidding us all that it's another in a long line of similar books. And yes, Terry Pratchett, I am looking at you.
I think those writers who make a decision to stick to what sells are making a rational and intelligent choice, because I would gnaw off my own...ooo...left leg in order to be paid well enough to quit working in a soul destroying cubical and to sit at a computer writing all day. I would! And if I want to, all I need to do is write something that people like and sell it. Then do it again, and again, until someone realises that they can make quite a bit of money from my labours and pays me to stop going to work and to work for them instead.
I'd do it, too.
But where does that leave art? I think the position of writer as artist hasn't changed an awful lot. I think if you're writing for the sake of art, if you're writing for the sheer joy of writing, nothing's going to stop you so long as someone, some long suffering friend or tiny audience, is reading you. Eventually we might find that the artists come back into fashion. I hope so. I'd quite like to see what the Content Managers make of it.