ArtSunday: what would Mozart say…?

Cover, Coffee With Mozart (courtesy, Goodreads)

I’m currently engrossed in Howard Zinn’s wonderful but lengthy A People’s History of the United States. For those who might actually check  the 2013 reading list I go on about with each of these reviews, you’ll note that the Zinn book is not on that list. We’re now into the “supplemental” list I have been creating since the spring when it became obvious to me that I’d run through the original 25 books by midsummer. Well, here we are a bit short of midsummer and I’ve already finished all but two of the books on that original list – and those last two, Jane Austen’s delightful Emma (probably her greatest triumph as a writer) and a book of Charles Dickens’ Christmas stories (yes, A Christmas Carol is one of these,  but it’ll be more fun to talk about some of the the short stories Dickens wrote – there were seventeen in all, including my favorite, “The Poor Relation’s Story”) are more suitable for December.

But that’s neither here nor there for this review.

Called into service for this review is a book that I read in an afternoon last fall. It’s a book I’ve wanted to talk about because I don’t quite know what to make of it.

I picked up this little book, Coffee with Mozart, at a used bookstore (where I buy far too many books, unrestrained by my lovely artist wife, who, due to her own bibliophilia, is an enabler). Why the book intrigued me at the time escapes me. But I think maybe it’s important to say a few things about it, as it represents an area in writing/publishing/marketing books that I’ve had little truck with but that I hold in a sort of mixed awe/contempt: high concept publishing. 

Coffee with Mozart is, as you’ve discerned I assume, itself a slight little book, done cleverly to simulate (as its title suggests) an imaginary interviewer having coffee with the great maestro (in one of its attempts at verisimilitude, the book has Amadeus drink beer rather than coffee throughout the conversation) and asking him a series of questions that allows the author, Julian Rushton (a distinguished music scholar emeritus at the University of Leeds) to posit plausible responses based on the most reliable biographical information available (letters, reports from family and friends, etc.).  So what one learns of Mozart’s views on being a musician and composer in 18th century Europe is pretty accurate. That’s good.

What’s not so good is the motivation behind this book – and behind much publishing (and, to be fair, pretty much every endeavor to enlighten and educate via media in one form or another): the attitude is “how about a series of books that teach people about great composers/artists/actors/philosophers/writers in a snappy, ‘user friendly’ format – as if they were, say, having coffee with the selected luminary?”

That, boys and girls, is high concept.

So a series of books is planned. The selections are, at first, noble: there are books in this series titled Coffee with Plato, Coffee with Michelangelo, Coffee with Oscar Wilde, the one we’ve been discussing, Coffee with Mozart. While the premise is high concept to the max, the subjects themselves are interesting and important figures in philosophy, art, music, literature.

But these don’t sell as well as expected. Oh, dear.

So marketing is called in and their response is the same is it always is: “This is a great idea for a series, but…”

What that but represents is the recommendation that the series would sell better if the subjects were more “reader friendly.” And that means choosing subjects that, say, are more “pop culture” – but, of course, good pop culture – pop culture with long term, broad based interest for potential readers. A couple of curmudgeonly editors protest that this will debase a series designed to help people learn about “real culture” – but a stern look from a senior VP soon puts the quietus on their protests.

And so we get Coffee with Marilyn and Coffee with Groucho. And people buy more of those two titles than of all the other titles put together.

Marketing and the executive suite are pleased.

Perhaps the key to all this lies in the “words of Mozart” (synthesized from Mozart’s own letters by Rushton) who describes himself this way: “I’m a producer of music. Whatever you need, I’ll write it. Like a court poet – or a cow giving milk!”

That’s an attitude that would surely please marketing and the execs.

But, as we all know, high concept demands ever greater, more “reader friendly,” material. World keep-a turnin’ after all….

So be on the lookout for Coffee with Honey-Boo-Boo.

XPOST: The New Southern Gentleman

3 replies »

  1. Boy, this is the barest glisten on the highest microscopic tip of a very large iceberg. What we’re ultimately talking about here is life in a culture where the ONLY logic is profitability. A thing is, by definition, of no value if people won’t pay you for it.

    Marketing is the new morality.

  2. I went on Amazon and can’t find Coffee with Honey Boo-Boo. Can you direct me?

  3. More seriously. I think we make too much of art. Art is about getting paid and ever were, from Michaelangelo to Marilyn Manson. Sometimes it does far more than that and that’s wonderful, but its purpose is to make money. As Dr. Johnson said, “No one except a damn fool ever wrote save for money.”

    Every writer has to draw the line of how much pandering they are willing to do, and it’s not an easy one. But it’s self-indulgent and foolish to ignore the audience when writing.

    And I’d argue, counter-productive. With the exception of Emily Dickinson, what free art has turned out to be good art? In the main, writing for the audience produces better art, I suspect.