American Culture

Art by consent of the audience, kinda sorta…

Et tu, Big Data? Then fall, Muses…

Shakespeare, Shakespeare, and Shakespeare, LTD (image courtesy Wikipedia)

Laura Miller’s recent piece at Salon on how new reader “services” (I use the term loosely since it’s pretty frickin’ obvious that readers are the ones who will end up being used, as Miller’s article demonstrates) such as Oyster and Scrib’d  can be used to gather data on reader habits and preferences so that this information can be sold to “writers” (another term I may possibly be using loosely since Miller’s piece suggests the “new direction” will be “art” created by artist/audience interactions – you know, through beta tests and focus groups) so that they can tailor their works to “the marketplace” (a term now being applied to the relationship between artist and audience that means just what you think it means) is just as depressing as you’d want it to be – if you’re an old fogy like me and like your art “artistic.”

To be sure, Miller argues that this won’t affect “literary” fiction by writers such as Donna Tartt or Salman Rushdie and will be used primarily to help “authors” (see above snark) who specialize in genre fiction such as the one that covers multiple aisles of your local bookstore: Young Adult Paranormal. In fact, Miller argues, many writers in this and other popular genres regularly interact with their readers via blogs, social media sites, and message boards to get feedback on plot twists, character fates, etc. Miller defends this by noting that genres such as romance and fantasy have compositional formulas that readers expect and, as in the example she cites, woe unto the author who violates reader expectations.

I’m currently finishing an interesting book by David Comfort that I’ll be reviewing for ArtSunday on what is going on in contemporary publishing. One of the climatological changes that he describes concerns how major publishing houses operate. Since the absorption of all major publishers into one corporate vortex or another since the 1980’s, decisions about manuscripts are about marketing – only the small independents still make publishing decisions based on that silly, mystical notion of a book as a work of art, not as a product like soap or chewing gum. And, as my review will discuss, even that has its limitations. So maybe “crowd-sourcing” one’s books/paintings/photos/music in both the aesthetic as well as the economic sense (and maybe that’s what this use of Big Data is)  is the future of art for us all – and I, as usual, am one of those “boats against the current,borne ceaselessly into the past.”

I had planned to open (or cap) this little bleat against “trying to please everyone all the time” with a quote that I thought Marshall McLuhan had made about Shakespeare in which the great media meta-physician observed that if Shakespeare were alive he’d be writing for television. Instead, I came across a wonderful piece by Ed Smith over at New Statesman that offers this insight into what happens to writers, artists, any principled persons who submit to the tyranny of groupthink:

Creative talent, disappointed enough times, begins to self-censor, to think along permissible lines of inquiry. It starts to “go native.” Writers become conditioned by what they know – or imagine they know – their bosses will like.

So my advice to those writers (no quotes here – I want to be as open minded and generous as I can) is that they tread lightly in adapting themselves to what Big Data tells them they should write. Because I did find this quote from Professor McLuhan:

The more data banks record about us, the less we exist.

8 replies »

  1. hey, leave us genre guys alone, you big bully!

    more seriously, i’ve been pondering this a lot, because it’s obvious that micro-segmentation, audience research, and the like are driving the trend toward author as general contractor. “tell me what you want and i’ll build it for you.”

    my own take is that paper books are dead, reading and writing will atrophy and perhaps disappear, and everything will soon be some sort of interactive game, where people choose their own plots, characters, story arcs, etc

    • Stop being correct about this, Otherwise…I’m depressed enough as it is….

      And as you know, I believe there are brilliant writers in genre. But they aren’t this crowd.

      As for the evolution you predict, we’ll see. There are leaders and followers – this obsession with self-amusement will only go so far, then become boring – what makes artists admirable is that they have better imaginations. The sorts of amusements you posit will be limited by the dead heads using them. There’s the opening. Now, how do we exploit it for fun and profit?

  2. I’m with Jim on this. If readers can act as general contractor for their fiction needs, many will find they don’t have a creative bone in their bodies …

  3. no, most people don’t have a creative bone in their bodies or if they do, it’s not a good bone, and hopefully they’ll get tired of the same old-same old over time. although fast and furious XXXIV doesn’t suggest that’s the case, but never mind.

    however, what i suspect will happen is the creativity will be drip fed in through the gaming technology. increasingly we’re seeing a shift from solitary to collaborative creativity, e.g., team writing for television, where multiple people “brainstorm” plots and story arcs, people are tasked with smaller segments, then they are subject to very, very heavy group revision cycles. i think there will still be creativity and creatives, but the job wont be the job i like, sitting in front of a screen and just thinking.

    • The kind of collaborative writing you’re talking about has been around for a very long time. You’d get teams of playwrights sitting in a tavern in Shakespeare’s time doing exactly this. Webster was a common offender. These plays tended to be a) popular, and b) shite. As you’d expect.

      I’m a wholehearted collaborator, but collab tends to work when a writer is collaborating with a director and producer, etc. Multiple writers is often a trainwreck. You even see this with something as banal as corporate training. The more people who are “helping” me on a script, the worse it’s going to be. The best work I’ve done in the last couple of years on that front was a project for Microsoft. The client set the course and then left me the hell alone. I let the director do his job, etc. We collaborated, but there was no committee BS. The final result was fantastic.

      I’m thinking about your current novel. I cannot imagine how you would benefit from a collaborator.

    • Maybe tech will make us hive creatures, Otherwise – but I doubt it. To quote the first George Bush, it’s “the vision thing”; this is an aberration – as the Web and its accompanying tech becomes less what seems visionary and more simply another tool, creatives will always find routes to escape the hive mind….

  4. Through the years there’s a part of me that has come to view marketing and art as two ends of a spectrum. The more you care about marketing and what the audience thinks the less it’s art and the more it’s product. This doesn’t mean that one has to be an unadulterated purist or a ten-cent whore. Depending on what you’re doing, you might want some of both. I mean, I wrote lots of pure poetry. Wonderful stuff, I think, but my lack of concern for what a hypothetical audience might want was rewarded by an audience that cared as little for my writing as I did for their opinions.

    There are some great literary genre types out there right now, and I think there will be more. These folks are probably quite willing to listen and learn, but at the same time they’re going to have a strong sense of self and purpose and they won’t let the marketeers trample that.

    Are you speaking to an audience or pandering to them. Are you addressing their higher mind or their lizard mind?

    Great piece.

    • Saw a great piece recently, Sam, on why we’re in this “second Golden Age” of TV. The theme of the essay was that once some of the creatives realized that the plethora of channels offered them the opportunity to do something besides pander to LCD mentalities as their predecessors were forced to do in the pre-500 channel days, TV writing began to flourish – and as a result we’ve seen some brilliant stuff from DOWNTON ABBEY to MAD MEN. And viewers have risen to the challenge of watching stuff that demanded more of them than SWAT or THREE’S COMPANY.

      The same will hold true for readers as for viewers. And writers will lead the way – as they always do….

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