... what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) ... A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place.
Emph. mine. The article is absolutely worth a read for its main focus — why do so many of us work jobs we not only hate but subtly sense are worthless? — but these couple of sentences especially caught my attention because of what I bolded there.
Regular readers of these pages know I've long suspected that a major reason why media enterprises tend to be so unadventurous is because it's always easier to sell people an incremental variant in yesterday's experience than it is to do the real work of selling them something new. Human psychology is at work on both ends of the equation: the readers pay lip service to the idea of the new more than they do the new things itself, and the publishers are just manifesting their own incarnation of that behavior.
Now, let's drop in that part I bolded above. If "the market" is essentially an economic fiction, then the rerouting of effort from selling people the genuinely new to selling them the tried-and-true can be seen as one manifestation of that phenomenon. The vast majority of the disposable wealth in this world is controlled — not necessarily spent directly, but controlled — by people who want things to remain by and large exactly as they are.
Some of this conservatism is inevitable, because historically, human beings who didn't protect their own interests had a tendency to die off. But expand that kind of deliberate incuriosity to the size of a culture, or a society, and you end up with four going on five Pirates of the Caribbean movies, each one more inane and redundant than the last.
The other week I read some "writer's advice" provided by the well-known author of a best-selling fantasy series, which on reflection struck me more as marketer's advice than writer's advice. Don't write what people don't read, for instance: well, how do you know what they do or don't read? By looking at sales figures, ostensibly, but again that's deceptive: they don't tell you what risks are worth taking, and that just encourages further timidity.
When we tell people to write things that'll sell to a broad audience, we're delivering what sounds like good advice that's fraught with too many unquestioned assumptions. What is a "broad audience" today as opposed to ten years ago? How much of the audience is a product of someone else's assumptions about what the market will bear? How many of those assumptions are products of simply marketing to the same people over and over again? And how would you ever know any of this unless you attempted to step outside of it?
I get particularly worked up when it's SF that gets this tired treatment, because that's the one genre we should not treat with such flippancy. Tomorrow's post will be more about why, as it's something I keep coming back to but never quite touching down on.
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Other Lives Of The Mind