Critical Acclaim or Paying Off the Mortgage?
Movie studios, television producers, and publishers distribute creative products in the interest of making money, of showing a healthy return on investment. Period. They aren’t in the business of making art, bettering the world, or leaving something of lasting value behind for future generations. They want to sell things, preferably millions of copies of those things, especially if those things can spawn other things — like sequels, soundtrack albums, and action-figure toys.
Yet, instead of cynically attempting to create the most toy-friendly, easily marketed pabulum, authors and directors and other imaginative souls who consider themselves artists bang their collective head against the leaden fortress of the marketplace, trying (usually in vain) to sneak their heartfelt stories through a crack in the manufacturing armaments.
If you’re the head of marketing for Knopf, the success of your book is contingent on how many units you were able to move through Barnes & Noble and Border’s. If you’re the author of a profoundly personal tale of coming-of-age in 1950s Kansas with an alcoholic mother and an itinerant preacher father, you desperately want thousands of people to buy your book and read your blood upon the page. But you also want the chief critic of the New York Times to declare you some sort of literary genius.
Usually, one type of success precludes the other. That is to say, if highbrow critics love the work, middle-, low-, and no-brow consumers will not. Pick your poison.
Everybody loves a winner. But which kind?
Any artist who claims he doesn’t crave widespread recognition of his work is a liar. We write books and make movies and record albums for mass consumption, fully aware that our peculiar take on the world probably isn’t for everyone. But, perhaps absurdly, we still want everyone to pay attention, to buy the product of our months or years of desk-bound toil. We want the marketplace to welcome our baby as though it were the cutest and most adorable being ever created. (And if you don’t believe us, just read what the critics said about her.) We want a large return on investment and a large ego massage.
For some creative types, a large return on investment is the ego massage. These are people who measure accomplishment in dollars, not critical plaudits. They’re constantly trying to figure out what the hungry consumer wants to eat, and then they give it to him. When the public appetite changes, they curse the fickleness of taste. On the other side of the artistic coin, we have the disenfranchised Bohemian who decries the emptiness of a society that fails to appreciate novels written in haiku form. He works diligently to fulfill his “vision,” only to discover that no one sees things his way. Neither type is happy.
If there were a secret method to balancing these imperatives, it wouldn’t be secret for long. Every ink-stained wretch and half-baked warbler would be doing it, looking to cash in and save his soul. The road to artistic nirvana, it seems, passes through orchards of money trees, which lead to empty meadows of serene achievement.
Getting there is the challenge.