Three days ago, I wrote a very brief post about the implications of being an independent artist. It wasn’t particularly informative, to be honest, but I’m happy I did it because on the same day I received a very interesting comment on Instagram:
@neva_2018 About your post: I often wonder if creative works are ‘selected’ over time for traits that make them more competitive in the book market, like ‘literary evolution’. Do these popular works deserve their selection? Based on what general traits are they selected? What are your thoughts?
(By the way, I suggest you check @neva_2018’s Instagram profile: you’ll find some very interesting poems!)
The following day I wrote a very long reply and... I deleted it by mistake... Undaunted, I decided to write an entire post about the topic.
So here it is (if you’re not into literary theory, I suggest you skip this post. Come to visit this page on Wednesday, though: I’ve got some good news about my music!):
First of all, I’ve got to say that I’m not a scholar and this is not an essay: only my very humble (and probably disconnected) thoughts.
As far we know, humans have always tried to select and preserve the best works of art, but there’s always been a problem: what does ‘best’ mean, when applied to art, and literature in particular? Things get even more complicated if we realise that the concept of art itself has changed through the history of mankind.
In my opinion, there’s one precise human aspect that has always played an important role in the ‘literary evolution’, and that’s taste. Unfortunately (that is, fortunately), even during the same period, people’s tastes vary depending on many, many factors (country, social position, age... The list could go on and on).
I recently read a very interesting introduction to one of the most famous books of all time, ‘One Thousand And One Nights’ (or ‘The Arabian Nights’). Although the stories contained in the original manuscripts (most of them, at least) were originated in the Middle-East, India and even China, they didn’t gain much attention until they reached the European countries. That’s because their language wasn’t refined enough to be part of the Arabic canon. People didn’t like them and, even now, many scholars of Arabic literature question their value.
That’s a good example to explain why, personally, I’ve always found sentences like ‘That’s his finest writing’ or ‘He’s the best writer in the world’ to be essentially naive (please keep in mind that, like most people, I often said things like that). How can an adjective like that be applied to a particularly subjective field as art?
Famously, Aristotle’s opinions on poetry ended up being so influential that for centuries numberless writers tried to stick to what they considered to be sacred rules. Even now, when teaching screenwriting, people take his ‘Poetics’ as fundamental for storytelling.
(A very personal note: Unfortunately, Many Hollywood producers understood how to make tons of money with a very basic narrative structure, and Hollywood films have always been very influential. Sometimes I feel like the existence of films such as those by Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini or Akira Kurosawa is considered a sort of anomaly...)
Funny enough, the tragedies of William Shakespeare, who usually ignored the Aristotelian rules, are more famous than those of many other writers of the same period who followed them. Why? Because the tastes of the English in the 16th century were probably very different from those of the Greeks in the 4th century BC (and I’m not even talking about individual tastes).
Now, I want to get straight to the questions of the Instagram comment I told you about.
My thoughts about taste being fundamental in the selection (and in the preservation) of any work of art are pretty clear, I think, and I also already said that there are many general traits that are appealing to the people of a certain time and of a certain space. There are so many, that I might write an entire book trying to identify them... Sadly, I won’t be able to make a list today.
As for the selected books of the past, I really don’t know if they deserved to be selected. If I replied to this question, I would have to say that they were or they weren’t better than others, and as I said I don’t know how I could affirm something like that while being sincere.
But let’s talk of the book market. For a very long lapse of time, books (and works of art in general) were chosen because people wanted to preserve them. This kind of selection was essential and, as I said multiple times, was dictated by taste. The advent of printing in the 15th century changed everything, though, and everything changed even more with the birth of our capitalistic society around five hundred years after that. Although things are slightly changing, the books we now find in our favourite bookshops were selected by a number of people working in a publishing house.
Did they select them because they simply liked them more than others?
In my opinion, yes and no.
Although I believe many books get published because beautiful or interesting, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to read them if considered difficult to sell. I say ‘considered’ because, unfortunately (and the internet is here to prove it), it’s very hard to understand what will be successful or not, especially now. There certainly are particular traits that ‘make them more competitive’, but I do believe they’re difficult to analyse (there are probably entire teams that do it) and, most importantly, they’re unpredictable.
The people in the music and film industry, being these two fields particularly commercial, have tried to solve the problem by dictating or directing the taste of the people. This is something that happens for books as well, but I don’t think the problem’s so serious (maybe I’m being very optimistic, though).
Anyway, it seems this system is going to collapse. The artists can now reach the audience directly, and it seems this kind of self-production/self-distribution/self-promotion will last for a while (who knows?).
The art selection is becoming more democratic, but also more brutal, and apart from the artistic merits of a work, advertising and promotion are the essential elements of this reality.
In the end, it still is a matter of people’s tastes, but tastes in ads, probably, more than in art.
Oh, dear! It seems today I wrote a bit too much... I don’t know how many people will reach the end of this post. If you have, you can consider yourself a hero! I’m not sure whether what I wrote above makes sense or not. I didn’t really plan it, so it will probably sound like a chaotic series of random thoughts.
Thanks for reading (I promise I’ll post more entertaining stuff in the future...)!