I read a lot of reviews, on pretty much every book, movie, video game, or other form of media I’m interested in. In fact, I often find reviews that are far more entertaining, and well-written, than the subject of the review. I don’t just read reviews for my own entertainment though. Like all other readers, I use them to make decisions about whether I want to give this book, or that movie, or that video game a chance. Usually I am convinced to do so, but there have been some well-written detailed reviews that have talked me out of trying said book or other media.
What does this have to do with artistic integrity? Well, that really depends. In my perusal of reviews I not only determine whether I want to purchase the media being reviewed, but I also get a general feel for what’s “hot” and what’s not in the marketplace. Since I am also a writer trying to build a platform for my books, I find this subject not only interesting, but also personally relevant.
Sometimes the question comes up about whether a creator, regardless of their chosen media, should consider the marketplace demands over their own artistic vision. I’ve actually seen a review criticize a writer (not myself) for not including a controversial topic in the interests of appealing to a broader audience. In the same review, that reader said that they, personally, wouldn’t have bought the book if it had that topic included.
As a writer, this is often a frustrating catch-22 situation to be in.
If I write for the market, my artistic integrity might be questioned. If I follow my vision exactly, I risk alienating a broad swath of the potential market and my books have no audience. Is my art more valid even though less people see it, just because I have remained true to my muse?
Generally, I write what I want to read, not what the market dictates, because frankly, I find a lot of what’s on the market today in all the entertainment media to be lacking in creativity. In fact, one of the primary reasons I write is because no one else will write what I want to read. Before self-published novels were easily accessible to the average reader, I didn’t even know there were other writers creating the kind of books I wanted to see. Everything I read was filtered through the “gatekeepers” of the big publishing houses. That was probably why it all started to seem so “same-y.”
I’m not knocking big publishing houses. They have a reason for not taking risks on niche books. The market simply isn’t big enough to reward the investment. They’re businesses and as such, they have to keep market forces in mind over variety and diverse content, otherwise they won’t be in business long.
However, now that there’s another way for writers to enter the market without the massive overhead, are we obligated to do the exact opposite and put the art above the business aspects of our profession?
Since I usually write what I want to write, this question shouldn’t even bother me, but it does. I’m probably not the first to wonder if I should change things in my books to appeal to a broader audience. In fact, I’ve wrestled with this decision and actually considered changing the beginning of one of my books simply because I thought it would turn away a lot of readers in my genre.
I’m fortunate enough that I’m not in a critical place where I have to sell a certain amount of books to pay my rent, but this is hardly a hobby for me. I put in a lot of work to create my books, so I want to be successful at it. Reaching a larger audience is the only way to be taken seriously as a writer, which means much of what I do will never make me a “real” writer by current standards.
I’ve written many manuscripts, most of which will never be published because they are too “out there” for the current market. My heroes are too alien or monstrous, or my worlds are too surreal and bizarre, or my plots involve too much controversial content. I read these books for my own entertainment, and I’ve stuck close to my original vision for them. At the same time, I recognize that they won’t appeal to a large audience or worse, that they might actually turn away potential readers.
Even the books I do publish are generally considered niche. Though my fantasies are relatively mainstream, the heroes in my romance novels are inhuman in appearance. I could make them more human, and perhaps I’d reach a broader market, but I’d have changed what made these books so special to me in the first place.
I took a risk on my creations, and will continue to do so, but there is always that question in the back of my mind. I will always wonder if I would be more widely read and more popular in the market place if I’d just change what I write.
What is artistic integrity worth?
If it costs you your audience, then it can hardly be priceless. I can’t help but be frustrated by those who question media creators for caving to market pressure while at the same time ignoring or disregarding creators who don’t.
For me, writing is still something I do because it fulfills something inside me and brings me joy. If I changed my stories to something more mainstream, I wouldn’t want to read them the many, many(!) times I have to in order to revise and edit them. My platform may always be small because of this. My market may never grow beyond a tiny niche, but it isn’t some high-minded ideal about artistic integrity that keeps me on this path. It’s simply a matter of personal happiness.