The Dying Magic of Writing: The New Age of Crowd-funding
While one may not be constantly conscious of the fact that a novel that they are reading was made from the mind of a single human being (at least, for the majority of fictional works), it is seemingly imperative that this distinction between “the audience” and “the author” be kept absolute. Alan Moore (popular graphic novelist known for works such as V for Vendetta and Watchmen) suggests that the artist’s job is to “give the audience what they need” rather than “what they want”. The artist’s vision should try and not be influenced by the occasionally misled desires of the fans. This does not lead to the conclusion that whatever the writer conjures up is perfect and invulnerable to criticism, just because of the fact that is written by them. While writing is an extremely personal and gruelling activity, the need to profit from it should not be completely ignored, and indeed, can not be. Among the emergent practice of crowd-funding, where is the line between the creator of the idea and those who receive and consume it? At what point is the purity of an idea manipulated towards fan service or commercial success so as to be corrupted? Literature, or any written word, may be veering from what the audience supposedly “need” to what they “want”, simply because of the fact that a part of the purpose of writing is to satisfy someone. It is, in a sense, a one-way communication between two individuals. Just as a fan may tweet to an artist, it seems acceptable that they could discuss their work with them. Among the catalysts of commercial pressures, the desires of the fans, the author’s perception between fulfilling the needs and/or wants of the audiences are bound to muddy the artist’s original vision. In addition, it muddies the ideas of ownership which are often neglected.
An important distinction that first needs to be made is one of art as “magic” and art as entertainment. According to Moore, “[a]rt is…the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness”. Art as entertainment, on the other hand, is where words are manipulated to achieve the highest amount of pleasure to the consumer, and as an intended side effect, the most profit. In other words, art is, at its purest, intended to create some sort of change and has been taken for granted over time as our lives get busier and the time we have to spend appreciating it lessens.
However, this does not mean that these definitions are mutually exclusive all of the time. While it may seem appropriate to relate the intentions between the creation of a work as connected to how it will be received, it is not always that simple. Simply because one writes with the intention to change the mind or “consciousness” of the reader does not mean that they may inadvertently entertain that reader. However, the important point to make is that one should not write with the sole intention, and thus restrict the freedom of their vision, to entertain, stimulate base desires or force anything to serve only the wishes of the reader. Still, this raises an important issue in today’s society and how we consume art: who is art really for and what purpose should it have?
Reading a book can be, and is, a different experience for every person. One can pick up their favourite book and feel like they are returning home and does so to find comfort in a familiar world and characters they love. Other books are read as a simple form of escapism; to get away or forget about the day-to-day drudgery of normal life. Yet, would it not be true to say that one reads in order to entertain oneself, even if that book is a saddening or depressing experience? Can one ever consume art without the intention to entertain ourselves?
By “entertainment”, what is denoted is something which amuses or, more importantly, diverts one’s attention from their surroundings. Still, we feel compelled to take on challenges in reading which are not, at first glance, entertaining. Whether it be the immense world of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series or the often unintelligible James Joyce’s Ulysses, there are always those which are more of an endurance than a pleasure to read. Therefore, we do not always read what we want to read, but what we feel compelled to read, either based on a friend’s ardent recommendation, a passion for its adaptation into another medium or simply word-of-mouth concerning it. At the end of the day, the author of a book or any work can never satisfy everyone, nor should they intend to do so. Still, it is imperative in today’s world of supply and demand or a service for a profit that artists give in to the wants of their audience, while still giving them what they ‘need’. Still, this ‘need’ is a dubious and often elusive thing.
Alan Moore draws similarities between the role of the author and the role of the shaman (someone who is said to have transcended the perceivable plane and communicates with supernatural beings), wherein he sees the author as being imbued by some unique “power”. However, does this mean that their responsibility is to give their audience what they need? In addition, what do the audience need and are they completely unaware of these requirements? We are all audiences to each other every day, whether it be on Twitter, Facebook and with websites such as this website, more and more people are able to write without having to have the label of “author”. This, however, does not mean that we all under the responsibility to give everyone else what they need.
Firstly, let us try and clarify what exactly Moore seems to mean by using “need”. Rather than meaning a necessary requirement for living, in an artistic sense, it is instead meant to symbolise a duty that the author has to his/her artistic vision. While nobody would refuse to read a new Harry Potter book or one in which their favourite character came back to life, these decisions would not stay true to the author’s vision and, therefore, not satisfy the subconscious “need” which Moore refers to. Yet, audiences are becoming more and more aware of how these needs must be fulfilled and that authorship is a gruelling experience of self-doubt and constant re-modelling. Still, is everything which comes from the original author of a work correct or in line with this “need” or do authors sometimes stray from their own paths?
There will always be somebody who is frustrated or does not understand why an author makes a specific choice, but do authors deserve all of the flak that they receive? Is writing fiction any more deserving of criticism than any other art forms? All writers write with the knowledge that it is inevitable that someone will not like it. However, the natural conclusion to be made is that they should always be trying to increase those who enjoy their work and decrease those who do not. This decision is not one always made lightly, as we, the writers instinctively feel that a work is ours, instead of everyone else’s, mainly because of the work which goes into it.
However, economically speaking, a writer is creating art for someone else, though it is definitely not at the forefront at their mind. Whether the writer feels like they are portraying the truth, expressing their unspoken feeling about the world or simply telling a story, it feels like something personal. Because of this, a writer does not think in terms of what their audience needs or wants, but allows them to accept what they write however they wish. Therefore, it is natural that, in the heat of a writing streak, they may stumble along the way and just because they wrote it does not mean that their writing is invulnerable to criticism. Even though writing is a unique skill which people possess, while others do not, it does not make those who hold it as infallible god-like figures. To give away the personal nature of writing seems unnatural, but it may be a necessary step for young and developing writers if they want to publicise their writing, without losing the “magic”. Crowd-funding could be, if executed properly, a method of doing so.
Every now and then, you hear a success story of crowd-funding (where an independent artist seeks funding for a specific project from normal citizens) from sites like Kickstarter and Pozible, where a simple idea gets millions of dollars of funding in just hours. But, even though there have been successful film and gaming funding campaigns, can the exercise of reaching out to the fans work out for writing or publishing? The more important question is whether it will impede on the writer’s control over his/her writing? It seems only a natural step to create a system of funding by the fans, as, like every other art form, writing is a business with a need for funding and a guarantee for sufficient return. If a process of demand, creation and publication could be created, it seems like it would be beneficial for all involved. However, such a system would engender a view that writing is for the audience only. In addition, it would encourage readers to take the work for granted, as just a factory-like manufacturing service. A model not unlike Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRECord project, which asks its contributors to create work about a selected theme regularly, is perhaps inspiring.
Still, the problem of whether or not the act of funding a project provides one with the right to contribute or have a say in its production presents itself. A feature of crowd-funding websites are that they provide contributors with rewards. As such, the more money you contribute, you will receive more and better rewards. For instance, if someone contributed 20 dollars, they may be accepted into a mailing list which posts updates or excerpts regularly or be allowed to pre-order a signed copy. While it seems acceptable to allow a contributor who donates 1000 dollars to have a portion of artistic license, it would permit chaos. If such a change were to occur in the writing world, some guidelines would have to be set. For example, the system could not resemble a straight-forward, “ask and you shall receive” system, as a work is not something a writer can just churn out at will.
There has to be some sort of passion for the topic or genre. Just because one may want John Green to write a conspiracy thriller book with elements of science fiction does not mean that he will for any amount of money if he does not want to. Crowd-funding should be an extra method of raising funds, rather than a forum where artists are ordered to bend to the will of the audience. But, what about an insignificant change. Perhaps, a reward could be the ability to discuss the work with the artists and make suggestions as to how to improve it. First and foremost, however, is the vision of the author. While it is necessary to admit that Alan Moore’s ideal of a pure writing process, wherein ideas and words flow unfettered, is not possible in the expanding profit-centric marketplace of art, it does not automatically lead to making it like a fast-food restaurant. Writing should allow, and indeed encourage change, not restrict it.
‘When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.’ – George Orwell, Why I Write
In his 1946 essay, Why I Write, George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm) posits that there are four potential motives for writing. These are ‘sheer egoism’ (i.e. the desire to be acclaimed and respected), ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’ or an appreciation of the beauty of words, ‘historical impulse’ or the perceived need to document or shine light on some present topic and ‘political purpose’, meaning the need to incite a change in the way the world works. It seems that at the heart of these things, there needs to be some desire to connect to at least one person, whether it be on a utilitarian (i.e. all decision being made so as to maximise pleasure) or an ideological (i.e. confronts and subverts entrenched ideas) basis.
One issue which seems irrelevant is: who owns what somebody writes? Does the writer, by publishing his/her work give away their ownership of that work? Speaking literally, in the contract they sign, there would be a clause which allows the publisher certain privileges in regards to the work, and do, in fact, own it. But, what is more important is whose writing it is. While it may be obvious that the writer – the person who wrote the work – is its owner, it is not completely true all of the time. This invokes issues of the significance of interpretation, wherein a work may not have meaning without a reader. Therefore, while a writer may work his “magic” as they please, they can only truly own it if nobody else ever reads it.
Also, it relates to issues of whether works branching from an author’s original idea is owned (at least, in part) by the author. For instance, should George Lucas be considered the author of the large amount of auxiliary material which has sprouted his original idea? These questions are not easy to answer, and nor should they be. The unchallenging conclusion that can be made is that art, writing and words have seemingly infinite antecedent factors which influenced it and infinite amount of possibilities after its publication. What is undeniable is that a certain amount (most likely, a majority of the work) belongs to the artist, as they wrote it. But what can not be forgotten is that in just being an audience, whether one is active or passive in their appreciation of literature, we hold a part of that work in our hands, and we can do with what we will.
While art may be for everyone, in the broadest sense, writing is created so as to appeal to a certain group of people. However, regardless to what end we write, it should come from a pure idea and the impact which the audience have should be minimal. Although there is a perceived view that the author gives us what the audience need, it is not an indefensible view, and perhaps, with the business advent of crowd-funding, there could be some leniency towards providing them with what they want. Ultimately, writers should be encouraged to write and the pressures which we can see in the demanding world of publishing are enough to discourage the creativity of any rising writer. The world of writing should get back some of that “magic” which it has lost and writers should be allowed to write freely, without the need for deadlines or expectations. Writing is not a means to an end, but a journey that we all partake in every day. It is the never ending attempt to understand the world around us and to exploit that is just another step backward. Writing should not be a straight line, but a multitude of pathways sprouting from a single idea, which is yet unclear. As said by British novelist, Doris Lessing, “There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.”
Velenz, D., Winkler, M., (2005), The Mindscape of Alan Moore, quote accessed on http://intellectual-thoughts.com/Alan%20Moore%20Quote.htm
Orwell, G., (1946), ‘Why I Write’, Gangrel, accessed via http://orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw
Doris Messing Quote accessed via Petit, Z., June 22, 2012, ’72 of the Best Quotes for Writers’, Writer’s Digest, accessed via http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/72-of-the-best-quotes-about-writing
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Thank you for your detailed article on the art and funding of writing. Yes, creating a piece of art in any medium is contemplative and the artist can create this piece for their satisfaction or it can be a commission. In essence a commissioned piece belongs to the artist and to whoever commissioned the work, unless there is a legal contract that states ownership. An artist that mastered their skill level and was able to please the crowd was Picasso, someone who could be in the right place at the right time and knew the right people. Artists are usually solitary souls and work within to create but to be successful they need to hone that skill that lets them interact and hear what the crowd is interested in and incorporate that into their work if they desire some semblance of success. Thank you for sharing your ideas.
Thank you for commenting. Completely agree with all you have said, although I am not aware of the career of Picasso.
A fundraising campaign is a lot of work to do right. As with anything else, a cost/benefit analysis might useful before you leap.
Thank you for commenting. Definitely agree, it should be thought through thoroughly before implemented.
Wonderful, I’ve always liked the idea of crowdfunding, but associated it more with movies. I love the idea of using it for literary projects.
Me too, Greco. Thanks for commenting.
For some authors – in certain circumstances – they wouldn’t feel comfortable taking crowdsourced book concepts directly from readers. Scenarios are many here sure, including those highly influenced by economic drivers (or the lack thereof).
To me, the greatest opportunity – which is one of mutual joy and prosperity – is one where the reader base casts forth a general construct for a new book. It could as simple as “I love this character from X book/series. Does he/she have a backstory? I’d love to read that.” Then, the author could delve into the depths of that premise. The book would be born of the author’s brain; it’s the direction that’s influenced by their reader-base.
I doubt that many readers would take the time to outline a full narrative. Even if they did, the author would retain full authority to evolve the concept.
The true genius here is that a reverse crowdsourcing of books better forges the relationship between reader and author. The reader has a louder, more direct voice to the author. The author enjoys clearer signals from their readers as to what they’re liking and not liking. The only outcome I can see here are books that are built to make immediate impacts on the hearts and minds of many.
Love your point made in the second paragraph and I think that is a much better point than I made, as backstory or details is something which fans want nowadays, I think. Thank you for commenting.
Hopefully crowdfunding for literature catches on more, it could really open up a whole new world for hopeful creators.
Totally agree, Kris. Thank you for commenting.
I really like the idea of crowdfunding, and what that means for both the consumer and creator.
Me too, mate. Thank you for commenting.
Interesting read. I especially loved the pictures you used in the article!
Thanks Amena, glad you enjoyed it.
Just stumbling into this article as I am doing some research on my own ideas for revolutionising the book industry, and this got me thinking: would authors really want to write the stories that other people have created, or would it just be a move from a purely economic point of view?
They would only want to write the stories of others if it ignited passion within them, or a writer could take an idea from that story and expand upon it.
Money should flow toward the writer, but only when the writer has written a real book that’s survived a rigorous vetting process that includes the possibility of outright rejection. Money should flow away from readers only when they receive a professionally written, vetted and edited book in return.
Not sure what you mean by ‘flow away from readers’, whether you mean that those who contribute should only be paid when they receive the work in whole. But I do agree partially with what I think you are saying, that funding should contribute to the book directly.
Very interesting article. As a creative fiction writer myself, it was nice to learn another’s perspective and insight. Not too familiar with crowdfunding in literary projects. I really liked your closing quote as well, something we often discuss in creative writing courses are the “rules” of fiction.
Thank you for commenting, Brittany. Hopefully these perceived rules can be broken or changed and crowd-funding for literary projects can be made more popular.
It is certainly a good option for authors to try it. Imagine it this way, you’re creating your own signing bonus that a publisher would pay you. Or imagine it this way, you’re really preselling copies of your book. Either way, it’s good!
Definitely, you are either creating demand or the demand comes to you. Thank you for commenting.
I like your “signing bonus” analogy.
Well what most people don’t tell you about crowdfunding is that, unless you are already a celebrity — or engage in heavy promotion — 80 to 90 percent of your funding will come from people who already know you — readers, fans, and of course friends and family.
Really? Well, it is more of an ideal to strive towards then, I guess. Thank you for commenting.
Thank you, I think…
Thank you, Sophia.
Good perspective on external factors that can influence and even set boundaries. My observation is that the measure of success in any art form these days seems to be around popularity and how many ‘units’ you move. If the work is a commission for a particular purpose this can also narrow or control how the artist works. I am sure it must influence many writers ( not being one myself). I found the article insightful and very well structured.
Look forward to the next !
Thanks for commenting, mate. It is unavoidable that one needs to be popular to achieve success.
Great perspective and observation on the conflict between creativity and commercialisation of writing which could apply to any art form.
It seems these days that how many units you can move is a measure of success, that attracts publishers I suppose, popular culture tends to control a lot these days!
Looking forward to your next article, good work!
Cheers mate, totally agree.
This is an interesting problem and your thoughts on the relationship between the author and the audience certainly made me think about this topic in ways in which I hadn’t yet considered (Hey, maybe that’s art!). I think that anyone who produces something that is, inherently, created to be read, or seen, or listened to, has to take into account the audience, although it can be in a very general way, as in an ideal reader or ideal viewer or ideal listener. Most artists will say that they are doing what they do to please themselves, and while I don’t doubt this, it seems to me a bit disingenuous to claim that they have no regard for the audience, however they conceive of it. Is a book still a book if it isn’t read? What would the meaning of a book be if not a collection of words to be read by another? This doesn’t mean that the author or artist is thinking of the audience only, or primarily, of maybe even consciously. But it does mean that what the artist is creating is designed to have an effect on whoever reads the book. How could it not? Just as eating is not eating without the food, or walking not walking without the surface, writing a book is not writing a book without the reader. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a book as “a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.” Inherent in this definition if the notion that a book is meant to be read – why else define it as something printed, as an object constructed in a specific way? It must be a for-someone, even if that someone is an idealized and therefore not real, non-existent – reader.
Even in the case of outsider art, or brut art, where the creator has no intention of ever allowing his work to be seen or read, I would think that the products of such a creation would be of a different kind than the books which are written that are meant to be read.
As for the Kickstarter and such rewards, I haven’t seen the ones where the content is determined by the amount somebody donates to the project. I’m in the midst of publishing an article on the writer H. P. Lovecraft, and there are many Kickstarter projects associated with him. The rewards given for contributions are free copies of the book, or dvd, and sometimes mention of the contributors. But I have not seen the case where the actual content of the book or project is determined by the contributor. My experience is limited, so it certainly might be true that such is the case, though I would be surprised.
Totally agree with your first paragraph. All very good points. Glad that I got you thinking.
I have to struggle with this concept all the time. I’m a composer and many times I find I don’t know if I’m writing for entertainment or for the “magic.” Great points are brought up in this article.
Thank you for commenting.
Wow, this was a great article. This sure is a problem but I feel like the authors should write whatever they had in mind without trying to give the readers what they want. After all, everyone has their own opinions on how things should be but we need to let the artists do their magic so we can enjoy it.
Thanks for commenting. The writers should come first, I agree.
Careful with the first sentence: there is quite a bit of room for ghostwriting to enter the frame.