Friday, December 23, 2022

To Write In the World, But Not Of It

When seeking entertainment, people have two contradictory drives: they want novelty, and they also want familiarity. Today, the scale is tipped heavily towards familiarity.

Hollywood churns out endless sequels, reboots, remakes, and IPs set in the same universe. Japanese publishers pump out manga and light novels with endless volumes, and release everything from anime adaptations to figurines to movies based on that steady flow. In the writing world, you see writers hustling to copy every other writer, generating endless near-copies of each other.

It's just easier. It's easier to tap into an existing audience with existing tastes than to create new demand. It's easier to replicate someone else's formula for success and put a new twist on it than to learn how to develop your own voice. It's easier to keep a franchise going on and on and on than to create a new world, a new cast, and new demand for that new IP.

It's also more lucrative. You're tapping into an audience someone else built. You're meeting something in demand. You already know the kind of product that everybody wants; you just need to serve it up and make sure they know how to find you.

The consumers don't care about novelty, or high art, or deeper meaning. They just want the never-ending dopamine drip, the trickle of pleasure that comes from recognising names, archetypes, tropes, story beats, genre conventions, the same patterns over and over and over again. Creativity? Novelty? Vision? If they don't get that steady dopamine flow, they don't care.

Big Entertainment is just giving consumers what they want. Consumers are just supporting the companies that give them what they want. There's nothing too complicated about that. It's just business. And the paradigm of this business sets up a vicious spiral of increasingly bland, generic, fungible product.

Product. That's the key to it. That's how we got here in the first place.

As JD Cowan discusses here, modern society treats art as product. It's everywhere: Hollywood, Japan, indie publishing. Art is reduced to an assembly line process, with all the humanity and the artistry stripped out it, in favour of rapid production of a never-ending line of a minimum viable product.

Why spend a hundred hours on meticulously detailing every single character and giving them distinct identities when the consumer will be satisfied with moeblobs that can be produced in one hour? Why spend ninety days on producing a novel, incorporating complex themes and gorgeous prose, when the consumer will be satisfied with goop that can be churned out in ten? Why invest the years and the decades in refining and honing the craft when the consumer will gobble up generic product that needs neither time nor talent to produce?

If you've ever thought of asking why, you see art as a product.

If you never thought of asking why, you see art as art.

This is the divide in the entertainment space. Those who see art as product make most of the money, those who see art as art live off the dross—or quit the field altogether.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. There are those who treat art as product who can't even begin to reach the minimum standards the consumers demand, and so don't make money. And there are those who treat art as art and make money—usually because they are either backed by a corporate marketing machine, or have the funds to invest in marketing of their own. But by and large, most of the money today is made by those who shovel out minimum viable product to the lowest common denominator in the most popular fields by the truckload.

When all your art is product, you have no art, only product. When your culture is based on product, you have no culture—only product. High churches are erected in the name of Big Brand, museums chronicle the evolution of Massive Franchise over the decades, Mass is held for lowly consumers to commune with the high gods that are the creators.

At the level of the individual, it makes perfect business sense to treat art as product. At the level of society, it strips the soul from all who participate in it, reducing people to dopamine-addicted consoomers and product peddlers, unable and unwilling to be more than this. Art as product ignites a race to the bottom where everyone will gain everything they desire at the small, inconsequential price of their humanity.

The peddlers are not above the process. Their business model is predicated on chasing what is popular. They must consume products to study them, the better to reproduce them. In that consumption they become consoomers themselves. And thus we have consoomers producing product for consoomers, giving rise to generation after generation of consoomers consooming more product so they can produce more product for fellow consoomers.

Are you a human? Or a dopamine-addled consoomer?

The peddlers don't care, as long as the big bucks come in. The consoomers don't care, so long as the dopamine keeps flowing. And therein lies the nub.

Cowan asks, "Isn't there a higher reason to create than just because you can?"

The peddler replies, "Who cares? I'm in this for the money, and I give my customers what they want!"

Cowan says, "In order to remember the purpose of art, we need to remember the purpose of life. What is purpose? What is meaning? Why are we doing anything we're doing? Art was once the constant reminder that what you do has higher origins, and everything that happens occurs for a reason."

The consoomer replies, "I don't give a fig about your high falutin' nonsense! Now gimme Product! Gimme my dope!"

This is not to say Cowan is wrong. He does make excellent points. Nonetheless, the language of art does not touch the minds of those who care only about dollars, dopamine, and dopamine as dope.

Big Entertainment is a business, and business only cares about profits and costs. They will pick the strategy that maximises the former and minimises the latter, and the current risk-reward calculus points towards appealing to consoomers. Consoomers themselves have been trained to view certain tropes, archetypes, and patterns as markers of quality, and throw their money at those who can reproduce them. Art does not enter the equation.

PulpRev, Iron Age, and adjacent influencers and movements have done stellar work in promoting a different vision of art. Art as art, art that revitalises the soul, art that inspires awe and wonder, art that reminds the audience of what it means to be human. It is also a vision of art diametrically opposed to the current zeitgeist. For those who follow this path, that leaves us with two options.

The first to curate an audience. They are a small but loyal following, those whose souls resonate with ours, who also seek truth and beauty and goodness. They keyword here, alas, is 'small'.

Business gurus will tell you that you don't need many customers. Only enough diehard fans to grow your audience. This is all well and good, but when your vision stands against the current, it's going to be an uphill struggle.

You may have heard of the Overton Window, the range of ideas tolerated by the mainstream in public discourse. This is normally applied to politics, but we see the same in culture too. Consoomer culture sits squarely in the middle of the window, not merely accepted, but the very definition of the mainstream. PulpRev and Iron Age? They exist at the radical end of the spectrum—even unthinkable.

I will not say that it is impossible to grow an audience. I will only ask this:

Is there a better, faster and easier way to expand your audience without compromising your soul?

This leads me back to the title: to write in the world, but not of it.

It is easy to separate yourself from the masses altogether, to pursue your own thing and chase the dreams of art. It also means you will remove your influence from the world as well. The only people who will support are those who have remained free from the taint of consoomerism—and they are few indeed, and widely scattered.

Compromising is also easy. You can decide to make this one concession to make more money, that one concession to attract a wider readership. But all it takes is one compromise. One small step, that's all. Then the next step becomes easier, and the next even easier yet, until suddenly you're sliding down the slippery slope at full tilt.

Or you could be in the world of product, but not of it. To witness the vision of art to a hostile environment, to study what the world of product is doing and use that intelligence to inform your next move, to hold up your flame against a world desperate to snuff it out.

What does this mean in practice?

Suppose you decide to enter the comics world. You noticed that the manga style is popular in your target demographic. So you create a manga—one that is imbued with your voice, your vision, your art. The art style draws in the audience; the story delivers your art.

Perhaps you want to be a writer instead, and you discover that the light novel format is taking off. So you decide to write a light novel series, complete with interior illustrations and Japanese-style covers. You may even go so far as to use character archetypes, story beats and structures lifted from other light novels—but the rest is entirely your own work.

The idea is to package your art in a way that the intended audience will understand. You still see your art as art, but you use some critical patterns the audience is familiar with so that you can deliver your art to as many people as possible.

In Acts 17, Paul the Apostle reaches the city of Athens, a city that worshipped many gods. There he discovered an altar dedicated to the Unknown God. Instead of reprimanding the Greeks for worshiping so many gods, he highlighted the religiosity of his audience, then introduced them to the Unknown God—the God of Christianity.

Some Vajrayana Buddhist masters who choose to teach in large cities lead peculiar lifestyles. They live in magnificent mansions, carry designer bags and wear expensive shoes, and hold Dharma classes in beautiful temples. While seemingly at odds with the tenets of Buddhism, these masters are not actually reveling in luxury. Instead, they adorn themselves with all the symbols of material wealth and success, so that they can reach those who are moved only by material wealth and success. Such people would not spare a glance for a wandering mendicant dressed in threadbare rags, but would pay attention to someone attired in rich clothing and holds court in luxurious surroundings. Thus such people can be brought to the Way.

In this same fashion, you can choose to do the same with your art. Nick Cole and Jason Anspach did this with Galaxy's Edge—which is infused with the tropes employed by a certain extremely popular franchise. They did it again with Forgotten Ruin—which is built on the tropes of two franchises, and makes many pop culture references.

And my own work?

Saga of the Swordbreaker is a cultivation series. It employs many cultivation tropes. Magic, meditation, monsters, martial arts, pills, potions, so on and so forth. But the core message is the exact opposite of the genre:

Cultivation for power alone leads to self-destruction. Cultivation for spiritual growth leads to enlightenment—and also power.

It is the essence of the ancient teachings. It is the exact opposite of consoomerism.

And it is my most successful series yet.

This mindset is heresy to those who generate product in that genre—and is itself an antidote to heresy. It is unthinkable to those who are bound by the strictures of product and business, and thus my work stands alone. Those who try to copy me without comprehension will fail, because it takes years, even decades, of dedicated practice to understand such a concept—never mind make a series out of it.

Thus, Saga of the Swordbreaker lives up to the artistic vision of PulpRev and the Iron Age, while also reaching out to a wider audience than before.

To those who treat art as product, I say: by establishing your brand in a blue ocean, offering a product that addresses a need others do not, you win a loyal following. To the consoomers, I say: here lies pleasures you have never seen. And when they enter my domain, they see the glory of worlds beyond mere product.

In the coming months and years, I will continue this approach. I will continue to chronicle my progress. I will continue to stay true to my brand, my vision, no matter what genres I happen to dip my toes in.

When you treat art as art and business, interesting things will happen.

Unsure where to start with Saga of the Swordbreaker? Get the FREE prequel here!

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