The Smith Myth

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Art is slow to clean out its ears. Most of the time, you’re better off talking to rocks. At least they don’t pretend to listen.

Aphorism of the Day II: Paint only dries when you’re not watching.

I came across another central literary misconception while reading The Globe and Mail this morning, what I’ve been calling the Myth of Compositional Autonomy.

“This [the importance of a writer’s relationship with their readers] may well be true but it’s problematic. I’m concerned about the slow and subtle shift in attitude that constant marketing may effect in writers. Once you are in charge of your own promotion and sales, you cannot help think of your audience as a market, and a market must be pleased. Writers should never think about their audience – they should never worry that their ideal demographic (say, women over 45 living outside large cities) won’t get the learned reference or will be nauseated by the torture scene. Art is not a product like any other.”

Logically, the problem here is one of crude equivocation: you blur ‘audience’ with ‘market,’ and suddenly ‘writing for your audience’ becomes ‘writing for money,’ and conversely, ‘writing for nobody’ becomes ‘writing for something other than money’–which is to say (deep, reverential breath), Art.

Writing, as communication, is about audiences, period. To write is to write to, and no amount of pretending will make it otherwise. So the question becomes one of who is Smith telling us we need to write to? Nobody is simply incoherent, simply because the writer is always in the room.

What Smith is saying is that the writer must only think of themselves, what moves them, provokes them, and so on. Since every writer, no matter how hard they pretend otherwise, belongs to a demographic, what Smith is saying is that every writer must write for people like themselves. As indeed they do.

Now this may have been well an fine in the 20th Century, when something like a ‘general audience’ still existed in the developed world. In the course of writing for the likeminded you could be relatively certain that your fiction would reach dissenting audiences–people who could actually be challenged as opposed to confirmed. Your work could do double duty as high-end entertainment for some, and assumption stressing literature for others.

In other words, you could use resemblance as your primary criterion for what was literary, and still reliably produce literary effects. The ‘Smith myth’ was a relatively benign way for literary writers and readers to congratulate themselves for their moral, intellectual, and aesthetic superiority–and actually get some literary work done.

Not so much nowadays. More and more we find ourselves living in an e-Harmony world, where market segmentation and preference algorithms are balkanizing audiences according to their interests and values.

This is why I argue that the form of the literary has been disconnected from the real world consequences, why you see so many writers referring to Ideal Philistines, people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading their works, but would be challenged, were they to.

And as always I remain mystified: everyone knows that we’re living through the greatest communications revolution in the history of the human species, and here we have this set of nested institutions–the ones most prone to tout their critical credentials, no less–simply assuming that, despite the drastic technological transformation of their social context, simply repeating the old forms will produce the same results.

What could be more obvious than the fact that literary fiction has become ‘just another genre,’ a marketing category primarily distinguished by its hypocritical pomposity?

The Age of Accidental Literature is over. Writing for your audience can mean any number of things, some positive, others negative. The bottom line is that you need to know who you’re writing to if you’re going to have any hope of challenging their assumptions. Writing for yourself assures apologia and cultural irrelevance. You need to game audiences. Which means you need to abandon the milky world of literary fiction, and dive face first into the world of commercial genre.