Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Artistic freedom in a limited-outlets world


SF Signal has a very interesting topic up on MIND MELD today:

Q: Once upon a time, sf/f was full of taboos: no swearing, no sex, etc. We're thankfully past those days, but are there any taboos still remaining or new ones that have sprung up? Have you ever had trouble with publishing something, or caught yourself self-censoring?
Peter Watts


As is the practice on Mind Meld, a few pro writers are asked to weigh in and the floor is opened for comments. The site may shortly go up in flames; stay tuned. What I find most fascinating is the passionate allegiance people exhibit to one side of the question or the other: the writers (and remember these are pros, not the Bitter Unpubbed) who take the question itself to task, so frustrating is the suggestion that art is not completely hamstrung by publishers' taboos or fear of others'--versus the writers who are offended by the suggestion that we should tolerate (gasp) pottymouth, much less inappropriate behaviors or philosophies, when those things are simply not necessary to great storytelling.

Look through the words to the experiences they reveal, and you may see a deeper conflict: the one between artists and entertainers, between those who want to wrestle with Big Questions and the true meaning of humanity--and those who want to be a part of the comfortable, accepted "artistic elite". I see this conflict play out over and over: at cons, on discussion boards, etc. Big Publishing is heartless and fascist, say those whose art is too risky for publishers who put money ahead of art; Big Publishing is the only thing protecting the Qualified from the Fanficcers, say those who are either comfortable within the accepted norms or both able and willing to channel their creativity into works that don't challenge their audiences overmuch.

The image above is from The Long Tail. Setting aside the political-party overtones, which I think Completely Miss The Point in any context, the image fits the situation. Self-censorship by an industry is still censorship; it is one of the most insidious symptoms of fascism. But I'm getting a bit off topic, as usual. Let's see if we can drag this back on course.

Big Publishing is Big Business. It is in the business of making money. People who work for Big Publishing are not necessarily fascists, but in order to keep their jobs they must adhere to the business model that says making money is more important than art--that choosing works which will not sell enough copies to support the Lifestyle to Which Publishing Has Grown Accustomed is a bad plan; that choosing works which may inflame the wrath of that vocal minority which fancies itself the arbiter of decency (whatever that is) and Good Taste is equally bad if not worse. Big Publishing is not in the business of taking risks; it provides a safe haven for well-behaved entertainment folk, and tries to guide the public in the direction of appreciating art that matches its ideals. It is the wrong place for artists.

Fortunately, there is a place for artists. It's called Independent Publishing. Contrary to whatever confusions organizations like Author House may have imposed on you lately, Independent Publishing is not the same thing as Subsidy Publishing or even Self-Publishing. Independent Publishing is run by people who are passionate about art, who will take on the task of bringing to the public works that will push the mainstream audience out of its comfort zone and delight those who were already hanging around outside. Independent publishers do many of the same things Big Publishers do or once did: choose works carefully, work with authors to make the works the best they can be, give individual attention to artists' visions and careers, produce, distribute, and promote books in ways that match the works themselves.

Independent publishing is not for everyone. It's a trapeze act rather than a safe career. But it may be the last remaining haven for true artistic freedom.

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