One of the longest debates among creatives involves the apparent conflict between business and art. On the one hand, artists have to make a living one way or another, therefore making money off of art should be a primary concern. This, however, often leads to a number of restraints. It discourages risk taking and encourages things like genre tropes, aka the “safe” path. So in opposition to this creative restraint, the alternate argument is that art should be free to experiment, even screw up occasionally. But above all, art should be free of creative constraint.
Genre and Bad Reviews
Now I’ve read a lot of self-publishing books recently because I am writing some books. Naturally, I want these books to succeed, and since I’m publishing/marketing them myself, the business side of art is foremost on my mind.
Interestingly, I’ve discovered that, according to almost every self-publisher I’ve read, they all encourage writers to “write to market.” At least at first. This means that we, the writers, take a genre that comes closest to our ideas, study that genre, and write similar stuff. This doesn’t mean we copy other books in the genre. But it does mean that there are a few key tropes or scenes to follow. Shawn Coyne in his book The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know relies heavily on this idea. His bottom line is that financial success will only come if you study the genre and include all the appropriate key scenes.
Now at first, this rubbed me the wrong way. But at the same time, all the self-published authors that I’ve read have agreed on this idea. They’ve also made it clear that most, if not all, bad reviews come from people who had different expectations. Meaning, the book wasn’t bad, it just didn’t fit the genre that that particular reader was expecting. Hence the bad review. Books that conform to the genre, even if they’re largely unoriginal, usually get amazing reviews. Of course, there are a few people that will call out the book for being unoriginal, but these reviews are far less prevalent and have no lasting impact on the success of the book.
As a result of all my research, I decided to write my first book to market, with my chosen genre of YA High-fantasy. You can even tell by the cover that I’ve targeted this genre. It looks a lot like other books in the genre. This will help a lot in marketing my book to people who enjoy that genre, because they will recognize it instantly as something they will probably enjoy. Now, of course, I need to write a book that also fits those expectations, otherwise I risk getting a lot of bad reviews from people who thought I was delivering a YA High-fantasy, and instead got something different. So I have studied the genre, selected a few key scenes/tropes, and have included them in my book.
Now it so happens, that the story I’m telling fits well as a YA High-fantasy, and I don’t have to change much to conform to the genre. So I’m enjoying the writing anyway. Therefore, the best advice I can give is to write the idea that best fits into a genre.
Star Wars and George Lucas
One fantastic case-study of what I’ve just outlined is the Star Wars franchise, originally started by George Lucas, now carried on by Disney. Recently, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired due to creative differences. Recent journalism on the subject has suggested that the directors felt creatively constrained, something they were not used to. The same sort of thing happened with Rogue One the first Star Wars spin-off, which was supposed to be a slightly different genre from mainstream Star Wars films. These events are what prompted this article.
The original Star Wars films were a huge risk, and an experiment by George Lucas. Thankfully, he managed to get Alan Ladd Jr. to trust him, but the studio was quite worried about the film, and fully expected it to bomb at the box-office. They were wrong. Lucas has gone on record many times to express his distrust of movie studios, saying they have no creativity and should stay out of the films. I’m personally inclined to agree. Whenever a big-budget movie bombs, it seems like the movie studio is almost always to blame. This is a blanket statement that isn’t always true, but I see it all the time (looking at you Warner Brothers).
Lucas is not really someone who cares about conforming to genre tropes, even the genre he essentially created with Star Wars. That is why, when he started to release the Star Wars prequels, he began to receive heavy criticism. Most of this criticism had nothing to do with how bad the movies are themselves (they actually receive a fairly high rating from top critics, apart from a general consensus that the dialogue is bad). Instead, most fans were upset that it was too different from the original films. It didn’t feel like Star Wars anymore.
That was why, when Disney acquired the franchise, their first film was 100% meant to invoke nostalgia for the original films. Like any work of art that wants to be successful, it conformed to the genre tropes. I understood this, and I agree that this was the best first step for Lucasfilm/Disney to take, at least at first. Since then, we’ve seen some evidence that Lucasfilm is enforcing a similar vision for all these films, potentially limiting creativity and artistic differences. This has me concerned, though I’m not writing this article to criticize Lucasfilm for this decision, rather to point out that this is a business decision, and one that likely makes a lot of sense. After all, without money there would be no future for the franchise.
Marvel: An Example of Business Art
Another really good case study of business art comes from Marvel Studios and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They started on a huge risk that led to massive innovation within the industry: the shared universe. However, since that initial innovation, their films have often felt too similar to each other. They all have similar color schemes, and narrative structure. Doctor Strange, for example, had the exact same narrative structure as the original Iron Man, and the same color scheme as Guardians of the Galaxy. That doesn’t mean it was a bad movie (it wasn’t), but it is meant to please fans of that particular genre, aka the Marvel Superhero genre. If you liked Iron Man or Guardians of the Galaxy, you would almost certainly like Doctor Strange as well. Once again, this was a business decision. And it works really well.
Where to Draw the Line?
Now it’s easy to see that conforming to genre tropes is not going to springboard creativity or innovation. That only comes through risk taking. However, risks are risky for a reason, so should these big studios invest so much money in things they know could bust?
Thankfully, I don’t think this is an either/or situation. With my own books, I plan to follow the 50/50 rule, meaning write one for myself, and one for the market. However, I only plan to do this after I’ve gained a small following. Because ultimately, financial success is a priority I can’t ignore. I wish I could, but I can’t.
With large studios like Lucasfilm or Marvel, I would think they would do this as well. For a while, it seemed like Lucasfilm was going to take a 50/50 approach, with the episodic films following the “formula” and the spin-offs allowing for more innovation and genre-bending. However, it no longer looks like this is the case, based on recent journalism. And it’s been a little while since Marvel has taken any major risks. Overall, I see an overreliance on genre-conforming in Hollywood. Ever wonder why people keep saying that Hollywood is out of ideas? They’re not. They have plenty of ideas. But only a few of them are proven to make a lot of money, so innovation/originality remains largely elusive and rare.
Thankfully, there is hope. After all, Star Wars and Marvel were innovative and risky at their genesis. And we can expect similar phenomena in our future. But expect that innovation to be picked up and beaten to death until it becomes a trope. Because such is the business of art.