Are Creators Really Unable to Innovate Because Audiences Won’t Appreciate it?

This post isn’t just for artists or writers, folks. I urge you to read it even if you have no projects of your own. Ever wonder why it is that so many supposedly-artistic professions seem to rip each other off so often? Ever bothered by how long an industry goes on doing the same thing over and over, even though no one likes it? Bear with me and I’ll explain.

I’ve noticed a theme in my continued quest to understand why stagefighting currently “works” as it does. I’m not hammering that dead horse again (much), don’t worry. But I saw something in discussions about it that I’ve seen echoed elsewhere. In this case, that “average Joe” can’t like something if he doesn’t recognize it, or that he’ll always pick the less “high-brow” option.

Idiocy.

I shouldn’t have to tear this pathetic argument apart when it ought to rot and die on its own. A human who needs to fully understand something in order to like it is going to spend the vast majority of their life disgusted by everything around them. Do you really think the average person has a keen mind for the arts culinary? Unless you’re trained in food yourself, do you walk into a high-end restaurant and understand the exact balance of flavors that makes their bites the best? Of course not, cooking is a complicated business with a sky-scraping skill-ceiling. There’s far too much to know and refine for most of us to fully get it, and that’s despite the fact that most of us do some cooking ourselves! I only have a skin-deep understanding of what schnitzel is and how it’s made (it involves pounding meat and then breading it, I believe), but that doesn’t mean I want people to stop making schnitzel.

There are a good number of people who watch ballet and couldn’t for the life of them explain what the parts of the grand pas de deux are, but they like “The part where the man and the woman dance together.” We can look at and enjoy paintings and sculpture without needing to know exactly what subtle choices the artists made to convey depth, color or the look of human skin. Unless you’ve studied it, you probably don’t know the name for a move in breakdancing any better than you know that zwerchhau refers to a strike in German longsword fighting. That does not matter. We are capable of enjoying an experience without having the foggiest goddamned idea what makes it enjoyable. If modern psychology has proven one thing, it’s that most people don’t fully understand why they do anything.

Hell, why bother with all the other examples? The first of them all is right under your gaze at this exact second. It’s writing. The bulk of people have absolutely no idea how any but beginner’s-level writing works. They don’t realize that often, when someone perceives them as insulting online, it’s because they used words that connote annoyance or condescension or just sound mean. They don’t realize the importance of rhythm and punctuation. Many of them don’t mention a writer’s style at all. But if you think that style doesn’t change how they experience writing, you’re being ridiculous.

If a cat’s meow goes from adorable to annoying purely because it changes pitch, do you really think readers can’t pick up changes in tone based on words? Even my use of “do you really think” makes you feel condescended to (sorry about that) because you associate it with people acting superior or dismissive. You remember all those past portrayals on some level, and connect them with me. You feel I’m being rude even though (supposedly) “There’s no tone on the Internet.” So how do you know I’m not asking the question with a gentle breath, deeply hurt that you believe style doesn’t matter? Because of context and connotation. Without consciously thinking about it, you recognize that I’ve been using a lot of words and phrases to show I’m pissed off and I think the “other side” are acting stupid. Even though you haven’t (unless, er, you have) taken hundreds of hours of writing and practiced it daily as I do, you were aware of this. You just don’t have the training to crystallize it.

The whole argument is so bad that it made me suspicious. I’ve noticed that when a number of people repeat a bad argument enough, there’s usually a common theme. It arrives somewhere after the “main” point. In this case I didn’t have to look hard. Aside from the (frankly disturbing) emphasis on how dumb and uninformed most people are, the next most popular lines of attack are two.

First: if the “experts” aren’t doing it, that’s because it doesn’t work. This is reasonable to a point, but a lot of it depends on whether the experts are actually experts. If there are no successful restaurants selling mayonnaise omelettes, that’s probably because mayonnaise omelettes are a disgrace. But if ninety percent of writers don’t have a style of their own, that’s because ninety percent of writers aren’t very good. This is a false equivalence, of course, but I’m not the one making it am I? I’ve said before that the people we have doing a given job are not necessarily the best people for that job. The funny thing is, I don’t think anyone disagrees with that point. But most people don’t actually change any of their behavior or thinking elsewhere to account for it. I understand that it’s difficult at first to think in these terms. We all have a lot on the brain as-is, and most of us would prefer not to add “Doubt everyone else” to “Doubt myself.”

Regardless, plenty of restaurants have been shuttered because just being in the business didn’t make the owners good at it. Plenty of writers fail because just saying the word doesn’t mean you understand it. On the other hand, often the incompetent succeed (you can’t say succeed without suck) and the best flop. Many times in every field, talented people doing potentially groundbreaking work drop out and give up because they simply can’t gain any momentum. Stupid people don’t know how stupid they are, and humans (in spite of thousands of years of stories reminding us it’s not true) tend to believe anyone who speaks confidently is an authority. They ought to know it’s not true. We’ve all seen the bluffing jerkwards who spend 20 minutes talking about how easily they’ll win that Mario Cart match, and then implode in the first thirty seconds. Saying that you are good does not mean you are good. Yet how do we decide who the experts are? Usually, it’s because they say that they’re experts.

Bringing this back around, it’s hard to argue that things aren’t done purely because they don’t work. There are plenty of legitimate cases of that, sure, but most of the time you won’t see this argument used in those cases. No one has to tell you that you can’t run a company by calling  your employees Shitbird Mountain and paying them in leftover Halloween candy.

And the second argument? That there’s no demand for it. This, again, is reasonable at first but gets pretty flimsy on certain issues. First, people cannot know they want something if they don’t know it exists. I already said that most people don’t know what a zwerchhau is. Allow me to fix that.

Congratulations! By viewing this GIF, you now have a better understanding of German longsword technique than the vast majority of people on the planet. I think you’ll agree that it looks pretty cool, and it would be completely possible for us to use it in films. The problem is that the studios want demand to come first. Just imagine, for a second, if no one wanted to implement public Internet because there was no demand for it. How the hell would we have demanded something we didn’t know was possible? No, I am not saying that HEMA is as vital as the Internet. Not by a long, long shot.

My point is this: for some types of company, a demand-first approach makes sense. You certainly wouldn’t want your local supermarket to try some kind of wild reorganization experiment right as you’re running out for bread and eggs. In logistical terms they couldn’t anyway, but you see my point. Creative media in general have a huge problem with refusing to do anything unless it’s done before. Everyone wants to strike it rich, but no one wants to take the risks necessary for that. Just about every trend in film, writing, gaming and art for a long time now has been driven by the handful of people who still take risks. You cannot do something new if you only listen to focus groups and marketing advisors. The former are (usually by design) comprised of nice but disposable every-people who don’t know enough to give informed feedback. The latter will always tell you to do what’s safe and reliable, even though plenty of companies have crashed and burned because people got sick of them doing the same thing over and over again.

As a final note, consider electronic gaming. Nowhere has it been more consistently proven that market analysis and our expectations of “demand” often have no bearing at all on reality. From Software’s Dark Souls series probably would’ve been canceled if a larger publisher had the final say. It’s got a fortified wall instead of a learning curve, death is frequent, comes without warning and resets progress, and it’s just generally hard as tungsten. Gamers ate it up like starving dogs. Red Orchestra, ARMA and other realistic shooters have carved out a pretty respectable niche for themselves based on similar principles.

Are any of these games quite the same level of blockbuster as Call of Duty is? No (although damned if Dark Souls hasn’t come close). But here’s the other thing: every other game cannot be Call of Duty. Call of Duty is already Call of Duty. On which note, gamers don’t want Day One DLC, illogical preorder bullcrap, microtransactions in full-price games or any of a bevy of “creative” moneymaking tactics, but “Triple-A” publishers such as Activision and EA have shoved them into everything anyway. No one has more creative freedom than a company so large it can actually ignore the complaints of its audience. The film industry has even less excuse; millions of people will view a mediocre film with friends just to kill time.

To creators: you are not going to turn more profit by copying your biggest competitor. Your fans will see that you’re copying them and desert you. If they’re interested in your competitor’s product, they’re using that product. They do not want your soulless rip-off, and all you’ll do is drive away the people who actually liked what you were doing before. Success in art is not and will never be guaranteed. Trying to follow a recipe will only make it easier to write you off.

Go your own way. You may crash and burn, but at least your wreckage will be further from the pile than everyone else’s.

Say something, darn it!

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