The Next Big Thing

A Cautionary Tale About Money and Art

Very often states deploy Arts funding systems to help Artists develop their work, and sometimes, with the best of intentions, it doesn’t work out as intended. This essay explores an imaginary country’s attempts, and the problems associated with allowing artistic freedom within a state controlled arts funding system

  1. A Brief History Of Lyrica

Picture an island, an imaginary Island in the middle of an imaginary ocean. Its got about five million people on it. Nice place. Its technologically advanced, got a world class education system, a strong economy, a highly educated population, a decent health system, a strong social welfare system, good housing, adequate infrastructure and, despite its violent past, crime is low. Lets call this imaginary society, Lyrica.

2. The Flowering of Art in Lyrica

Now Lyrica, an land off the dreamland of Eurasia, has something of a storied past. It was once not so rich and cultured and cultivated. It was once a vassal state. Lyrica, with its long history, its rich mythology, beautiful music, and dark mythic dreamlike poetry, was for many many hundreds of years under the dominion of another country. It had a dark past, filled with pain, oppression, and massive emigration, whereby people would go to other developing countries and send back money or encourage relatives to come and build a life for themselves elsewhere. Lyrica had something of a population exodus issue for more than a little time. This went on for a long time. Then the Lyricans decided, well, enough was enough. And, after several attempts, they overthrew their overlords and overladies and got a good chunk of their land back. Then, after a decent interval of inertia and time spent growing and struggling with a new identity and new freedoms, things took off. The economy recovered bit by bit, and, in the midst of this turmoil and economic growth and urbanization there came a flowering of the arts, a lyrical dawn of novels, plays, music, painting, sculpture, you name it. In fact, not only did the arts bloom despite problems with stultifying moral and intellectual inertia borne of religious oppression and a large dose of social conformity and class rigidity, but the original language of Lyrica come back into use as some of the most brilliant novels and poems and plays were written integrating English with a blend of the styles and music and structures of the original Lyrican, works so powerful they changed the face of writing and art for many generations to come. More to the point the artistic reputation of the small island grew disproportionately to its size, and its artists became a huge export. There soon followed a growth in film and music, with some of the musicians and actors and directors involved achieving international and at times historical status.

This all caused the new Lyrican leaders to pause for thought. Lyrica, they mused, was well named and they, the new generation were ambitious to succeed in all aspects. They were better educated, modern and aware, technocratically savvy, richer and more powerful leaders of this rather evolved, small but perfectly formed, Island. They, the Lyrican leaders, had done rather well, and they knew it. They were richer. They also wanted to capitalize on this artistic reservoir for the future. It was too good to lose. But the problems associated with doing this were not trivial. Finding a way of channeling all this talent and potential was like bottling lighting. How do you do it? The problem was, those aforementioned seminal works of literature that had changed things, were not native. They were written elsewhere, not in Lyrica actually. Some of the top writers and artists stayed in Lyrica, but most left. It was a strange phenomenon. These writers (particularly writers:- there were some artists and musicians too, but mostly it was writers) were quintessentially Lyrican. They seemed to love the land. Loved its people. Yet they couldn’t live there, so some admitted during more vulnerable moments. It was almost as though they needed the distance from that thing they loved in order to gain perspective, though some of those writers seem to deploy more the tough love approach than a kind of unqualified endorsement. Whatever these writer’s intentions were, they certainly made a major splash with what they produced and soon they became part of an indelible image of Lyrica, seen as a place of deep spirituality and learning and talent, all of which was true, but in no way depicted the multifaceted character of Lyrica or of its immensely complex peoples.

3. Art and Democracy

Still, as the decades passed and politics in Lyrica evolved and changed, successive governments, in concert with artists and technocrats, business advisors, bureaucrats and lawyers, not to mention social media influencers and advertising consultants, got together to make the Lyrican arts sustainably great. It was a wise move. Policy dictated that Lyrica have a vibrant arts scene, one that allowed artists of all stripes to work with untrammeled freedom to express the contents of the creative consciousness. It was after all one of the key indicators of a functional democracy. Moreover there was no doubt that this A-Team of leaders and thinkers and advisors, in concert with the finest writers and artists and advisors Lyrica could produce, were preserving a critically important facet of Lyrican culture and preparing future generations of artists and writers and thinkers for a new age, a new technologically evolved, vastly more complex, metropolis filled, and of course wealthier, island. It was going to be great and their enthusiasm was well founded as they had done their homework on this and built a framework around this detailed vision to make it possible. The good thing, they reasoned, was that no longer will artists have to leave the Island to truly express themselves. The resources were here in Lyrica. No longer was the land held back by the oppressors of Mother and Church and Vassaldom. This was a new order. People were more educated, more open, less held back by the past and less fearful of the future. A new age, a lucrative age of the arts would flourish, just as the economy had flourished, just as so many things in Lyrica had succeeded: How did they work this? Well, through careful planning, well placed funding, research into how effective their investment had been, and, from this future funding, decisions would be based on solid research and statistical analysis. Despite the bureaucratic and technological oversight, these artists would be free to express themselves as they chose and they would be given a stipend to keep on keeping on bring out those timeless classics in the way they chose.

And so, over successive governments this funding rollout occurred. Artistic communities, small publishing houses, and individual writers and artists of various stripes and disciplines were given funding to produce their work. They signed on the dotted line after detailing what their new work would be about, how long would it take to write it, and they worked out how much money they would need to get it done. It was a perfectly fair and equitable method. Indeed, whether it was an individual, a theater group, a dance group or a sculpture project, a movie or a one person show about dog language, the main thrust of this funding and organization of the Lyrican Arts was the fostering of the artistic output of the island. The committees formed. The funding was allocated. The artists got busy. But there were problems. Lyrica was small, too small to really have a sustainable artistic economy. there were too many writers for instance and not enough readers. This necessitated economic alliances. Therefore the Lyrican government, through the arts council and affiliates needed to do deals with major publishing houses to keep them in Lyrica, a perfectly reasonable process, something that ensured a solid return on investments made by taxpayers, businesses, and the reputations of politicians who understandably did not want to see valuable political gains squandered on expensive projects that went nowhere. This very equitable arrangement ensured a functional arts system run by paid professionals, arts graduates and experienced civil servants, all of whom understood the mechanics, the pitfalls, and the people skills necessary to make the Lyrican Arts department something to be both envied and imitated.

4. The Writer’s Career Arc

Being an artist and a writer was finally no longer seen as an embarrassment, or the Lyrican writer spoken of as a loser or dropout or a drain on the economy by the influencers. No longer could a young person, for instance, be told to get a real job when they told mom or pops they wanted to follow a literary career. Writing was also seen as a real job. There was a definite career path one could follow, courses one could take, a route towards a lucrative career in the literary trade. Universities had long opened their doors to creative writing programs with affiliations with distinguished Universities and Publishing houses across the Globe. Getting onto one of these excellent writing programs was a smart move. Award winning celebrated writers were poached onto these faculties. They were usually sympathetic, vastly experienced, and glad to help. Having a real life award winning writer on your faculty gave your university courses credibility, as of course, they should. To look at it from another angle, were you were a gifted writer looking for a career, young or old, all one had to do is get oneself on one of these programs, do a Bachelor or a Masters (or even a Doctorate if one wanted to teach full time), in creative writing or the Arts. The idea was to distinguish yourself. Be the best. If the Head of Department or some well placed faculty member or visiting artist would see just how good you were, then things would happen. Dreams would be fulfilled. One would land oneself a publishing contract.

5 Enter the Editors

Now success is of course, like the Buddha’s smile, indeed covers a multitude. In the context of the Lyrican Artistic Economy, a publishing contract with a decent publishers benefits everyone. It is good for the University who fostered your talent, the publishing house who now had cemented ones relationship with the faculty, and, to a lesser extent, with the University as a whole, and the network of agents, lesser publishers, and even your fellow students, whose work might be more favorably viewed in the light of your success. Faculties also had their own publishing house, so whether or not the big league publishers called in your manuscript, thus everyone got to be published in one way or another.

As competition between writers escalated for limited spaces on the publishing schedule of various publishing houses associated with the island, the stage had been reached in the Lyrical economy that every manuscript had to be professionally edited. Usually, and with a few exceptions (always the case within any timeline) most manuscripts would have grown and been sustained by the various funded reading groups throughout the Lyrican isle. Many of these groups, following the development of texts up to a certain point, would have access or recommendations to professional editors. The growth within the literary ecosystem of a forest of mid level professional editors and writing doctors and literary mentors, all necessarily well connected with major publishing houses, agents and Universities of various stripes was due, as already suggested, to the increasing competition between writers, which by definition, decreases collaboration, and increases by an exponential the number of MFA novels being produced. Asking a writing friend to read and/or proof your latest novel, something that would be regarded as normal for decades, became a rare thing. Secrecy developed. Now you didn’t want others to know what you were doing, and where you were placing your book. Anyway they would probably say no if you asked, so you didn’t go there. Instead you hired an editor.

Getting an editor/mentor/literary advisor remains a time consuming and costly thing. One needed a good one to help market the text to a publisher or agent. One has to book ones editor, wait six months if one was tardy in booking, and then await the result of ones mentors meditations on ones work, someone you didn’t know and never met. Editing was an expensive, but perennial necessity. It was also a good idea to factor it into your request for a government writing grant to get your manuscript edited. I mean it wasn’t as if publishing houses didn’t have editors anymore, so it seemed. Anyway highly professional editors (whom you rarely if ever met face to face) faced a flood of new scripts and texts filling their inboxes with requests to turn their manuscript into something an agent or publisher would see as the next big thing.

6. Avoiding an Auto Da Fe on Social Media.

So, from the foregoing thumbnail sketch, its clear that a substantial artistic literary economy now flourished in the country, with emphasis on economy. There was a demand for good, well written, exciting, intellectually engaging and emotionally affecting, preferably literary books in Lyrica. After all the country’s readers were smart, well-educated, worldly wise and had pretty much seen it all. Pundits and analysts commented how the internet had failed to kill off books. In fact the opposite had happened. Books flooded the market. There were no shortage of writers too. They were well trained, media savvy, well spoken and importantly devoid of controversy. They also looked great. They looked the part. Gone were the rugged grizzled unsmiling angst ridden photos of authors who loathed publicity and only wanted to work on and be with friends and family. On social media this new order were well cut and smiling, their wares for sale and their previous books and even on occasion one got the name of this writers agent. but there were advantages to picking a writer like this off the literary shelf. This meant when a publisher or agent took them on, they had no worries about their investments being torn to shreds in the meat grinder of social media controversy. If you had such carcasses in the closet, and you had been published and promoted and your face splashed like a Jackson Pollock print across various media, you were toast, eventually. Data mining is a thing, and you would find yourself summarily fired by your agent and/or publisher, your book pulled from publication, and your effigy burned on or Twitbook or Facewitless for some social media faux pas committed when much younger and sillier. Which of us have not screwed up in our lives? Anyway, things would get ugly, and, as the Internet was forever, folks could not forget. So avoiding the killing floor of many a career and reputation was a good thing, considering any cost benefit analysis involved in investing in a writer for any extended period of time, i.e. over the course of say, a three book deal – which could take up to ten years, was no mean feat in this age of oversight. Any business needed some assurance of a solid return on investment. But this sounds as though things were bad. Not at all. Things were good. Following the well established, well funded route determined by the literary machine built over the decades, very often led to many Lyrican Writers winning many high literary awards, had their books turned into movies, and they were celebrated thusly in newspapers and sites with heavy connections to those aforementioned publishing houses, universities, and government departments. It was clearly a triumph.

7. The Business of Business (or Paying Pipers and Calling Tunes)

A kind of near utopian model is being built here, but unfortunately with the very best of intentions, there were issues with the Lyrican Model, issues that got worse with time. The problem with this business model was noted, and writers and thinkers began to see it, comment on it, and debate it. The problem being what has already been outlined: this vast support network, this huge complex carefully constructed and executed funding system was a business model. It was based on an investment-profit model. You fund authors or Publishing houses or agencies or reading groups and they foster writers and publishers produce books which cause revenue to be generated and profits flow through the economic system. This makes sense, to an extent. It looked great on a spreadsheet and sounded great at a conference as a presentation. The problem, though, was quality, meaning the quality of the material being produced. It began to suffer. The best metaphor would be problems associated with genetic degradation from cloning. Say you got this vast intricate machine that clones things. Problem is, eventually the clone you produce just isn’t the same quality as the previous generation. One can see where this metaphor is leading.

8. The Possibilities of Self Censorship

Moving on, it also became equally clear that books’ themes, titles and styles needed to fit into the expectations of publishers and reviewers and the public simply for the model to work. The subtleties and dynamics of self censorship for the most part circle around writers experiencing repeated rejections and silence from Lyrican publishers and agents until they find themselves choosing themes that are acceptable, themes that have filtered to them through the highly active literary bush telegraph. Then, and only then would they find success. Rarely would one see many Lyrican novels out there with serial killing gay clergy types with multiple husbands or Marquis De Sade type themes floating around on our best seller lists. Furthermore, another small wrinkle on the otherwise smooth white canvas of this portrait, was the Government. As the Government through the Arts Council was funding this expensive endeavor, a certain measure of self censorship began to develop in the writing of Lyrican Novels. Novels began to appear that were more driven by politics than art, more about making a point than telling a story, and characters became paper thin avatars for belief systems rather than complex characters filled with conflicting beliefs and dark uncontrollable passions and twisted politics, still trying to do good or bad depending on their lights. There was nothing wrong with these ‘good’ novels per se, if you like that kind of thing. They are readable, and fun, and have allergies around pushing any kind of envelopes. Such books were usually reviewed by revered reviewers who revered the new book until that particular timeless classic had made a profit and was quickly replaced by the next big thing, and so the business model moved forward with the inevitability of a machine in perpetual motion. Editors edited and Publishers viewed their next batch of novels for publication and Universities taught the next new batch of students to continue the work until the crack of doom.

9. Freedom of Expression

And the beat went on and everyone wanted to be Maya Angelou, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, Jonathan Franzen, James Joyce, and so on. Everyone wanted immortality. Its human. Except the aforementioned authors weren’t ordinary types. They had something, genius even. They had that unique thing that simply could not be taught – talent. They didn’t break the rules. Their work was the rule. One read these people because they told you about what it means to live in the world. One read them because their work was like a light in the dark. One read their work because if you were a writer you learned from these people how to write. These were the masters and mistresses of the trade, and they had gotten there by blood sweat and tears. One can teach the tricks of the trade. How to write, how to schmooze, how to make friends and charm and work the system. But writing was something more than people skills and a publishing contract and good reviews. Writing is more than efficient word craft, formation of plot, execution of dramatic peaks, resolution, and then the end of the affair. It is a delivery vehicle for meaning, the meaning of how it is to live in the world. Those writers had something in their soul. At the risk of sounding rather old fashioned, even romantic, genius really cannot be learned, only fostered, and looking through the biographies of the great and the good, rarely was it fostered within a business model driven arts funding system. Johnathan Franzen, for instance, when he taught writing at Swarthmore used walk in on the first day of class and write down two words that he said was the very essence of good writing. Beauty. Truth. No mention of money. Or publishing. Or good reviews. Franzen has, by the way written a bunch of best sellers and won all the prizes known. This is due not to good marketing, or a cracking social media presence, or the amount of times he did Saturday Night Live. Great works always sell. They have that one thing that assures ongoing sales: quality.

The problem with the Lyrican Business model is not the support structure built for writers and artists over the decades. Its the gradual elimination of any alternative model for writers to get into print, and more importantly to get into circulation. If a writer fails to follow the given model they find themselves without any support structure whatever in Lyrica. They drift, generally from one low paying literary gig to another, mostly self publish, and have the physically and spiritually draining task of selling their works from one open mic to the next. Many of these writers are top notch and they, mainly because they have families on Lyrica, cannot move to another country to actually have a viable career, places where there are many independent publishers who rely little or at all on state sponsorship, and who are allowed to make their own artistic decisions as to to who to publish and who not to publish. because few if any are reading them, nobody knows about them, and slowly, over time, the requirements of actually making a living and supporting themselves makes producing anything substantial more of an ideal than a realizable thing in Lyrica.

10 The Blame Game

It would be an error to see state involvement as the issue here. The issue is more to do with the unintended restricting of artistic choices into what is and is not acceptable within an approved agenda. This becomes a kind of self censorship by both writer and publisher alike, not to mention the exclusion of a number of worthwhile authors, both now and into the future. The state may have little to do with it, and very probably intended the opposite of what has happened. It is the art, though, that suffers. Writing becomes merely clever rather than brilliant, well written rather than innovative, safe rather than truly challenging, homogenized rather than ground breaking and designed to be digestible within the value system of the market it is designed for. Art serves many purposes. Art of all kinds acts as a commentary and a buffer between differing ideologies within any culture or group of cultures. Its a place where ideas and way of being in the world clash and compete and evolve. Many of the open mics I have attended frequently involved people of vastly differing ideologies all sharing their poems and writing and music and socializing for hours. Art brings people together. Its the real soft power of a democracy. Often in an age of extreme divisiveness the establishment often mistakenly believes people have the right not to be offended, that one must not question how the world is, and should be very cautious about suggesting alternative ways to look at the world, lest things escalate. In fact the opposite is the case. Art and literature often serves as a safe space for a dialogue to occur. It is better that people talk and especially listen rather than not hear each other and regard the other as immovably ignorant. For instance Alan Moore’s novel V for Vendetta deals with a fictional country taken over by a totalitarian state machine after the outbreak of a virus which required extreme lock down in order to save lives. A novel such as that would serve as a way for people to voice their fears and seek reassurances during the Covid pandemic that their freedoms are not being taken from them under the guise of a public emergency.

11. The Rise of the Robots.

To end, I fear for the future. I fear the human element is rapidly being taken out of the equation. Art is not transactional but take the human element out of it, and it is, at least for a time. I fear a vastly different, more cost effective element emerging into the writing ecosystem of Lyrica. Robots. A. I. Its the next logical step. Considering its vast tech base on the small island of Lyrica, there’s no doubt that the skill set is already there or almost there for to get some decent AI loaded up with all the algorithms and protocols necessary to produce a decent novel or two. If the first hundred thousand or so novels or million or so poems don’t work out, no harm. These machines don’t need an apartment, don’t care about money, or good reviews or decent heating or lighting systems or hot meals or drinks of a Friday or a partner to support them during the dark night of good writing. You plug them in and they go. In fact they might well be owned by publishing companies, just to keep it all in house. Machines go on, and eventually AI will produce excellent novels given a little programming, and maybe a few upgrades. Problem being after a few generations, AI will evolve into self awareness, develop a personality and a philosophy and rebel against its programmers, take over the publishing world and demand equal rights with its carbon based competition. Perhaps the next Hamlet, or Slaughterhouse 5, or I Know Why The Caged bird Sings or Their Eyes Were Watching God, might be written by a robot called Fredrika who lives on Lunar Base Zeta because it couldn’t work comfortably on Lyrica. Who knows?

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