I was having a conversation with Ted E. Grau and Simon Strantzas on Facebook and it led to a comment I wanted to explore. I believe that artistic and literary communities benefit the most by having an attitude that is free of capitalistic overtones. For example, authors should not see each other as being in competition. There is an purely economic reason for this, and there is a philosophical reason behind this. I know I will need to provide both, because not everyone is quite the idealist that I am.
The stories we produce are not normal “products”, in the sense that no one else can ever write the same story for a lower price. In a very real way, every story, poem, or other work of art is priceless, because it is unique…there is no way for me to offer Mike Davis, the head honcho over at the Lovecraft Ezine, Joe Pulver‘s newest short story for a lower price. I can write a story with the same plot, and even the same characters (if Joe told me about the work first), but I can’t actually offer the same story without simply plagiarizing the story. Instead, I can offer my story, which is necessarily going to differ from Joe’s story.
Because of this, art has always enjoyed an odd status in the economic world. You see a single painting by a famous artist being sold for $15,000 and a single painting being sold by a guy on the side of the street for $15. This kind of variation will often have nothing to do with quality in any kind of objective way; many people may consider the sidewalk artist’s work to be consistently better than the famous artist. Instead, the pricing on work that people want goes up vastly, while almost all unknown artists work is often unsellable at any price at all. There is no relation between the prices of the two works. It doesn’t bring down the price of the famous artist’s work when the street artist sells a painting at all. If everyone and their dog started painting tomorrow, it would not bring down the quantity demanded for the famous artist’s work at all, but if everybody and their dog started flooding the market with peanut butter, the price would have to go way down to draw the now very low demand.
So when a new artist or author comes onto the scene, it does NOT truly affect the artists or authors who were already there. There are various fame-games within the fields, instead, and these are incredibly unpredictable using normal economic models. No matter how good a jar of peanut butter was, or how few the maker of that peanut butter made, or whether the creator of that peanut butter is now dead…none of that decides the price of the jar of peanut butter. So long as it reaches a base level of quality, below which people won’t buy it, the price is instead determined by a function of the demand for peanut butter and how many other creators of peanut butter are in the market. The competitors will have to undersell each other until they reach a point where they can just barely make a profit. This can only happen because all peanut butter is basically equivalent. This cannot happen with art of any kind, because all art is a unique good, a product that can only be produced by one person one time (though it can be copied after that…we’re talking about selling publishing rights, too).
So when an editor is deciding whether to buy your story or not, they are not comparing it with other stories in the same way as a shopper compares two brand of peanut butter. They can’t. Instead they are buying it or not based on a lot of factors. Some of these factors, such as name recognition, overlap with normal products, but most, such as the quality and content of the work, doesn’t. So while it helps us immensely to improve our own work as much as we can, it doesn’t help us to try to limit our competition.
We are artists. We perform a mysterious and amazing function in the world. A book can change the prevailing culture. A painting can change a person’s life. So long as the artist is sincere, they are sharing their perspectives in a way that can never be taken over by so-called “normal” products. Historically, artists had patrons or were independently wealthy. Together with science, the work of writers, thinkers, and artists was shared with the world through various means, and that work literally shaped our world, bringing about the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernity, and Post-modernity.
In light of all of this, and in light of the fact that the greatest of us are often not commercial successes within their own times, it seems to me that we simply can’t afford to allow any authentic art or literature to be silenced, and that is exactly what happens when we treat other members of our communities with hostility and competition. None of us can be sure which story or book or painting or statue or song or whatever will be the one that raises someone up and inspires them. All of us are necessary. While it is true there is plenty of what we would call derivative or cliched work going on out there in every field right now, it may very well be that representation of what we consider a cliched trope or device that survives the test of time. Any one of us could be the next Kafka or Van Gogh, and that means that we can’t play prima donna, we can’t play competition games. We need to instead help and encourage each other. We need to maintain the ideals of our community.
A scene is never so small that it can’t accommodate a new member. A scene is never so complete that it won’t be enriched by a new member.
Living up to my own words
I want to help support each and every artist, writer, and small publisher out there. Look at my blogroll to the left, and if your link, or the link of your publisher, isn’t there, please let me know.