Sunday, March 04, 2007

Ownership of your art

Interesting post from Elizabeth Baines, post-Milan Kundera, about the artist's right to be in control of their work. It should go without saying that this is the case, but I know Elizabeth isn't the only writer I've met who has been advised/forced/encouraged by their intermediaries to change the book. What's astonishing is the extent of that change on some occasions, with editors (or increasingly agents) taking on an "executive producer" role on the novel. I often quote Martin Amis's literary fable "Career Move", since it hits so many of these things straight on. Here, poets are as Hollywood scriptwriters, and the "poem" is the property of a whole army of consultants, specialists, producers and actors. From this, of course, we don't necessarily get great art. Yet, in cinema, the "auteur"-led project has, I'd think, been no better or worse than the studio approach. I was amazed when I found out that Coppola was just a hired hand on the first "Godfather" movie, after many others had been touted - he, of course, with Puzo, made this story, particularly his own - but the film would have been made without him. (Something you couldn't say about Woody Allen's recent "Match Point" for instance.) I don't actually think there's much interest in the artist nowadays - at least not in literature. Writers seem to be increasingly malleable, or, to be more charitable, happy to go along with the realpolitik of their industry. Yet, unlike most other artforms, writers don't actually NEED the other people that might be necessary in music, theatre, cinema etc. In my own occasional jousts with the "real publishing industry" what has always shocked me has been the contrast between their view of the professionalism required in their part of the process, with that of me, as the writer. A writer, I always got the sense, was almost the disposable part. The idea of a personal vision, or an articulation of that, unheard of. In short, I don't think agents, publishers or these other intermediaries trust writers to do their part of the job. Yet ironically it seems the other way round - and that the marketing end of the business often fails to do the very few things that are asked of them. A friend who had an academic book published was perplexed to find that her publisher was asking her where it should be sent. One of the frustrating thing about any job of work is not your own part of the enterprise (which you're usually quite good at) but a sense that you end up doing everyone else's job for them. I can well imagine that a publisher would say that a book didn't sell because it wasn't available in enough shops/or because the cover didn't appeal/or because some piece of marketing didn't come up, and somehow blaming all these things on the author. "Oh, your book didn't sell." Yet look at it the other way - the author has fulfilled their part of the bargain, writing the damn thing. But I do sympathise with the compromises that everyone has to occasionally go through. I was annoyed a few years ago when an editor changed the last couple of lines of a story I'd written, and only told me when they were on the way into print. Annoyed, but not overly bothered - yet had the story been reprinted somewhere I'd have insisted on the original. I tend to write fiction that responds to the "idea" and does that with integrity. Sometimes, this means my short story is actually too long, or my novel is actually too long. If I was Zadie Smith I guess I'd probably be allowed to get away with this (at least the first time!), but as I'm not I'm somehow supposed to write something of a prescribed marketable length. The irony is, that having no publisher to please, I'm surely going to just write what I consider integral to the piece. Decoupled from the publishing world, as I am, the only pressure is the one that comes from inside: to own the piece of work. In this, I'm beginning to think, is where I really am an avant garde writer! Yet I can't help thinking that in a culture where productivity (and over-productivity) comes cheap, this distinction, about what a writer really wants to write, having some moral value, is one that the publishing industry has little interest in, and even less understanding of.

No comments: