Years ago, back in the ‘seventies, I used to ride motorcycles. My favourites were the British and Italian classics, the Triumph Bonneville and Norton Commando, and most of all, my beloved Ducati 750 Desmo. These were far from perfect machines: the Triumph left puddles of oil everywhere, the Norton had issues with its quirky Isolastic engine mounts, and my gorgeous Ducati suffered from maddening electrical issues. Nonetheless, each of these bikes had at least one feature so outstanding, did one thing so damned divinely well, that I could overlook all their other faults.
By contrast, when I got to know my first Japanese bike, the newly-introduced Honda CB 750, a four-cylinder technological marvel of the time, I experienced a strong sense of anticlimax: from handling to acceleration to braking, the bike did everything well; it didn’t drip oil, didn’t try to shake itself and you to pieces, and it was dependable in the way we’ve now come to expect from everything Japanese and German. But I didn’t love it. Couldn’t. It lacked the fire, the one outstanding trait that redeemed all the faults of my previous European machines. Why?
Design by committee.
Three decades later, I still feel the same way. It seems a universal law that if you try to iron out every flaw in something and take a truly cooperative approach to design or creativity, the end result lacks heart, spirit, fire, whatever you want to call it. (I’m sure you’re thinking right now of examples that would prove me quite wrong, but I’m afraid you’ll never convince me. I have a seventh sense that can discern genius and creative fire in anything, from a frying pan to an aircraft). To make something that works very well is easy; to make something that turns sane people into fanatical cultists (see: Mac owners) is far harder. Steve Jobs trumps HP any day.
I rather think it’s that way with the Arts, too. With film, no question, right? Hollywood movies are almost without exception bland, formulaic, and devoid of the fire I’m talking about. Well, I’m starting to think it’s at least partially true of books as well. All things being equal (in this case, the writer being a pro that knows his or her craft, and having a good story to tell), I’d rather read the story at least close to the way writer originally envisaged it, at the length they felt it needed to be, with the ambiguous or unhappy ending the publisher’s marketing department vetoed because it could hurt sales, than a heavily-massaged, corporate product which half a dozen people have had major input on.
This isn’t to say that writers don’t need input. As well as writing, I’ve both edited and published other authors’ stories myself, and I understand the myopia all artists can sometimes suffer; and God knows we all need feedback and copyediting. But I have serious issues with the increasingly Hollywood-corporate approach to creativity that a lot of authors have to endure, because I believe that somewhere along the line, something is going to get lost, some intangible quality that makes the work unique and sings of the Artist’s spirit and vision. I mean, can you imagine an art dealer or gallery owner walking into Picasso’s studio and telling them more people would like the painting and it would fetch a higher price if he backed off the Prussian Blue a bit? Yes, he was a genius, but Fine Art painters are typically left to work undisturbed, and the finished product is the way they see it.
We’ve seen what the corporate approach to Art has done for Hollywood and the music industry (or for that matter the brewing industry) over the decades, and it’s not pretty: it’s sucked all the uniqueness and bite from the products of each and incrementally replaced them with a formulaic smoothness that’s wholly lacking in originality and… Integrity? Fire? Truth? LotR, Firefly, Psycho,… Would any of those have turned out the way they did if the creative genius behind each had been replaced by a committee and second-guessed at every turn? For a compelling example, check out John Mellencamp’s superb 2010 album, ‘No Better Than This’, recorded the way they used to do it in the ‘fifties, with everyone singing and playing around a single mic. As Mellencamp explains, “everything was cut live with no overdubs or studio nothing! These are real songs being performed by real musicians—an unheard-of process in today’s world. Real music, for real people!” Smooth, it’s not. But it’s drenched in integrity, spirit, and that unmistakable, ineffable spark of creative truth.
Is it any coincidence that each of those industries–Hollywood, the Music Industry, and the breweries–have now lost huge amounts of market share to the Indies and small ‘crafters’ in each field? The worm turns.
Yeah, I can hear all the rebuttals, but, hey–this is op-ed, not a statistical analysis. And, yeah, I’ve always been an autodidact and a loner in every one of my endeavours, winning or losing largely on my own merits. It’s the way I’m wired. I’ll take advice, even solicit it, but I’ll do it my way or not at all, thank you very much. So when I discover someone like Dan Simmons or Kris Rusch, writers I enormously respect and admire, are wired much the same way, it makes me feel I’m not entirely crazy. And that’s a big reason why I’ve decided to publish my new novel, ‘Sutherland’s Rules’, through my own Indie press, Panverse Publishing, even though all the feedback I’m getting suggests it might be a very good candidate for a traditional publishing deal. Because, among a laundry list of other things, I want more control than I’m ever likely to get going the traditional route.
When you have a seventh sense, you have to trust it. Even if it means leaving a few drips of oil here and there.