On Writing, Pt. 5: Getting Unblocked
Previous On Writing, Pt. 4: You Know It When You Read It
I will warn you ahead of time: I have no conclusion for this piece.
There’s no clever summation; no wrap-up. It meanders in places, and stalls out in others. This is a bit of a brain expansion exercise for me that I’m sharing for the exercise of it.
This topic — What Is Authenticity these days? — has been on my mind a lot lately, having quit my day job to write all day (again). It has forced me to ask a lot of weird, difficult to answer questions: What does it mean anymore to be authentic in art? When is selling art, also “selling out?” And how much has what I do, and how I do it, changed (and still must yet change) in the modern era? These questions and others like them are always with me these days, deep in the back of my mind.
They came front-of-mind this morning after I read a very interesting article about the post-authentic culture. The opening sentence-made-paragraph let me know I would be reading each and every word of the entire many-thousands-of-words piece:
“Has it occurred to you that nobody talks about sellouts anymore?”
(Aside: I hope you’ll read the article I linked above, because it is brilliant. As a self-proclaimed culturenaut, I think It is mandatory reading for anyone concerned with authenticity, selling out, bespoke or handmade anything, hipster culture, or why the race to the bottom of complete homogenization has beaten you no matter how unique or individual you think you are when you buy things, eat food, or otherwise exist in a post-capitalist society. So, you know… Light reading. And for more light reading, you absolutely should read about the concept of premium mediocrity, and how all of us in the middle class world are participating — not just because we have to, but because we must. And yes, I just used two synonyms back to back, saying the same thing but in italics and it was to make a point. Plus, I just updated the editor I use to type this stuff in and wanted to test out the italics keyboard shortcut.)
As a kid who spent most of his formative years in the post-80’s-reactionary-90’s, the idea of “Selling Out” is one that still sticks with me to this day. In the track “Caught, Can We Get a Witness?” one of my heroes, Chuck D, asked his partner Flavor Flav “Yo, Flav, think we’ll ever sell out?” To which Flav responds “I know if we do, we gotta get the hell out!”
For a certain generation, “Selling Out” is an unforgivable crime.
In my youth, when an indie band you loved signed to a major label, or worse — sold their song to a car commercial, you would be so disgusted you’d never ever listen to them again (see: just about everyone who ever talks about Jawbreaker, and this oral history about 1995, the year it all happened. And here’s a list at Vice’s Noisy that checks back in on the crop of late 90’s punk “sellouts” and asks if we were fair to leave them… answer, of course we weren’t, because we’re asking this in 2018 and the idea of “selling out” isn’t a thing, so how could abandoning them for a crime that no longer exists be fair?).
But here we are, in 2018, and there’s really no such thing anymore. No one cares. The idea that the internet is supposed to be free for all, totally full of free content, with people who make this stuff needing to eat and have a roof over their heads, has necessitated that for this stuff to exist, you have to either a) charge money for it, or b) let an advertiser have access to your people. Sadly, these are the only two options, because the only other option would be a universal basic income which frees us all from having to trade hours for dollars as our genius society builds robots to handle manual labor and yeah, that’s just not going to happen until after the revolution.
When was the last time you even cared about an ad on a website, provided you aren’t already blocking them? When did you hear a band doing a Jeep (*cough* X-Ambassadors) or a Nationwide Insurance jingle (like 8 different “indie” artists who are clearly major label seeds being planted in product placement songs) and thought anything of it, besides whether or not the song was catchy? When a podcast or a newsletter you like is brought to you by Squarespace or Wix, do you wince? Probably not.
Let’s say you pay for HBO Now or Netflix, and they pre-roll an advertisement for something else on their own network? That’s an ad. But we don’t really care. We’ve gotten used to it. People gotta promote their stuff, and it’s just accepted.
I think back to how Henry Rollins once described selling out. He was talking about when Iggy Pop did a song with the Teddybears, which was then sold to a car commercial. People accused Iggy of selling out, and Henry said “it’s not selling out if you sell something you already made, that was pure when you made it. You sell out when you turn yourself into a machine for the money and not the art.”
The internet has changed A LOT since I was doing this, here, for my supper. It used to be, if you charged for your work, no one paid up front, and if you ran ads on your site, you were a “sellout” of the worst kind. But here we are, and people pay for content and blindly visit sites with ads day in, day out — even those of us who started the internet back in the days where “selling out” was anethema.
There’s a part of me somewhere deep inside that is still sixteen or twenty-six yelling about how gross it’s all become… But the middle-aged, 2018-me corrects them both. “Times have changed,” I say to me. “This is the culture now. It’s amorphous and omni-present. There’s an always-on network connection in almost every home across the United States and access to one in every country on the planet, full of content, that gets more and more content by the day, the hour, the minute… somewhere, somehow, the bills gotta get paid.”
I’ve become the older, wiser person who is learning to accept things the way they are, and for what they are. And it’s fucking with me something fierce.
Besides, where even are the lines these days? Are there even any lines anymore?
We live in a world where people are hip to the fact that bills have to get paid. New York Times has a paywall, and also runs ads. So does the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and hundreds of other newspapers and magazines. HBO Go, Netflix, Hulu, Crunchyroll, Youtube Red.
And yet, if you launch an album as a new musician, or write a book as a new author, or try in any other art form to put your work out in a paid-for model, and no one knows who you are… The chances of someone paying money to take a risk on you is zero. Not close to zero, but ZERO. Period. In the days of record and book stores, you’d pick up a book you never heard of by an author you never heard of and if the back cover matter (or the cover itself) hooked you, you’d pay 5 or 7 or 12 or 18 bucks to see what they were all about. That is neither better nor worse than today, it’s just different.
It means that to get anywhere initially, you must give your stuff away and get people interested. I believe in this model. It’s how I’ve released literally everything I’ve ever written. Right now, I’m experimenting with that model some, by running a Patreon and offering exclusive material and early releases to people who pay for it up front. If you support me monthly, I feel you should get the books and stuff I wrote during that month you paid as included in your fee. Others can buy the book when it comes out.
But also, for taking a risk on me, I believe you need something that makes that risk worthwhile. It’s not enough to give you the stuff I will charge others for just because you paid up front — that up front payment entitles you to exclusive works and access. You get to see how things are made, you get them earlier than anyone else, and also you get books and stories that only YOU get to see. I think that’s fair.
I receive a salary every month from people who want to see me make writing. I traded one boss at a day job for a paycheck for many bosses at a job for less money, but with infinitely more freedom — and I know the work is going to people who appreciate it.
So, after nearly 20 years of writing online, have I just sold out because I am now making stories that are for people who paid for them? I don’t think that’s fair to say, even to myself, and yet I still can’t help but think on it. My inner 16 year old is barking at me about how I’m going against the grain of everything the internet ever stood for. Mind you, this is the same 16 year old who delights every single time he browses for entire catalogs of music by bands he loved in the 90’s, and can have them all because he paid 10 bucks a month to Spotify — and sees nothing at all wrong with that.
So, is the work that I create for my Patreon supporters inauthentic because it was paid for up front? That’s a question I cannot answer just yet. Of course, I say it isn’t. The exclusive Marlowe Kana novella that’s going with the Art of Marlowe Kana book (exclusive to Patreon members!) is part of her story. The story is authentic, as authentic as any other chapter or novel I’ve written. It’s deeply considered, written thoroughly to the best of my ability, and develops Marlowe further. But it’s for people who paid.
Is that selling out? Or just doing my job?
Like I said, I have no cohesive answer here. It’s just a bunch of thoughts on a topic I consider a core part of who I am and how I see the world; thoughts which are changing — which means by default, I am changing. And that’s never easy.
What are your thoughts?
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