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David Byrne: The musician lamented, in a book of essays, that his recent albums would once have been considered modest successes but now no longer earn him enough to sustain his musical project. (Danny Clinch/AP)
David Byrne: The musician lamented, in a book of essays, that his recent albums would once have been considered modest successes but now no longer earn him enough to sustain his musical project. (Danny Clinch/AP)

Russell Smith

Artists struggle to survive in age of the blockbuster Add to ...

In the artistic economy, the Internet has not lived up to its hype. For years, the cybergurus liked to tell us about the “long tail” – the rise of niches, “unlimited variety for unique tastes” – that would give equal opportunities to tiny indie bands and Hollywood movies. People selling products of any kind would, in the new connected world, be able to sell small amounts to lots of small groups. Implicit in the idea was the promise that since niche tastes would form online communities not limited by national boundaries, a niche product might find a large international audience without traditional kinds of promotion in its home country. People in publishing bought this, too. The end result, we were told, would be an extremely diverse cultural world in which the lesbian vampire novel would be just as widely discussed as the Prairie short story and the memoir in tweets.

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In fact, the blockbuster artistic product is dominating cultural consumption as at no other time in history. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on each successive Hunger Games, and the rep cinemas have closed. A few sports stars are paid more individually than entire publishing houses or record labels earn in a year.

A couple of prominent commentators have made this argument recently about American culture at large. The musician David Byrne lamented, in a book of essays, that his recent albums would once have been considered modest successes but now no longer earn him enough to sustain his musical project. That’s David Byrne – he’s a great and famous artist. Just no Lady Gaga. The book Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, by business writer Anita Elberse, argues that the days of the long tail are over in the United States. It makes more sense, she claims, for entertainment giants to plow as much money as they can into guaranteed hits than to cultivate new talent. “Because people are inherently social,” she writes cheerily, “they generally find value in reading the same books and watching the same television shows and movies that others do.”

Well, the same appears to be true of publishing, even in this country. There are big winners and there are losers – the middle ground is eroding. Publishers are publishing less, not more. Everybody awaits the fall’s big literary-prize nominations with a make-us-or-break-us terror. Every second-tier author spends an hour every day in the dismal abjection of self-promotion – on Facebook, to an audience of 50 fellow authors who couldn’t care less who just got a nice review in the Raccoonville Sentinel. This practice sells absolutely no books; increases one’s “profile” by not one centimetre; and serves only to increase one’s humiliation at not being in the first tier, where one doesn’t have to do that.

Novelists have been complaining, privately at least, about the new castes in the literary hierarchy. This happens every year now, in the fall, the uneasiness – after the brief spurt of media attention that goes to the nominees and winners of the three major Canadian literary prizes, the Scotiabank Giller, the Governor-General’s, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust. The argument is that the prizes enable the media to single out a few books for promotion, and no other books get to cross the divide into public consciousness. And, say the spurned writers, this fact guides the publishers in their acquisitions. Editors stand accused of seeking out possible prize-winners (i.e. “big books”) rather than indulging their own tastes. This leads, it is said, to a homogenized literary landscape and no place at all for the weird and uncategorizable.

But even if this is true, what can one possibly do about it? Abolish the prizes? No one would suggest this – and even the critics of prize culture understand that the prizes were created by genuine lovers of literature with nothing but the best intentions, and that rewarding good writers financially is good, even necessary, in a small country without a huge market.

It’s not, I think, the fault of the literary prizes that the caste system exists. Nor of the vilified “media” who must cover these major events. It’s the lack of other venues for the discussion and promotion of books that closes down the options. There were, in the nineties, several Canadian television programs on the arts. There were even whole TV shows about books alone. Not one of these remains. There were radio shows that novel-readers listened to. There were budgets for book tours; there were hotel rooms in Waterloo and Moncton. In every year that I myself have published a book there have been fewer invitations and less travel. Now, winning a prize is really one’s only shot at reaching a national level of awareness.

So again, what is to be done? What does any artist do in the age of the blockbuster? Nothing, absolutely nothing, except keep on doing what you like to do. Global economic changes are not your problem (and are nothing you can change with a despairing tweet). Think instead, as you always have, about whether or not you like semicolons and how to describe the black winter sky. There is something romantic about being underground, no?

Look on the bright side: Poverty can be good for art. At least it won’t inspire you to write Fifty Shades of Grey.

 

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