One of the worst dilemmas any creator must face is when they are forced to choose between two kinds of projects: the project they want to do, and the project they think will sell.
I’ve mused about this Scylla-and-Charybdis issue before, in big part because I most recently feel like I’ve been making that very choice. A couple of Diary entries ago I talked about the run-up to that decision, where I chose to work on a project (Flight of the Vajra, “coming sometime in 2013”) I thought was more marketable vs. one that I thought was more “important”. Red herring: the more “commercial” project turned out to have elements in it that were just as interesting and important, if not more so.
It’s in the nature of creators to second-guess themselves, for the sake of their audiences. As Sandra Bernhard once put it in her poison-pen love letter to the mindset of the entertainer, Without You I’m Nothing. There’s nonstop tension between the desire to cultivate a fanbase and please it, and the urge to do the things that only we can see the value in. (The really shocking thing about John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album wasn’t the primal-scream vocals, but the fact that John Lennon had made it and was using it to sever links with his past.)
The biggest problem with second-guessing—assuming you know what your audience really wants, instead of what they need—is that it can injure you in ways you’re not aware of. Instead of becoming creative, you become reactionary.
One of the more extreme examples of this is Yukio Mishima, one of Japan’s most celebrated post-WWII novelists. Mishima wrote roughly two kinds of works: his more self-consciously “literary” work (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, Spring Snow, Runaway Horses), and works he tossed off mostly for quick money (A Misstepping of Virtue, The School of the Flesh). To his annoyance, the latter broadly outsold the former in Japan. The work he labored at the hardest was some of the most poorly received. His opus Kyoko’s House was never even translated into English. But he was a victim of a peculiar kind of second-guessing: those works he poured all that effort into bring to mind the man’s preconceptions of what an ambitious literary work ought to have been. They were the literary equivalent of Oscar-bid speeches, which explains Mishima’s agitation when he found out his colleague Yasunari Kawabata (author of a style as direct and unadorned as Mishima’s was literary and embroidered) was chosen for the Nobel Prize. (I won’t even go into his public suicide, which is worth an article unto itself.)
I bring this up because it shows there is more than one way to fall out of touch with an audience. There is a romanticism about the writer or creator as someone who exists in a sort of shamanistic netherworld, transmitting messages to mere mortals from on high, and so for them to go against that inner voice so they can grind out crap for the mass market is spiritual high treason. There’s a grain of truth there, but it’s one grain amidst a great many others that add up to a more nuanced story.
If you started writing work in, say, a neo-Chaucerian mold—right down to the Olde Englyshe spelling—you’d better be prepared to find the audience for it on your own, and you’d better know ahead of time that the audience in question is likely to be vanishingly small. You might kindle a renaissance of interest in such a thing, but it’s foolish to bank on such a thing happening, and you’re working against so many different kinds of grain that you can expect to spend most of your energy just battling that (“You wrote a what?”).
None of this is meant to dissuade you from following what you think is most important. But before you do that, it’s worth taking some time to look at what you think is important and ask yourself why you hold it in such esteem. It keeps you from second-guessing yourself in ways you might never be aware of.