Hit Making

"In the phrase "I Like Ike," the power shifted. It shifted from General Eisenhower to someone called Ike. [...] From "Ike," you could see certain aspects of General Eisenhower. From "like," all you could see was other Americans engaged in a process resembling the process of intimacy. [...] The attraction of inappropriate attention, aspiration, and affection to a shimmer spins out, in its operation, a little mist of energy which is rather like love, but trivial, rather like a sense of home, but apt to disappear. In this mist exists the Aesthetic of the Hit." -George W. S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context 

Who doesn't want to make a hit? Be a hit? It seems in order to accomplish this, things must be reduced. The novel reduced to a shareable ad, let's say. The writer reduced to a public persona. This seems to be a reliable way to "shimmer." But how does the need to reduce-and-shimmer influence the writer and the making of the work? (02.20.16)

As a writer, the phenomenon of "shimmer" or "hit-making" seems so mysterious and out of my small, crabbed, writerly hands.  The machinery of publishing is so vast, the parameters are so inscrutable.  What jacks a story up from obscurity into "hit" status?  Don't ask me.  Now, if I were able to wave a magic wand and reliably trade depth or complexity (in the work or its readers... or possibly myself?) for a smash-hit phenomenon, like Fifty Shades or Gone Girl?  That's an interesting question.  I guess the pros are obvious: financial security in most cases, as well as prestige and recognition.  Movies made from your story.  Brunch with Kathryn Bigelow.  It all sounds great.  And maybe it is, if you aren't wedded to depth and complexity.  No shade there.  Sometimes it's plenty to make people laugh or cry or get turned on, and then go on about your day. I guess it's where you start from.  If you write A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and meet the devil at the crossroads to see it turned into Pitch Perfect 2, you've made a bad deal.  If you write The Hunger Games and sign in blood to see it turned to The Hunger Games, more power to you.  As a measly writer, I don't know if I'll ever have to, or get to, make that kind of decision.  But if I do, I think what matters is staying true to what you really want.  Big, simple, cheesy, shimmery -- great.  Complex, rich, challenging, abstruse -- also great.  Just stay in your lane, or if you want to swerve, know what you're doing.  (Or if you don't, don't cry about it.)

History shows us in spades how great art, work that breaks form, that doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator rarely gets recognized in the lifetime of the artist. You could call this the artist’s blues, as Tillie Olsen indeed did in her fine book Silences, quoting another. Read on to see who: “‘Who will read me, who will care?’ It does not help the work to be done, that work already completed is surrounded by silence and indifference—if it is published at all. Few books ever have the attention of a review—good or bad. Fewer stay longer than a few weeks on bookstore shelves, if they get there at all. … ‘Works of art (or at least books, stories, poems, meriting life) disappear before our very eyes because of the absence of responsible attention,’ Chekhov wrote nearly ninety years ago.” 
        I say, Go for the art and let the hit parade march on by.

I think some things have to be reduced, simply to get the word out about your book. Pitching the story to a publisher, or like you mentioned, advertising for your book -- it has to be just a snippet of what you're offering. But this doesn't mean you're selling out or that it has to impact your work negatively. In fact, it might even be helpful to be able to summarize your work in a few short sentences, so that you're clearer on what it is you're actually working on.
        Think of it like a trailer for a movie. You can't include everything -- and in fact, you want to leave most of the important elements out; but it can be a creative way to "sell" your product (be it a book or a film).
        Personally, I keep promoting my books and writing them in two separate compartments in my brain; it's like they're in two different rooms, just down the hall from each other. I don't let the idea of "this book has to sell!" ever enter my mind when I am actually writing it -- I just write it because I like it. I don't even have an audience in mind. And if it does do well, well, that's just the cherry on top. But if you're writing just for a profit, or with the idea of "how can I sell this eventually?" you've already lost. 

Trying to figure out if I agree with the premise. Obviously there are lots of examples of hits that live "in this mist." Classics are a good source of hits that don't -- Shakespeare and the Bible, say. OTOH, I'm sure E. L. James' net worth can be measured in an integral number of kilo-Shakespeares. Not everyone has the luxury of a business plan that involves transforming the way an entire language is spoken.
        I feel like contemporary examples are not thin on the ground either. WOOL? GAME OF THRONES? BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME? Anything can be reduced to a slogan if you try, but I feel like what draws people to these works is actually pretty hard to summarize. "Medieval ultra-violence" isn't what makes people stay with GoT, it's something about the brew of characters and politics and magic and the slowly mounting sense of catastrophe.
        In a way, "the mist" seems like a comforting nostrum -- if a Hit is what you want, then "the mist" is a recipe for getting it, and if you tried for a Hit and didn't get it, you can find solace in the fact that you were just too clever to be popular. Not sure it really describes how popularity works.

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The sad fact about publishing these days is you (very often) have to choose between being marketable and being creative. I recently had a Big 5 publisher look me dead in the face and say, "Your book is great. Now, go write me something I can sell." Sure, every now and again lightning may strike and the next Wool or 50 Shades will blossom despite market trends, but it's a long shot. If you want to eat and pay your bills being a writer, then be prepared to shelve some really creatively wonderful work and write by a formula. Sad but true.

Everyone wants to be a hit, and perhaps not from shallow or monetary expectations, but rather to foster a connection. Art, at its core, is connection, and even as Trow suggests a tenuous connection, sometimes any connection at all is necessary for an artist. A politician is an artist per se, but they're held to different standards [...]
        When specifically considering writers and their desire to "shimmer", I believe it's the writer's approach that can influence a positive or negative reaction, whereas shimmering is a neutral concept. If the writer is influenced by a desire to shimmer, their work might be all the better for it because the reader and writer connection will be very apparent. However, if a writer is obsessed with the need to shimmer, their work could develop inorganically, leading to poorly written prose.
        In order to avoid an obsession with shimmering, a writer should maintain a balance between connecting with the audience, and telling the damn story. If a writer is going to engage the public directly with marketing tools or otherwise (i.e. "I like Ike"), they should establish guidelines as to what types of promotion to use, how much time to spend on said promotions, and how much personal information is revealed to readers (and why). Overall, marketing pursuits should never supersede (or cut too much into) time that could be used to build the most important artistic connection: writing.

Wool and 50SoG weren't luck, they were miracles. No disrespect to Howey, but his position as a thought-leader in, and evangelist for, self-publishing is something I never quite understood. Seems like getting struck by lightning to be a prominent meteorologist. Winning state lotto parlayed into financial guruship. And blah. I'm not able to see how the absence of a process of ascent preps this kind of a winner to advise anyone to do anything other than push-and-pray. E.L. James seems to get this pretty well. She's way less florid
        Talking with writers as much as I do and being able to observe, and occasionally take part in, their promotional swings and what not, it's becoming clearer to me that this miracle-seeking mindset is either good for some in-head entertainment/fantasizing or just sort of counterproductive and toxic, sometimes translating to spending way too many zeroes on mostly ineffective PR.
        Red Harvey mentioned politicians -- most writers I know are/would be better off focusing on their "base," even if it's just a few dozen readers. Identifying them, organizing them, neglecting them as little as possible. The better the writer is at this, the less dependent his well-being is on advertising alone, the less aggressively reductive he has to be. And he can still play lotto, that's the fun thing, he just does it with a reliable return.  

image (top): "neckface begins" by holycalamity
#: George W.S. Trowneckface, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, Tillie Olsen, Chekhov, Hugh Howey, writing advice

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