The perplexity of popularity

Confused creative confesses, I have no idea 

Words & images © Paul Ransom

Last week I experienced the two classic writerly extremes: one rejection letter followed by a pair of surprising and complimentary emails. The former was for a script I thought was funny and clearly commercial, the latter for an article I thought fairly formulaic. Aside from being alternately disappointed and buoyed, I was reminded again that I have almost no idea what readers want. Or rather, that my instinct – this is great, this less so – is hilariously askew.

Sorry, folks, I have absolutely no idea what you like.

In this creative dissonance I am surely not alone. I imagine most artists experience the same curious mismatch, toiling anonymously over their masterpiece or pouring their soul out in a rush of transcendent inspiration, only to have some half-uncooked throwaway they dashed off one afternoon blow up big. Think, the one hit wonder whose body of complex, richly nuanced work goes unheralded while the whole world sings along once more to the only three minute ditty they ever made. Or the dedicated method actor whose brief moment of accidental acclaim arrives courtesy of a cornball character in a car insurance ad.

Poor boo-boos, you might think. And sure, as an issue it’s not exactly death row or missile strikes. Yet, inside the bubble of preciousness that we creatives tend to live in, it can feel like not being heard. Like being dismissed. Reduced. As though we are nowhere near as clever or as interesting as we like to think we are. Ouch!

In a culture that deifies a select few but routinely dismisses the rest of us – grow up, get a real job, etcetera – the mirror of audience can be a disorienting, doubt inducing data stream. If indeed it is true that other people remain substantially unknowable, and that we are all getting somewhat lost in the translation, for the artist the disconnect is amplified, if only because we so often seek to connect.

Indeed, art is famously said to show us our mutual humanity, to ‘teach us how to be human.’ However, I regret to report that, to date, the humanity has been far from mutual and, worryingly, it would appear that I am not that good a teacher. (Ironic, since I once worked as an educator.)

I tell myself I can imagine the reader, or some such like-minded cohort, but maybe all I am doing is making an art out of talking to myself.

Fortunately, I have been around long enough not to let it bother me. Much. That said, I remain stubbornly betrothed to the misunderstood genius cliché. How else to explain my two standout failures? One, a ‘fictional autobiography’ I spent ten years ‘perfecting,’ but which, (with two notable exceptions), has been met with polite but resounding silence. The other, a series of short videos I wrote and co-directed for a crowd funding campaign which, despite being viewed over 700 000 times on You Tube, raised a paltry $625 (all of which was subsequently repaid to the handful of embarrassed donors). In both cases I had felt the glow of satisfied authorship. In fact, the former is my all-time favourite creation – the one artefact I would choose to be remembered by.

Shows you how much I know.

The three latest examples of my enduring incapacity to read the room are mild in comparison but, coming in such quick and polar succession, they give me pause to ponder again the creative impulse and its attendant desire for audience. Why, for instance, am I writing this?

I tell myself I can imagine the reader, or some such like-minded cohort, but maybe all I am doing is making an art out of talking to myself. Either that or I am way too optimistic or (cough) insane. As in, doing same thing, hoping for different outcome.

Fellow artists would most likely understand. Somehow, in trying to connect and communicate, we end up with little more than hope and guesswork. Aaaand maybe just a dash of vanity. (Speak for yourself, Mister.)

Ultimately, oh unfathomable reader, the last week has proven once again that I have no idea who you are or what ‘engages’ you. One piece, carefully drafted over two and half years, does not even get halfway to first base and another, written before lunch, garners glowing praise from the editor and, astonishingly, from the subject of the story himself. Go figure.

You might suggest I do more market research and learn to write for SEO. What if I said I had done a bunch of that already? What if I said I preferred surprises? What if I just…ah, whatever.

In order to be heard, some yell, others go niche. After the best part of forty years trying to connect with audiences – sometimes landing, other times not – I have arrived at a compromise. If I talk to myself, I will be heard.


PS: You can read my twice lauded article right here.

PPS: Message me if you are curious to peruse either the rejected play or the wildly unpopular fictional autobiography – especially if you are a theatre producer or publisher.

Oh, and another thing…a week after first posting this piece, my ‘funny, clever, sure to be a hit with audiences’ play received its second rejection email. That’s right, folks, employ me, cos I obviously know what I’m talking about.   

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