Permission To Laugh
An alarming idea today: Are readers and audiences now obeying demographics, which were once designed to categorise their tastes? It strikes me because, when I analyse successful entertainment (as all writers are prone to do) I can see a huge new change in our habits.
Prior to the compartmentalisation of consumption, we enjoyed a book or a film simply because it was good. Now, with a few notable exceptions, we pick something from a column marked ‘Drama’, ‘Comedy’, ‘Romance’ of ‘Horror’ because that’s how it’s listed and presented to us. We pick what we already know we’ll like.
Partly this is the fault of the EPG, the electronic programme guide that divides and subdivides everything into a targeted interest. In bookshops, where there was once just ‘Fiction’, we now seek out the section that appeals. And films are even graded for ‘crude humour’ or ‘sexual content’ before we see them, so we can screen out the things we don’t like. We don’t want surprises.
I wonder about this because I saw sales figures for my books, and noted that ‘Plastic’ did not sell as well as ‘Hell Train’. ‘Plastic’ is a hybrid, part-black comedy, part-thriller. It was always going to be a tougher sell. ‘Hell Train’ has humour too, but is seen as a clear box-ticker in the ‘supernatural horror’ department. ‘Plastic’ is ambiguous. My Solaris books are more experimental, and attract a readership that knows my name. Transworld, my Bryant & May publisher, understands this and is very complimentary about its rival because they recognises that each company reaches different markets.The two demographic models reach different audiences. In the creative arts, you can no longer put all your eggs in one basket.
Where does that leave something like, say, ‘Sherlock Holmes’? It has drama and humour, but the difference is that authors have always played around with Holmes – the very idea grants permission for creator and reader to have fun. This is what I’ve always aimed for with the Bryant & May books – permission to enjoy yourself whether they’re dark or light in tone. It’s what makes film versions of Marvel Comics more rounded and pleasurable than poor old DC, who plod down to the box marked ‘Portentious Drama’ on every outing.
I know a great many authors who can write in multiple styles, but who find one particular style more popular with readers than their others. Consequently, they’re strait-jacketed by whatever sells the best. I know one author who hates what he writes, and only continues in a painfully dumbed-down style because it sells in supermarkets. It gets back to the oldest question of all – do you write what sells or do you write what you want?
I’m hoping you can do both. Last week, reading JG Farrell’s ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’, the Booker prizewinner for 1973, I found that to my surprise there were passages that had me laughing out loud – this in a story about a town under violent, terrifying attack. We shouldn’t need permission to laugh – writing should reflect life in its complexity, not compartmentalise it for safe consumption.