Do whatever you want. I really don’t care. There is no College Board of Life mandating certain prerequisites be met for every little task. Obviously, some things require advanced training—one cannot just jump into heart surgery or commercial aviation without any sort of prior knowledge—but if you want to read a book? Knock yourself out. Nobody says you must study the author’s influences before you enjoy their work. Following a novel to its source might enhance your experience and provide richness as you understand the references and stylistic pick-ups and overall connection to prior works, but you can still, in most instances, enjoy a given book cold.
However, if you want to write, I do think you owe it to yourself and your readers to understand what came before and continue the conversation created by your cultural ancestors.
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This philosophy is prevalent in music. Want to play jazz? Listening to and studying Miles Davis is all well and good, but who did Miles Davis learn from? Who did the rock guitarists you love develop their style from? Those old blues guys! How about classical? You might love Stravinsky. What were his influences?
If this sounds like gatekeeping, that’s because it is. But it’s gatekeeping with a purpose, akin to the martial arts teacher who tells potential students “No,” and only allows those who keep asking to be students in. In other words, the gatekeeper is trying to screen for those who truly want to be in the group.
Gatekeepers, in my experience in the music world, can be sneering, condescending weirdos, which I guess was to keep out people who weren’t really in it to learn, but it also had the effect of making certain subcultures, like punk, very cliquey and off-putting to normal people, thereby ensuring your membership (a) remained small and (b) was full of sneering, condescending weirdos. However insular, subcultures like this could still be highly influential.
And the gatekeepers weren’t wrong! If you’re going to play punk, as with anything, and play it well, it really helps to understand the genre as a whole and where you fit into it. What the punks got right was trying to make sure that only those who truly appreciated the artform participated in its creation. There is obviously an unavoidable element of ego-gratification at work here (some people enjoy telling others they’re morally superior for knowing more about one thing or other), but it’s more so to ensure that the things created under the auspices of a group or movement are up to a certain standard of quality.
Can, and has, good punk music been made by people who didn’t do this? I’m sure. But understanding what you’re doing helps.
Metal music is just as gatekept, but in my personal experience, metalheads are awesome. This is purely anecdotal, but I’ve found that the heavier the genre of music (metal, hardcore, etc.), the cooler the people and the more accepting of newbies.
Some might say that such subcultures are exclusive, and that the exclusivity is the point. I get this, and I get that there’s merit to exclusivity. For any sort of excellence to emerge, there needs to be standards. To be exclusive means to exclude–it’s right there in the word.
Back to writing: I don’t really care if you don’t know who Lord Dunsany is if you’re going to read a modern fantasy novel. But I do think you owe it to yourself to at least know who Lord Dunsany was and what he contributed to the fantasy genre, if not actually read some Lord Dunsany, if you’re going to write fantasy. I myself have not read Lord Dunsany, because I don’t really write fantasy—if I do, you bet I’m going to bone up on him and Poul Anderson and other legends of the genre.
Given that I tend to operate in a sci-fi and sword-and-planet milieu, I’ve tracked down and ready stuff from authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, A.E. van Vogt, H. Beam Piper, L. Sprague de Camp, and Jack Vance. I know there are gaps in my understanding, but I’m trying to fill them as I learn about this genre, from whence it came, and where it’s going.
Maybe I was too lenient in my earlier thinking on this subject, but I reserve the right to change my mind: A writer DOES have an obligation to understand the canon. You don’t have to like every single author in it. You don’t have to imitate them. But you should understand them and draw what you can from them, either by taking what you like, or writing the opposite of what you don’t.
Art is a conversation with the past and using your cultural heritage to inform the future. You stand on the shoulders of giants before you, as those giants stood on the shoulders of those before them, all the way back to the source. If you are not a part of this conversation, what values and traditions are you transmitting? Stuff you just made up? What foundation do those things have? Probably something you learned from someone else. Or are you just reinventing the wheel, reverse-engineering something that had been figured out centuries ago?
The canon is an important aspect that has been jettisoned by the cultural revolutionaries who sought to deliberately undermine all of our cultural institutions. I reject this notion that the past has no bearing on the future and should be deliberately rejected at worst or, in the most charitable interpretation, just doesn’t matter.
Can new, exciting things be created by completely breaking from the past? Of course. But the chances are those who did not utilize past works or forms and aesthetics in their own work at least understood them.
A canon matters. The question, as with anything, is who decides what is in the canon? Here’s a useful metric: If you’re a Westerner, anyone who says that “dead white European males need to be expunged from the canon” is your enemy, and you can bet nearly anything that what they’re telling you not to read or consider a part of the broader canon is the canon you should be paying attention to, and anything they are telling you to pay attention to is likely pure trash.
Here’s an even better metric: Those whom the writer you like claims are his influences are a part of the canon.
This brings me to a second point: gatekeeping as it relates to audiences. Gatekeeping audiences is fine if you’re trying to attract an audience who will truly get what you’re writing, but just don’t know it yet. My fear is that too many who would otherwise be inclined to see things our way, enjoy our works, and engage in culture. If you want to just remain a niche, fine, enjoy the purity spiral. But if you actually want to move the needle, as much as you might hate to admit it, you need to grow your audience.
As I wrote here, people have different tastes, and there’s no shame in catering to an audience you think shares yours.
It used to rankle me: “Why on Earth would you tell certain people not to enjoy your product? That’s commercial suicide!” But is it?
Entire sports leagues make it known that they don’t want about half the country to watch (yet the half that the sports leagues hate continue to consume product; no wonder nobody respects them). Actors and musicians alienate lots of people who would otherwise fork over their hard-earned money to them. “Get woke, go broke” is a massive cope. It turns out, as with many things, that side of the divide is correct.
I am generally a fan of expanding the choir while preaching to it. At some point, any sort of venture needs to expand. But art, while containing a commercial element, is more than commerce. Culture cannot be broken down into dollars and cents. This is where Mammon-worshipping conservatives get it woefully wrong. It has very few millionaire and billionaire benefactors because instead of asking “Will this move the needle?” it asks “What’s the ROI?” Sure, something might make money on the short term, but the art produced tends to be less than a blip on the radar. It has no lasting impact. A footprint in the rain at high tide ready to be washed away without a trace that it ever happened, remembered by few and mourned by none.
By all means, cast a wide net. But be selective about the seas in which you fish.
It’s okay to signal to your audience, potential and actual, where you stand on things and if what you’re making is for them or not. Frank Zappa was a master of this, deliberately targeting those who sought entertainment that deviated from the norm. He never said “I hate jocks.” He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If you’re the kind of guy who wasn’t a jock in high school, who may have even gotten picked on from time-to-time, or who at least the jocks didn’t understand, my music might be up your alley.” Back in the 1960s, he advertised in comic books of all places, because he knew where his audience was likely to be.
“Choose Your Audience,” July 6, 2022
Given the above, why do things that could scare them off along with the undesirables? You can appeal to your niche without necessarily being so repellant that you scare off people who are in your niche along with those who are not.
I see this in the online Orthodox community. It’s great that the Orthodox Church is seeing a surge in interest, and I’m overjoyed at the amount of people inquiring into it and converting. I also see that the majority of people are sincere in their interest and that they’re joining the Church because they think it is the truth. However, I also see a lot of people just being so weird and off-putting about it that it drives away people who’d otherwise be receptive to the Church’s teachings. “If an Orthodox Church is going to be full of people like this,” the thinking goes, “I want nothing to do with it.”
That’s a completely logical train of thought, even though the percentage of online Orthodox who are like this is actually small. Unfortunately, as with any group, a few bad apples does spoil the whole bunch.
Is this fair? Probably not. But do most people go by the numbers or their own feelings and perceptions? Do most people remember the 98 percent of people in any given movement who are welcoming and willing to engage in a positive manner, or do they remember the 2 percent of people who shout insults at them?
These are rhetorical questions: people remember the 2 percent of people who insulted them.
You gatekeep to keep infiltrators out. These “loyalty tests” are actually pretty important, because entryists who aren’t sincere and authentic in their desire to learn about and participate in what you’re doing often come in with the goal of changing it into something that is just as awful as the thing they’re claiming refuge from. But the filter can be too fine, too esoteric, too weird so you just end up with a group full of self-righteous spastics high on the scent of their own flatus.
To sum it up, the canon matters, and if you’re going to add to it, you should read it, study it, learn from it, and at the very least be aware of it.
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Well said. As I venture into writing more fiction, I've spent a great deal of time studying the great writers that have come before and learn plenty of important lessons. Great piece as always.
Doth quote the Scorsese: "Study the old masters, enrich your palette, expand the canvas"