The one where self-published books are not “real art”

Lindsey Stirling dances while she plays the violin. If you haven’t seen her do it yet please watch this video. It is mind-blowing.

Sometimes she is a woodland creature dancing in the forest. Sometimes she faces off against guitar players in a wild west showdown. Sometimes she performs dazzling interludes while spinning in place. Live shows are a feat of performance engineering and her most recent album listens like a lo-fi utopia.

You know what else Lindsey Stirling does? Sells out 20,000 person stadiums. Collabs with artists like John Legend. Runs a very successful YouTube channel with 13 million subscribers. EARNS MORE THAN $6 MILLION A YEAR PLAYING VIOLIN—and that’s just from YouTube alone. 

So I was shocked to read that when she was invited to perform with Andrea Bocelli and London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra she was completely snubbed. And that The New York Times turned up their nose, comparing her to “Mozart for Babies” and asking themselves “who’s listening? Is this study music for nerdy teenage girls?”

What Stirling does is unique—the dancing limits the music and the music limits the dancing—and because of that she is not considered a "true violinist" by her peers. She's not even considered a "true dancer" by fellow dancers. And yet, as one article states, “by putting them together, she’s become arguably the world’s most well-known violinist.”

And definitely, the best paid.

If its popular, it’s not real art

In one of its earliest iterations, the violin was the muse of Catherine de Medici who hired a “dance band” of them to perform at one of her 16th-century soirées. Since then, the violin has become an instrument of classical repute unfettered from its choreographed origins and relegated to a seat in the orchestra.

Now the violin, like all art, has a reputation to adhere to. High snobbery reigns among circles of critics who expect a certain pretention from their virtuoso violinists, their fine art painters, and their literary writers. They define art as “real” based on arbitrary metrics like which symphony, what publisher, which accolades, and whether a piece is obscure enough to be economically unsustainable. (We much prefer our artists starving... tut tut.)

I’ve already started to see this idea take root among a minority set of individuals who see in werewolf erotica, romance novels, and serial novels a sort of low-brow alternative to “real literature”—even if they are the more economically viable option. (Especially if they are.) 

As Benjamin Cain says in his article, “Why Real Art is Priceless and Most Artists are Poor,” “the fact that more people choose to watch formulaic movies to vegetate in front of, rather than original ones that challenge them, doesn’t mean that banalities are better than artistically and intellectually deep movie fare. Similarly, truth isn’t decided by popularity.”

But if popularity doesn’t define true art, what does? Obscurity?

And who gets to decide that "movies to vegetate in front of," are not real art and "original ones that challenge us” are?

I go to the Sundance Film Festival every year and there is definitely an air around certain films. As though being low budget, so niche only a few people will like it, and so depressing that someone's bound to win an Oscar from it, define it as art—whereas the films people actually enjoy are decidedly not.

I once walked out in the middle of a disturbing Sundance film about child soldiers raping each other during the Columbian conflict—it went on to win awards at nearly every film festival it entered, including Sundance. In a lot of ways, it was the epitome of the artsy festival film—but it wasn’t popular. Though it was acquired by Neon for distribution, the film was never released.

Palm Springs, on the other hand, was my favorite Sundance film, and it went on to have national appeal. It too was acquired by Neon, and though it was released direct-to-consumer on account of the pandemic, Hulu said the film set records by "netting more hours watched over its first three days than any other film" in the platform's history. It was nominated for a Golden Globe, and so was Andy Samberg who starred in it.

I’m not saying that popularity makes something art, and that non-popularity makes something not art. I’m saying that both things are art and that being mainstream and successful does not make something any less of an artform than being niche and obscure does. And if both things can be loved, then perhaps we should stop saying that there is even such a thing as “real art.”

Perhaps it’s all art. 

If it’s self-published, it’s not real art

As Cain continues, “when anyone can produce ‘art,’ even without much training, wading through the resulting market to find hidden artistic gems in a swamp of shoddy, half-baked, pandering kitsch or sentimental gibberish is onerous.”

This seems to be the central argument against self-publishing (music, art, books, etc.): that as a result of removing the gatekeeper (record labels, galleries, publishing houses, etc.) we readers have to sort through all the “bad” work to get to the “good” work.

In this model, it’s the gatekeeper who decides what counts as good enough to publish vs. bad enough not to publish. But they are making those decisions for us based on their own subjective taste. As a result, authors lust for the third-party approval of a Penguin publishing contract—even if it will earn them fewer readers and fewer earnings than a self-published novel

“The literary community is full of status anxiety and writers who chase prestige, where who publishes you matters more than what you earn, and few people talk frankly about the money,” the author Jane Friedman said in a comment on one of my articles. There’s “the fear that real art just doesn't matter anymore and it's a race to the bottom. (Complaints about too many books being published go back to the days of Gutenberg.)”

Sure enough, removing the gatekeeper means we as the end-users of that art have to sort through everything we don't like to get to what we do, but we have to do that anyway because we don't have the same tastes as the gatekeeper. (The fact that there are New York Times best-selling books that I hate, and niche, self-published books I love are case-in-point.)

I believe there is no such thing as real art or not real art. Surely every artist could attract at least a handful of admirers, if only they are able to find each other? Isn’t there at least one other person in the world who would read a book about a man with snakes for arms who only speaks rhyme?1

And if that's true, then I'm starting to wonder if what we really need is not a gatekeeper, but a sifter. Someone who can sort through the self-published masses and pile them into "things this person would like" or "things that person would like."

In this case, maybe the art world should be less top-down, and more out-and-around—not "here's what this publishing company thinks is good" but "here's what other people I like like”). I think some platforms try to solve for this with algorithm. And maybe there will eventually be an algorithm that can show me the kind of art and music and books I like (alas, thus far Spotify is unable to determine what music I will like). 

In the meantime, I think the move away from social media (me to you) and toward social communities (we) has already benefitted self-publishing in an out-and-around kind of way. Because of these online communities, we can find and follow and know people online, and that allows us to find and follow and know their work.

And even pay them directly for it. 

If it’s different, it’s not real art

I don’t believe that a violinist earning $50,000/year as a member of an orchestra that plays repeats of 200-year-old symphonies is a true artist, and that a violinist earning $6 million/year from a YouTube channel who writes her own music, choreographs it, and performs it to sold-out stadiums isn’t. 

Personally, I think Stirling is the innovator here. The one who is (finally) changing the game and getting people interested in the violin again. The one who is working toward, not just the mastery of a craft (violin), but the invention of an entirely new one (dance violin performances). The one who is doing something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.

I want to do the same. 

I know that by serializing my novel as a newsletter I lose the prestige of a Penguin on my book spine and a blurb in The New York Times. I know that by attempting to market my newsletter and gain new subscribers, my work becomes more “commercial” and less “literary.” I know that by attempting to earn a living doing it, I lose the purity of the starving artist.

But as a result, I get to do so much more than just write. I get to reinvent the book publishing process from the ground up. I get to publish a novel the way my heroes in the 19th century did. I get to use technology to make that process even more accessible. I get to design my own book cover and curate a dinner party for my subscribers.

I get to create, not just a book, but an experience. I get to do something different. 

And if that doesn’t classify as “real art,” well I don’t know what does.

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Thank you so much for reading. Next Sunday I’m interviewing the author Zogarth on how he became full-time writer using Patreon!

Until next Sunday,

Elle

Countdown to Obscurity: 6 Weeks

My gothic novel will publish right here in six weeks and I CAN NOT WAIT. Thank you so much for being here!

1

Mike V. dared all members of our discord server for Substack writers to include a man with snakes for arms who only speaks in rhyme in our Substack newsletters dated the week of July 25th. You can find links to the other daring posts here.