Readers of my book How Stories Really Work will be familiar with my assertion that we live in an Ironic Age culturally. This means that art generally, including the art of writing fiction, has been subject to a slow process of subversion, so that long-established norms of beauty or order have been undermined and twisted over decades into chaotic versions of themselves. In the early 20th century, we see this in the Expressionist movement, in Dadaism and Surrealism in painting; we see it in the Theatre of Absurd on the stage; we see it in the darkening of the world of popular and literary fiction and films. I refer readers to my book for further details about this — but I wanted here to point out that part of this affects the way that writers see the business end of their careers too: the world of marketing does not escape this cultural trend.
Arguably, there might not even be a 'world of marketing' in a different milieu.
Most writers today — probably all — have grown up in a culture which has as its seminary representatives three great intellectuals of the nineteenth century: Freud, Marx and Darwin. As the Industrial Revolution transformed the way in which people as a whole interacted with their environments, so did the world of ideas undergo a shift in that century, with these three developing ideological frameworks in their respective fields of biology, economics and psychology which ended up contributing greatly to an overall intellectual flavour that we have grown used to today. We are so immersed in it, in fact, that we are largely blind to it.
Darwin’s theory of evolution effectively dismantled the older view that all of visible nature stemmed from and was embraced by a single loving source by proposing that what we see around us might have arisen instead through a prolonged series of accidents; Marx suggested that the shape of human society was determined by purely material factors, and that anything that had previously been considered artistic or belonging to the zone of aesthetics or the spiritual was merely a tool of selfish material concerns; Freud delved into the world behind our eyes and reduced our principles and morality to a set of primeval urges.
Of course, these thinkers weren’t alone, and their ideas would not have been accepted at all had there not been a groundswelling of sentiment among the general population that predisposed them to lean in their direction. But the overall result was that, by the early 20th century, art and literature (and science) were exploring the world through Ironic eyes, looking for entropy and decay, subverting traditional notions of order, juxtaposing things that had not previously been juxtaposed, and in general whittling away at ways of seeing and portraying things which had been accepted for centuries. In writing, we saw free verse, stream-of-consciousness, and experimental fiction which verged on the incomprehensible, for example.
In terms of marketing, to reduce this complex socio-cultural trend to simplicities, the world began to be seen as a Darwinian one: a product, once launched, fought a battle to survive in a challenging marketplace and whether or not it triumphed was a matter of tooth and claw. Not only that, but in Marxian terms it was part of a whole system called ‘capitalism’ which was of itself corrupt and served an elite — products strove to create profits and, while profits were implicitly unfair and evil, if you were playing that game as a capitalist, you played it to win. Furthermore, the tricks you played to win involved exploiting the unconscious minds of your prospects so that they acted almost without will — to succeed in this dog-eat-dog world you had to know about Freud and the impulses that allegedly make human beings do what they do.
These background ideas are woven subtly into almost everything that we do and see as artists these days, from the way things are presented to us for purchase to the very channels through which they arrive. It’s no wonder, then, that any attempt to suggest another framework of thought when it comes to marketing meets resistance, and occasionally encounters ridicule. ‘Of course,’ the vocal critic cries, ‘this is the way things are! If you don’t see that, you are an outsider and doomed to fail!’ The critic overlooks the fact that the notion of ‘failure’ is itself part of a discourse deeply interwoven into current patterns of thinking.
Writers — and anyone else involved in marketing a product — are encouraged to pursue mass marketing and to set up commercial channels designed to ‘funnel’ people here and there and almost hypnotise them into parting with their cash. Search Engine Optimisation, keywords, ‘like’ campaigns and things of that sort are now so much a part of our milieu that we accept them without question. We not only accept them, we accept the motivations and aims behind them. That means that, when we try these things and fail, we begin to believe that we are doomed, like some kind of unprepared species, and that our work, in receiving rejection after rejection, is simply unsuited to its environment and will perish along with the dinosaurs. Capitalism doesn’t seem to work for the artist; expecting to survive by exposing our ‘unconscious’ through our work must be a pipe dream.
But what if there was another way of thinking entirely? What if there existed a system, an operating method, far older than the culture in which we live, which spanned concepts outside the narrow framework of these Ironic parameters? I’m not talking about religion or even tradition — I’m talking about stepping back from current cultural foundations and into a void, just to see if there is, perhaps, a stairway in the dark, left by our ancestors.