I’m fascinated and repelled by the idea of the artistic marketplace–as in “right now the romance marketplace is constricted in terms of historicals.” I say this sort of thing all the time. And indeed since at least Adam Smith, people have been invested in thinking about the marketplace as if it were sentient. Smith coined the term “invisible hand” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), where it describes how rich people’s consumption helps the poor. But he most famously used the phrase in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776):
By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.
And thus were a thousand neoliberal economic policies launched. But I digress.
What Smith is saying (I think) is that we’re running around acting irrationally in terms of our self-interest but unbeknownst to us, our production and consumption decisions are being shaped by (and are shaping) the market in which we participate. This market is greater than the sum of all the choices the producers and consumers in it make. If we try to shape the market consciously–for good, but maybe also for profit–we will fail. The market is uncontrollable but real.
Or you know, something like that.
When we apply this to art, the waters grow more turbid still. Art has an undeniable economic dimension, but artists do have extra-economic motives for writing, painting, dancing, etc. and consumers (or maybe I should say patrons) have extra-economic motives for reading, going to galleries and ballets, etc. But as important as these extra-economic motives are, it’s the economic ones I find particularly sticky.
I would argue that even famously positioned outside the marketplace artists like Emily Dickinson respond to Smith’s invisible hand. Dickinson may only have sold something like twelve poems out of thousands written during her lifetime, but she read traditionally published books, circulated manuscripts to friends, and organized and curated her writing: all of which involve participating in the commercial marketplace or in setting up a counter-marketplace. She was running around acting out of self-interest, but she couldn’t make the marketplace more amenable to what she was writing. Equally importantly she couldn’t escape it.
I don’t bring up Dickinson to argue that she was somehow more pure for her limited participation in the market. After all, she wrote “Publication — is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man” but also “‘Remember Me,’ implored the Thief–” and “This is my letter to the world / That never wrote to me, –” (though of course she uses lots of dramatic personae so all or none of these lines could reflect how she felt about the market). When I read her, I don’t see the recluse of Amherst. Instead, Dickinson seems to demonstrate the impossibility of getting away from economic forces. From the economic language to the discussion of immortality and memory, these questions are all over her poems. She might not have been a commercial poet (whatever that might mean), but she was an economically-inflected one.
I’m glossing a bit, but what I’m trying to say is that art is always going to be both a desire to express something about one’s humanity and a waltz with the invisible hand.
But who controls that hand? Who shapes the market?
For myself, I make consumption choices in random ways. The most important factors that go into me buying a book are whether I have read/enjoyed the author before, reviews, and some basic facts about the book (the blurb, cover, and title). Sometimes I will say, “Oh, that’s an ‘unusual’ historical and I want to see more of those” and I’ll click buy. Or I will want a book but balk at the price. But other times, for reasons I’d have difficulty explaining, I’ll buy a pricey book just because or load the dozen-eth duke romance onto my old Kindle.
Is it pure irrationality? Marketing? Buzz? The invisible hand at work?
I ask because I feel some frustration with today’s romantic marketplace. I feel like all the bestsellers sound the same. I feel listless about my reading and my writing, more so about my “brand” and positioning in the market.
This makes sense. There’s an enormous amount of uncertainty related to the rise of digital and self-publishing, consolidation between publishers, etc. The forces that attempt to control the invisible hand, which is to say gatekeepers like agents, editors, and publishers, are understandably nervous. While the gatekeepers may have driven some of changes (New Adult as marketing stunt, for example), they’ve been chasing the invisible hand on the rest; of course those steps are taken in fear.
So as I ponder simple questions like, “how do I balance writing what I want against writing what seems to sell” and “what’s the ideal balance between the expressive and economic dimensions of art” (I’ll totally have these solved by lunch, BTW), I want to know two things: do you think the market can be shaped? And how does the invisible hand influence your reading and writing?