“What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she’s already done. There are those moments when we sit before a blank page, but mostly we’re adjusting that which is already there. The writer revises, the painter touches up, the director edits, the musician overdubs. I write, “Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch,” read that, wince, cross out “came into the room” and “down” and “blue” (Why does she have to come into the room? Can someone sit UP on a couch? Why do we care if it’s blue?) and the sentence becomes “Jane sat on the couch – ” and suddenly, it’s better (Hemingwayesque, even!), although … why is it meaningful for Jane to sit on a couch? Do we really need that? And soon we have arrived, simply, at “Jane”, which at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.
But why did I make those changes? On what basis?
On the basis that, if it’s better this new way for me, over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.
This is a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture – that whatever is present in me might also be present in you. “I” might be a 19th-century Russian count, “you” a part-time Walmart clerk in 2017, in Boise, Idaho, but when you start crying at the end of my (Tolstoy’s) story “Master and Man”, you have proved that we have something in common, communicable across language and miles and time, and despite the fact that one of us is dead.
Another reason you’re crying: you’ve just realised that Tolstoy thought well of you – he believed that his own notions about life here on earth would be discernible to you, and would move you.
Tolstoy imagined you generously, you rose to the occasion.
We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”
And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.”
Source: George Saunders: ‘What writers really do when they write’, The Guardian, 04.04.17
A: Not this well, for the most part.
As marketing professionals we rightly focus on moments of brand contact. Whether that’s moments of contact with the memory-trace leaving stuff we call ‘advertising’. Or the moments of need, want, desire, decision, purchase.
And since so much else competes for time and attention in these moments, we are rightly consumed with creating the extraordinary. Whether through the products or communications we create, we set ourselves the goal of creating moments of delight, enchantment, discovery, entertainment, surprise, provocation. Extraordinary experiences, big and small. Extraordinary moments, big and small.
But reading Jon McGregor’s remarkable new novel Reservoir 13, has prompted me to pause and reflect. McGregor’s novel traces the lives of those living in a rural community somewhere in the English Midlands. In minute and exquisite detail it follows the ebb and flow of both human life and the natural world. It is a novel about daily living, like none other.
We rightly focus on finding or creating the remarkable. But what of all that happens around and outside of those moments? What of all the space not filled with the extraordinary? The everyday. The habitual. The unthinking. The familiar. The unremarkable. The dull. The uncommented upon. The shabby and the average. The commonplace and the unarticulated. The stuff that reaches no closure. All that does not make it into newsfeeds and struggles to deserve a hashtag. All that is experienced but remains unexamined and unreflected upon. The small gestures and half-formed words. The commonplace. The unconscious rituals. The uncelebrated. The undocumented. The un-photographed. The un-photogenic. The stuff that fails to surface in surveys and focus groups and search enquiries.
This is the stuff that Alan Swindells called the ‘taken for granted world’:
For any individual consumer the world is made up of a myriad of vague ideas, thoughts, images and feelings. They come together in a loose network of meanings which shape consumer behaviour. Some of it is organised and structured but most of it is disorganised and unstructured. Some of it is thought about, rationalised and is articulate while most of it is vague, inarticulable and taken for granted.”
This is the stuff that’s invisible to marketers. It’s the stuff that lies beneath the surface of the more visible moments.
This in other words, is to marketing what dark matter is to the astrophysicist. It’s the stuff that eludes our powers of observation and detection. That does not interact with the electromagnetic force. That does not absorb, reflect or emit light. That cannot be seen. And yet for all that, actually makes up the majority (a full 95.1%) of the universe. And that makes possible the large-scale structures in the universe we can see.
It may not be directly useful to the marketer. It may not lend itself to be packaged up neatly by the insight industry. It may not be a source of fascination for planning’s self-styled flâneurs. But the stuff that marketing cannot detect or observe is, it turns out, the very stuff and fabric of life and living.
Of course we are right as marketing professionals to focus on relevant moments of brand contact. Whether that’s moments of contact with the memory-trace leaving stuff we call ‘advertising’. Or the moments of need, want, desire, decision, purchase. But if are blind to the 95.1% that constitutes the real fabric of life, how can we possibly have empathy and love for those for whom we create?
Ordinary things,” the novelist Marilynne Robinson once remarked, “have always seemed numinous to me.” If we cannot see that truth, then there is no marketing toolkit that can help us. No proprietary methodology can rescue us. We cannot research our way to empathy. Only art can help us. It is a truth that marketing in all its pragmatism, anti-intellectualism, impatience and hard-headedness must accommodate itself to. Or remain blind to the 95.1%.
Over the years I had come to feel faintly queasy about portraying people as “consumers.”
I worried that it squeezed all empathy and understanding out of our perspective, reducing people to the moment of purchase or consumption.
To mere mouths and wallets.
Then I read this exchange:
Magazine: Who are your heroes in real life?”
Artist: “The consumer”
The choice of language felt deliberate – no predictable mention of “the audience.”
It’s made me change my mind.
And made me think that at least the language of “the consumer” offers a more honest perspective than that of “the audience.”
For it reminds us that is people who ultimately determine the terms of engagement – it they who determine what is successful, and is not.
It reminds us that by and large, people are not waiting or looking for what we put out – as Gossage reminded us all those years ago, “When advertising talks about the audience, it doesn’t mean its audience, it means somebody else’s, gathered there to watch or read something else.
It reminds us that people will have a choice – that if not satisfied, they will move on.
That we are not the only ones in their lives.
That what we make occupies but a tiny portion of people’s attention, enthusiasm, time, and lives.
That as seasoned exercisers of choice and discretion, people are smarter than we often given them credit for.
It reminds us that they consume US .
That they are not OUR audience.
And that if we truly wish to have them think of us, value us, and keeping coming back to us, we’re better off giving them something wonderful, rather than something merely adequate.
Then again, a fresh, divergent, more brave, honest and enlightening perspective is what David Bowie always offered us.
Source: Vanity Fair