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Friday, 6 March 2020

Don't tear down the temple

My friend was angry. A television director, he’d been working on a documentary about an African bishop with a bit of a maverick reputation in the Catholic Church. ‘The Jesuits want to give this guy the sack for laying on hands and casting out devils,’ he grumbled. ‘It smacks of racism to me.’

Normally you don’t come to me for advice on ecumenical matters, but it happened that I knew some senior Jesuits because I’d been working on a scientific project for them. Generally they struck me as sincere people—and they accept evolution and the Big Bang, which puts them at the rational end of the religious spectrum. I tried for a conciliatory note. ‘Did they give any reasons?’

He showed me the interview he’d filmed with a top Jesuit at the Vatican. The chap was all but wringing his hands, perhaps envisaging the headlines if they went so far as to expel an African bishop. ‘The thing is, you can’t just take it on your own authority to say somebody is possessed and to cure them of that. Not even if you’re a bishop. It’s not official doctrine. If he wants to preach that line… He can’t do that and stay in the Church.’

‘OK, I’ll be devil’s advocate here,’ I told my friend. ‘They have a brand. Stuff goes with the brand. You and I think it’s all equally nonsensical, but if somebody won’t get with the official line, I don’t see how he can be one of their clergy.’

That was many years ago, but I was reminded of it recently in an interview that Simon Pegg gave about his work on the script for Star Trek Beyond. (Perhaps that’s the sublime to the ridiculous but, trust me, I’m on a lot firmer ground when it comes to Star Trek.) Paramount were exercised that Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy had raked in $1.5 billion, while the last Star Trek movie earned a paltry $0.5 billion.

‘Maybe if the next Star Trek could be more like Guardians..?’ spoke up a voice at the big walnut table. And so they turned to Mr Pegg, who plays Scotty, to do a rewrite. His brief was clear:
“Make a Western or a thriller or a heist movie, then populate that with Star Trek characters so it’s more inclusive to an audience that might be a little bit [reluctant].”
Just suppose that you could make a Star Trek movie exactly like Guardians of the Galaxy. Maybe then you’d triple the box office. The only snag: you wouldn’t have your brand anymore. In fact, by chasing somebody else’s brand, you’re pretty much guaranteed not even to equal their success.

Brand integrity matters. But that’s not a message that’s coming across loud and clear these days when the brand in question is prose fiction and the people you’re talking to are publishers. An example: an author I know has had a lot of success with middle grade novels. Usually they run to around fifty-five thousand words, but lately he’s been asked to make them shorter. ‘Twenty, twenty-five thousand max. We’ll make up the page count with layout and lots of pictures.’

‘I can’t get so much of a story into twenty thousand words, though.’

Writers, eh? We’re suckers for giving ourselves work.

‘A lot of the kids find a full-length novel a bit of a struggle,’ said his editor. ‘Just keep it short and sweet.’

We’re seeing a parallel trend in the urge to festoon digital novels with sound effects and moving pictures. And I say this, who write for television and design videogames: anything that can be said as well in prose can be said better in prose. Publishers, if you want to make a movie, do that. Don’t mess up a promising novel because you don’t trust in the brand integrity of your own medium.

Oh, wait. The Luddite card? Really? No—as Seth Godin put it several years ago, we’ve seen all this before:
“Adding video, audio and other extras to books, as in the CD-Rom era, is worse than a distraction. It's a dangerous cul-de-sac that will end in tears.”
Still and all, it’s easy to criticize. A lot of publishers are like polar bears on those shrinking icebergs. You can’t expect them to worry about climate change when they’re not even sure if they can make the jump to the next floe before this one melts. And this is me checking my privilege: I grew up in a home with books; many don’t. I understand that to a lot of people, a doorstop-sized novel doesn’t look like the portal to another world, but a threatening immensity of barbed wire keeping them out. It can be helpful to those readers to give them an easy-in, introducing them via shorter forms to all the rewards of good fiction.

That’s fine. That’s stabilizers on a bike. But what is the future of publishing if editors feel that their goal is not to annoy readers with too much text? Those shorter, simpler books have real value if they are stepping stones to richer works. If they become the end purpose of publishing then we’re in a controlled descent towards the final extinction of the book.

Imagine Yoda had said, ‘Too difficult real Jedi training is. Enough you have done getting the ship out the swamp.’ I know, wrong franchise, but you get the point.

The only way for publishing to thrive, and for more readers to appreciate better books, is if we keep our faith in the brand.


  1. Again, no digs this week at either Trump or the circus of clowns, curs and lickspittles that calls itself the Tory government. Next week I'll be talking about D&D alignment, so surely some politics will creep in then.

  2. Excellent post. Your responses regarding the bishop, and Star Trek, really make your point. Not too long ago I wrote a post with a similar point, Ruminations on Endless Re-Imagining ( ). But then you take it in a very interesting direction, looking at the publishing industry as a brand. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I see your point.

    In a similar vein, you could liken it to, say, the endless changes to cars. I remember seeing a poster with pictures of Corvettes, year by year. Compare that with cars like the Beetle, which stayed almost completely the same for years. Or fashion; hem lines and neck lines go up and down, collars and ties get wider and narrower. However popular a thing is, some wonks think they can make it “better” by changing it. And the line I quoted in my post, “We didn’t want to be involved unless we could re-do it OUR WAY.”

    But going back to publishing, I think that’s part of the dumbing-down of the population. I’ve worked with television producers who can’t sit through classic movies because they say they have no patience for that style. They joke about having short attention spans. Narrative pace in their own work is sped up. On the other hand, they edit episodes to keep hitting the audience over the head reminding them about plot points, because they expect that their audience is ironing clothes and not paying attention to the TV. I’ve been in those discussions. I just shake my head.

    But we’re training new generations to watch this kind of television. And read dumbed-down books. And listen to -this- kind of music. And use -this- kind of language in everyday conversations. The very small number of people who make these decisions are the ones who have turned the movie industry into a thing that can only survive by pumping out comic book movies, because that’s how we’ve trained the consumer.

    With great power comes great responsibility. But there is no accountability for lowering the bar.

    1. Not to turn this into a mutual appreciation society, but I just read your post and you absolutely nail it. Especially on the subject of Star Trek.

      The trouble with those relentlessly restless TV shows is that if you *aren't* doing the ironing or texting or whatever then it starts to feel desperate, like the writers should be put on Ritalin, and you soon get to anticipate each contrived plot twist and get numbed by them. The story can only escalate so far and, after a while, the show has nowhere it can go.

  3. Last night I saw a couple of episodes of the PBS series Sanditon, which is the perfect example of what we're discussing here. The TV show includes sexual assault, bare knuckle boxing, Irish jigs, fashionably unshaven men, gun-toting women, and other attention-grabbing tricks to whip up excitement in a modern audience. But none of those are anything to do with Jane Austen, who wrote the original (uncompleted) novel. If you like the Jane Austen "brand" then you'll despise the PBS Sanditon. If you like the TV show, then you'd have been happier with something not set in a Regency seaside resort.