Some of you might not know that I actually have two jobs. Well, three, if you count writing, but I have so much fun with it that I usually lump that in with the hobbies. Monday through Friday, I serve as the administrative assistant for the Department of Communication at a public liberal arts university. On Saturdays, I throw back to my own college days and work a shift at a fast food restaurant.
During my short time at the university, I’ve been privileged to witness students majoring in mass communication as they learn how to operate cameras and other equipment that will one day land them a job in television, filmmaking, or something else equally as exciting. It’s been truly eye-opening to see how much preparation, time, and effort is required for our on-campus newscast. Watching the students grow has prompted me to learn more about the industry when I have the opportunity.
So, when I returned home from a grueling shift at the fast food place on Saturday night and my husband urged me to watch the rest of a documentary the Keanu Reeves made about the transition from film to digital recording in Hollywood, I agreed.
There was a portion of the documentary where Keanu started asking these great, established cinematographers how they felt about the rise and prevalence of digital recording, while film by and large has diminished. Several of them were nostalgic about the experience of watching movies during their childhood, claiming that movies recorded on film were largely responsible for that special, magical quality. Some were pragmatic, saying that while they preferred film, they knew their preference was sentimental and that digital was a superior product. I could sympathize with these guys.
But there was another person whose response made my blood boil with rage for hours after the documentary credits rolled.
Somehow or another, the fact that digital media lends itself to amateur use–basically, that everyone who wants to can make a movie now, with the right equipment–came up in Keanu’s discussion with one of the cinematographers. When asked how he felt about that, the guy said he hated digital media because now there were bad movies circulating about. Now, just anybody could do it. And, in his own words, without a “tastemaker” to decide which movies are good and which aren’t, society will lose its way and the art of cinema in its entirety will vanish into dust.
Bull. Just . . . bull.
This reminds me a lot of the publishing industry’s stance on the internet, and how it has enabled more people to participate in self-publishing. The medium are different, but the message is the same: there has to be a gatekeeper, a “tastemaker.” There has to be someone there to tell the public what is good and what is not. Every time I see some big industry professional write an open letter
condemning all self-pubbers to deepest pit of the underworld bemoaning the fact that self-publishing is so prominent now, and oh for the good old days when everything was published the “right” way, it really and truly makes me want to hurl.
I know what you’re thinking–oh, Olivia, this only angers you because you yourself are a self-published author. Perhaps that’s true. I never really thought about this issue before I entered the world of authorship. But I think my argument here will transcend any conflicts of interest. I’ll let you be the judge.
Firstly, the assertion that bad books and movies are in circulation simply because of self-publishing and digital media is pure poppycock. I’ve read bad mainstream books, and I’ve watched bad mainstream movies. Not everything that comes prancing out the other end of a major company is worthy of artistic elevation. I won’t malign specific titles here, but I know that right now, in your own mind, you’ve come up with a list of your own examples.
Now, are there bad self-published books? Are there bad indie films?
Lots of them. Probably more bad than good, to be honest. The internet is rife with short .99 eBooks that will make you wish you’d never learned to read, and I’m sure the same can be said for independent films. A keen sense of judgment is needed when navigating these choppy waters. But I find that discerning the quality of a book is the same, no matter how it came to be, is always accomplished by the same simple test.
I open it, and I read a few pages.
That’s it. I don’t look to see who published it. I don’t look up the author’s biography to see what degrees they have or how many titles they’ve written. I don’t check to see if it’s in Oprah’s Book Club or the New York Times Bestsellers List. I just open it, and I read a few pages. If it’s good, I’ll stick with it. If it’s not, I’ll put it back. It’s really quite that simple. There is no need for a publisher, or for that matter a production company, to step in and be a “tastemaker” on my behalf. I, along with everyone else in the human race, are able to figure out what we like just find without unsolicited assistance. We have the right to choose.
But even more important than that is this:
Human beings are creative creatures, by nature. It is our God-given birthright to shape the world around us with our thoughts and ideas. Whether we do that through manipulation of light or sound or natural resources or the written word is left to the individual, but at the end of the day, we are all of us artists.
Technology like digital recording, like the Internet, is a gift. It enables people who don’t have the money or the connections or the ability to pay an agent to participate in this basic human right. Everyone deserves the chance to share their art. Even if their art is churning out a new, slapped together eBook every other week. Even if their art isn’t that great. Even if their art is bad.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that we all settle for being entertained by subpar writing and cinematography. If you don’t like something, by all means, don’t read it. Don’t watch it. Don’t buy it. But I love the fact that everyone has a choice now. Everyone has a chance to share something they’ve made with whomever they’d like. Everyone has a chance to accept or reject a new work based on their own preference and taste alone, and not that of a stranger working in a faraway office.
So to that man in the documentary whose name escapes me, please know this. You don’t get to decide whether other people create art or not. You don’t get to decide whether other people will enjoy it or not. You can only control your own creative outputs, what you are directly responsible for. Instead of feeling threatened by the possibility of someone young and innovative and penniless creating a film the masses will love, focus on making your work the best it can be. Better yet, seek out these emerging talents and take them under your wing. And if you come across an indie movie that is truly, truly terrible, you should do what the rest of us do already–stop watching it and move on to bigger and better things.