How Innovative is Too Innovative?

People are a paradox.

We crave the novelty of the new but also the comfort of the old. You can see it any time a superhero gets a revamp – some people will love the bold new direction, others will cry out against it, and some will take entirely different views on the next controversy over.

One of the publishers I work for is trying to adjust its output. They want their content to be more modern in its style and more diverse in its content. But when they say this to me as a creator, I face the implied question – how much do you really want to modernise? How much do your readers want? How much will they take before they feel that they’ve lost something familiar and comforting?

I would be happy to play around with different story formats and to fill those stories with characters who aren’t white, male, straight, cis, able-bodied, and neurotypical. That would be a lot of fun for me and much more in line with how I want my culture. But if this publisher’s style moves too far too fast, it’s going to lose the audience. I want to change things up enough to keep readers entertained but broaden their horizons. I rely on the publisher to guide me in this, just as they rely on me to do it well.

Creatives and marketers face this problem every day. When asked, they’ll get lots of responses asking for new things. But if they actually deliver on that, they’ll often find that their audiences miss parts of what they had.

Captain Marvel looking badass
Oh no, she’s going to get lady cooties all over your man space!

Of course, some people will complain no matter what you do. You can see that in the pre-release complaints about the Captain Marvel film from entitled men who think that a trailer featuring a female superhero is feminism gone mad. To them I say, you can fuck the fuckity off. Superhero films currently have more white male leads played by guys called Chris than they do female leads, there will still be plenty of what the whiners want. Asking to be represented is fair. Asking for everything to be about you is bullshit.

But when writing for the rest, the question remains, how much challenge and change do people really want compared with familiarity and comfort? How much innovation is too much innovation for this audience? And that’s a question I face when I sit down to write.

Nobody reads with their finger any more

“Nobody reads with their finger on the page while mouthing the words anymore – how can someone *really* engage with a text if they don’t physically need to touch the words and sound them outloud?

And what’s this crap about cutting up books into tiny, short-attention span size “pages”? A book is a continuous organic medium – the only appropriate way to consume it is on a roll of vellum.”

The words above come from my friend Marios Richards, not me. But he so perfectly skewered a certain reaction to change, that I had to share it.

Not as good as vellum?
Not as good as vellum?

Google’s Tom Uglow recently gave an interesting interview in which he discussed experiments in telling stories in different ways. I think this work is fantastic, and I’d love to see where it takes us. But he also suggested that the short forms of content we read a lot of at the moment mean we aren’t reading as deeply, and that’s an idea I just can’t get behind.

There are a whole bunch of false assumptions behind that idea. It assumes that the majority of people used to read big, dense texts, rather than the short forms that have often been popular in the past, or widespread illiteracy that existed when many works of ‘great literature’ were written. It assumes that we read short texts passively, in isolation, without bringing together the different ideas presented as we would in a book. In short, it focuses on the individual text, not the reader and how they use it. And it treats that unattended reader as a passive chump.

I’ve seen far more nostalgic, patronising takes on this idea. It’s one Tom Uglow only references in passing, before moving onto the awesome innovations he’s involved in pushing. But this nostalgic view of past literary glory versus modern shallow reading is nonsense. It’s a reaction against innovation, and as Marios highlighted, it could be brought out at every stage in the development of writing.