A father enrolled his son in a private Christian school, but soon became frustrated. He approached the schoolmaster and queried him regarding the child’s lack of immediate spiritual growth. “Oaks require decades to reach maturity,” said the schoolmaster. “Cabbages, only months.”
The same is true about good writing — it takes time. Unlike cabbages, most of the great books (the ones that endure time, critical review, and make a lasting impression) weren’t rushed through the mill. They spent time on the drawing board, in the lab, and on the anvil, curing under the artist’s gaze. Tolkien spent his whole life crafting Middle Earth. Is it any wonder his epic is considered one of the greatest literary achievements of all time? Of course, time is no guarantee of quality. Nevertheless, if there is a reasonably reliable formula for good art, it is this — the more time spent on a project, the better it gets.
But in today’s publishing world, time is often the commodity in least abundance.
A writer friend phoned me several years back to announce their new two-book contract. They had spent years hammering out that story, polishing and perfecting it. So it was no surprise when a publisher finally snatched it up. Recently, however, I received an email from that author requesting prayer. Why? Their second book wasn’t going so well and their deadline was fast approaching.
From what I understand, this is typical of many new authors. Their first book is not written under deadline, and it shows. They’ve had more time to marinate in its themes and fine tune its ingredients. Once they are contracted, however, the game changes. They no longer have the luxury of leisurely analysis; something must be written, even if what is written is before its time.
Thus, the main difference between an author’s first book and their second book is often simply… a deadline.
So should publishers not have deadlines? Well, if you left it up to flighty artists to produce something whenever, I doubt anyone — artist or publisher — could stay in business. Nevertheless, assembly lines are not necessarily conducive to creative genius. And, to some extent, publishers must be assembly lines. How can they stay in business if they aren’t? However, if artists are about “art” and publishers are about “numbers,” causalities are inevitable.
Which is how quality becomes one of the causalities of the arts industry.
Several years ago, L.A. Times film critic Patrick Goldstein, wrote about Disney’s “formula” for success. It is quite different from the traditional studios’. In Mouse House Tops Studio Report Card Goldstein wrote:
Of the 11 movies [Disney] released in 2007, eight were Disney label movies, allowing the company to remain relentlessly focused on its brand. By releasing so few films, Disney was able to make more high-quality films by putting extra time into solving script, production and marketing issues than competitors like Sony and Warner Bros., who roll out more than 20 a year.
“We’re probably in a different business than our brother and sister companies,” says Disney studio chief Dick Cook. “We’ve learned that it’s not how many you do but how good they are. If you only make 11 movies a year, you’re not putting your movies through a meat grinder; you can be very specific about quality.” (emphasis mine)
Watch any recent Disney / Pixar movie and it’s hard to argue about the meticulous detail that goes into their animated films. But as with any quality product, perfection takes time. And this is exactly what differentiates Disney from its competitors. “We’re probably in a different business than our brother and sister companies,” said Disney studio chief Dick Cook. “We’ve learned that it’s not how many you do but how good they are.” Unlike other studios, most of whom are cranking out twice as many films a year, Disney has valued quality over quantity.
And it is precisely this “value” that goes against industry norms.
I can’t help but relate this to the arts in general, and the industries that handle them. The film industry, like the book industry, like the music industry, is admittedly about making money. This is what Mr. Cook calls “the meat grinder.” Again, this is not to suggest that money alone motivates publishers, as if they have no concern for quality. In fact, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, making money may be a sign that a publisher is doing something right. However, it’s the model that forces artists into “the meat grinder” that I take objection to. For no sooner is the “goose” discovered than we are demanding more “golden eggs.” Forget the fact that it took five years to write the script for your indie hit — you’ve got 12 months for the follow-up. Welcome to “the meat grinder.”
Perhaps more publishers and producers should reconsider Disney’s approach. “[I]t’s not how many you do but how good they are.” Maybe, in the scheme of things, less movies, books and bands are a good thing. After all, the discount racks are full of “cabbages.” Oaks, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as disposable.