Brent Spiner has a new web-series going on called Fresh Hell. It’s fun and self-deprecatory, and it made me think about how actors, musicians, authors, even painter, sculptors, and other artists can get completely trapped in a given genre, or ever worse, a specific part.
It’s really one of the most unfortunate things I can think of, and definitely affects my reasoning when I’m planning a new story or poem, or even a non-fiction piece or blog post. In the first couple of years after I got out of school, I did a LOT of non-fiction, freelance writing all over the place. Some of it paid better than others, but all of it paid me something. I’m not ashamed of it, or unhappy that I did it, that’s not the issue. I was fresh out of school and able to pay the bills writing (this was before the economic crash), so I’m not complaining. I even got to create the whole in-game universe, quests, and backstory for a video game (though it will probably never launch), and that was fun, if frustrating work. The issue is that since then, I get weird emails from people who want me to do copywriting, software reviews, or technical writing, which is work I just don’t want to do anymore. I know some people who’ve written erotica, the cheap paperbacks that are basically collections of Penthouse Forum stories, and I feel even worse for them. They are stuck, and often are forced to take on a pen name to publish anything else.
So I started thinking about that, and it made me think about all the different artists all over the world who feel like they can’t put out what is truly inspiring them at the moment, due to financial situations. Some people, like Stephen King, have transcended their original work in such a way that he can, essentially, write a cookbook and still get a bestseller. And good for him, he earned it. But for people lower than that level of the totem-pole, there are expectations that you will continue to do whatever you’ve done in the past, regardless of why you were doing it. Nobody dreams of ghostwriting corporate how-to books on “dealing with millennials in the workplace”. We do it for the money. My wife was just starting grad-school and I was fresh out of school, and writing stuff like that was my version of waiting tables.
And no other profession in the world has this sort of expectation, this sort of trap. My first job was collecting carts in the parking lot of a Super K-Mart, but when I talk to old friends from my home town, no one says “Oh, you’re a writer? I would have thought you were still wrangling carts. What happened?”. No one ever says “Oh, I thought you were still washing dishes at Denny’s!”, it just doesn’t happen. No one expects an explanation, they expect that those kinds of jobs are things you do because you have to, and a change (unless it’s towards not doing anything at all) is fine.
Now, someone could say “That’s fine, but those are crap jobs. Of course no one wants to bus tables as a career.” But nobody gives people who switch careers crap, either. My father-in-law, the wonderful David Gilbert, was a lawyer and now is in real estate…no one ever gives him crap or calls him a sell-out or uses that knowledge to try to undermine his current career.
Yet in the arts, ANY change is problematic. I remember when I was a teenager, we found an old Pantera record, from their early hair-rock days, in this second-hand shop, and my friends made fun of it and some of them ended up thinking less of Pantera because that was in their past. Any actor or actress who is at all successful in a given role will simply not be allowed to do anything else…to this day I hear Sarah Michelle Gellar referred to as Buffy, and even though Bones has been on for years, people are still calling David Boreanaz Angel. Musicians aren’t allowed to change their genre of music, and inevitably fans will freak out if any range of creative expression appears at all.
One explanation of this phenomenon may be the nature of art itself. People often feel as though once something is created and put out there, it “belongs” to the fans. Perhaps, for some people, the artist themselves are felt to “belong” to the people who see/hear/read/etc the art. It seems to be the only explanation, because not only do fans punish artists who diverge, agents, publishers, producers, and all of the other middle-men of the arts sometimes literally won’t let someone break out of their own established niche. Brent Spiner never gets to be anyone else except Data because the industry won’t let him, and the industry won’t let him because they believe his fans won’t let him.
In an effort to avoid typecasting, we have lost two Doctors from Doctor Who, and it remains to be seen if it will work. While the remake of Fright Night was no cinematic gem, that wasn’t David Tennant‘s fault, yet again and again I heard things like “he should stick to Doctor Who”. Not “Hollywood would sell us a lump of shit and tell us it was cobbler”. Not “what is with people selling me my childhood 20 years later at three times the price and half the quality?”. Instead, little snippy remarks about how David Tennant should have stayed in his box.
It’s one of the truly sad aspects of the modern world. The world seems to expect artists, of any type, to be like a machine that makes a certain kind of product, forever and ever, until the machine falls apart. But artists are like anyone else, and sometimes they change, their feelings change, they get new influences, or want to explore some different territory, and unlike the accountant who decides he wants a change, the artist doesn’t have to “quit”, they can just change. They can change mediums, genres, whatever, and while those changes are sometimes just to increase their commercial appeal (I’m looking at you, Metallica), usually the changes are because the artist in question is growing, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Rant finished. Don’t forget to check out Brent Spiner’s new web series, Fresh Hell.