Modern marketing began with the notion that, instead of making a product then trying to find customers to buy it, it would be more effective to find out what the customer needs or desires then make a product to supply that need or desire.
Fair enough, but does it work with the writing product - books, plays, media? I guess it must to a degree, judging by the millions spent globally on focus groups, trend-spotting and other techniques in search of what might be the next big thing.
There are at least two problems, though. The first is that the customer is a rear view mirror - what you get from looking closely at customer behaviour and opinion is not so much the next big thing as the last big thing. How can customers desire what they don’t yet know exists? That must be an even bigger problem for considering products of the imagination than it is for considering products of, say, technology, which tend to work more by accretion than departure.
The second problem is that the product of aggregated opinion must be cliché. By definition, work that is predicated on the predicted must be predictable. In other words, writing out of focus group wisdom is bound to produce the same old pap however thinly disguised in next year’s colour.
So, if we are not writing for the ‘customer’ as made flesh by the marketeers, who are we writing for? ‘Write for yourself’ is sound advice I’ve heard many times, coupled with ‘Write what you know’. To take my own modest case, without it I would not have produced my semi-autobiographical collection of short stories We Never Had It So Good, nor indeed many of the plays for schools earlier in my writing career. Dickens produced some of his best work engaging with and writing from his personal experience, as have so many others - Alan Bennett, to settle on a modern example - but these maxims, useful as they are, set their own boundaries. There is a limit to writing out of yourself, while writing for yourself could restrict you to an audience of one. What would Shakespeare have achieved if he had left himself so confined?
I believe the best we can do is to write for the seeker. Instead of trying to analyse trends or aping yesterday’s successes we need to ask ourselves what is capturing the thoughts (or stoking the anxieties) of humanity now and for the future. Much of our impulse forward is fuelled by a sense of searching for something - often ill-defined, sometimes intangible, but nevertheless there. What is the object of that search; what can we say about the journey?
These are questions that are useful for writers of fact and fiction. They provide a motive force for our research and can drive our writing. Addressing these questions can be so much more liberating than merely writing what we know, and edifying too. As the author Simon Brett pointed out at a recent Authors North event I attended, the full-time writer, cut off from a normal working environment, knows less and less. Writing for the seeker give us a certain impetus to find out what we don’t know. Our efforts to answer the seeker’s questions lucidly will help shape the work we do, and we can demonstrate our qualities to the extent we are able to define what was ill-defined, make tangible the intangible.
Of course the seeker and the writer may be one - taking us back to the notion of ‘write for yourself’ - but the broader concept of write for the seeker offers infinite possibilities on so many levels - personal; interpersonal; societal; global; universal - as well as a forward dynamic and a natural structural fit with the idea of the story or argument as a quest, a journey, an unfolding.
For me there is also a sense of companionship, if only a virtual one, in the idea of writing for the seeker, a realised image of the reader as fellow-passenger on the journey, one for whom I have responsibility throughout and must navigate to our mutual destination across all the obstacles, working with a map that seems to be missing significant parts of the route, overcoming challenges on the way. I may be the guide but, as in all good quests, neither of us could make it to the end without the other.
Finally (to throw the marketeers a bone) there is a commercial rationale. Bookshops, libraries and on-line repositories are natural haunts for seekers of all bent and persuasion. If we have anticipated and successfully engaged with the objects of their search in the works we have created, they will surely find us there.