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PLEASE like me

I’ve spent virtually my entire life in the entertainment business, starting as a child in local amateur theater, then professional music, then this whole crazy book-writing thing. As different as these disciplines are, they have some core traits in common, chief of which is the need to please an audience. After all, if nobody comes to your show, or listens to your music, or reads your book, aren’t you just shouting into the void?

So a core trait that each successful artist has in common is that they do please their audience. The really successful ones please a really BIG audience.

But it’s never everybody.

Just as not everybody likes chocolate better than vanilla (because the ones who don’t are sadly wrong, but I digress…), not every artistic effort is going to resonate with or appeal to everybody. I think we all know this, deep down, but it’s helpful to remember that the most successful artists are often the ones who evoke the strongest reactions – but those reactions can actually be positive OR negative.

Don’t believe me? Look at the “Best Dressed” or “Sexiest” lists in some popular magazines or social media, and then look at the “Worst Dressed” and “Butt-Ugliest” lists (okay, there’s probably a gentler name for that last one, but let’s be honest: that’s what they’re implying). You’re going to find many of the same names on BOTH lists. Think about artists like Madonna. Lady Gaga. Adam Driver. Kanye West. People either love them, or they hate them. Rarely do these public figures evoke a “meh” reaction.

You'll put an eye out
Um, no hugging, please.

My point is that some of the most successful artists have a truly polarizing effect. And I submit that’s a good thing. Something to aim for, even.

Striving to be inoffensive

I think it’s safe to say, many of us do not aim to polarize – either in real life, or with our fiction. Instead, we play it safe, tiptoeing around sensitive topics to avoid alienating or offending people. And this practice is reinforced constantly, when we see people complaining that entertainers and artists shouldn’t try to impose their opinions on their audience. “Just entertain me,” we are told, “don’t tell me what you believe, or what you think I should believe.”

I saw an example of this just recently, when a musician I’m acquainted with on Facebook posted in support of a regional politician he apparently admires. Personally, I hate the guy he supports, but it’s his FB page, not mine, so I stayed out of the conversation.

But lots of people didn’t. They chimed in from both sides, either praising or deriding his choice. But another sentiment quickly began to surface, which I’d been waiting for. Below is a paraphrased example:

“No matter what your political stance, it is never EVER a good idea to promote it when you are an entertainer, or in business! Never!”

Think about what this comment says to every artist – and even every business owner. In short: How dare you have an opinion? Your sole functions are to entertain me or serve me – and not offend me.

Let’s be honest: Many of us may have felt the same way when seeing an artist or celebrity voice a provocative or controversial opinion, whether it was Jane Fonda, Ted Nugent, or Gwyneth Paltrow. But here’s why that is bullshit:

Good art comes from people with strong opinions.

I really believe this, and here’s why: Every storytelling choice we make is a decision, and one that needs to come from some belief system, some sense of judgment that helps us determine that X is better or worse than Y: This is a funnier line than that. This is a better plot twist, a better character name… you get the idea.

We are faced with countless decisions when creating our stories, and those decisions come from beliefs. From opinions. And the stronger and clearer those opinions are, the more consistent and confident our storytelling decisions will be. And confident writing is VERY appealing. Hell, in any artform, confidence is appealing. Think of the confidence it took Jackson Pollock to drip a bunch of paint on a canvas and call it art. Think of the confidence that made a guy who looks like Jack Nicholson into a leading man in so many Hollywood films. Confidence sells.

good hair day
Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.

But before we go off on a tangent about why Jack Nicholson was a babe magnet for decades, let’s go back to the scenario I started with: a local South Florida musician publicly endorsing a polarizing political figure, and receiving some significant online backlash.

To this musician’s credit, he stood firm, and politely pushed back. But I have noticed that many of my musical acquaintances have stayed conspicuously mum on any hot-button issues for the past few years. Those who follow me on FB will know I have not shared that restraint (to put it mildly). But I’m not here today to promote specific political/social agendas. No, I’m here to urge you to be willing to take a stand as an artist, knowing full well that stance might turn off some readers or potential readers.

Here’s my rationale: The simple truth is that not everybody is going to like your books. Just like not everybody is going to like YOU (unless your name is Vaughn Roycroft, a man who could easily crush Tom Hanks in the Likability Olympics, if Hanks weren’t such a chicken about refusing to compete. But again I digress…)

Tom Hanks is not having it
Look out, Vaughn…

Okay, the whole Vaughn vs. Hanks thing is a joke (although my money is TOTALLY on Vaughn), but I do have a point here: It’s okay if not everybody likes you, or the kind of thing you do. Instead, I suggest you focus on finding – and appealing to – the people who DO like the kind of thing you do. Which comes from the kind of person you are.

One easy way to do that is to find out who doesn’t like the kind of thing you do. I’ve written before about what I’ve learned from my one-star reviews on Amazon. Most of them were from people who were offended by the amount of profanity and lord’s-name-in-vain usage in my work (a level that quite accurately matches my own typical conversations in day-to-day life).

My takeaway: If you’re so conservative that what I consider to be a very moderate level of profanity makes you hate my book, guess what? You’re probably not gonna like ME. Or anything else I write. So I’m actually grateful for those one-stars: With any luck, they will discourage other equally conservative readers from wasting money on a book that will ultimately offend them. To me, in a weird way, those one-star reviews are actually a win.

Things have changed

Lest you think I’m a dyed-in-the-wool rebel who doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks, let me assure you: That’s not the case. I am by nature a people-pleaser and peacemaker, who wants EVERYBODY to be happy. Seriously. I am conflict-averse, and I will go to GREAT lengths to not be in a confrontational situation. (Note: there is admittedly a limit to that non-confrontational aspect of my personality, which is why my previous post about being punched in the face – more than once – was written from a perspective that was perhaps more deeply informed than I would have liked.) But as a writer, publishing a couple of books has made me reevaluate just how conflict-averse I want to be.

Take a minute to unpack that last sentence. For anybody who’s studied the craft of writing, what is the single most important component of a compelling story? The C-word: conflict. Which leads me to my conclusion that being conflict-averse is NOT necessarily something a writer wants to cultivate. For those who are conflict-averse in their day-to-day lives, this can be problematic. Trust me, I know.

For example, I used to be more inclined to keep my sociopolitical views to myself. Hell, most of us were. For years, we (I’m speaking primarily Western society, and the US in particular) were pretty good at agreeing to disagree; at not asking and not telling. You didn’t hate somebody who put up signs in their yard for a political candidate you didn’t like. You just realized you had different opinions.

But here’s the thing: In many ways, back then, the stakes were MUCH lower. Over the past decade, that has changed. Political parties – and the massive segments of the population who align with them – became far more polarized. We began to see less of what united us, and far more of what divided us.

But there was a reason for this: Shit started to get real.

We began to see far more grave and tangible consequences to the choices made by those in power. Stacking the deck on the Supreme Court and blocking the administration rightfully entitled to propose new candidates, with potential long-term consequences that could affect half of the US population (i.e., women). Banning transgender soldiers – via Twitter rather than the Pentagon. Children rounded up at the border and put in cages. Increasing numbers of new laws that will make it harder for certain people to vote. A deadly global pandemic killing millions, which has been politicized to the point that decisions about personal health and safety are being determined more by whom people voted for in the last election than on what their own doctors are telling them.

basically all the worst parts of the Bible
Basically, all the worst parts of the Bible

Maybe those things don’t bother you. The thing is, even if that’s the case, you likely DO have some strong opinions. Good. Share them. In your day-to-day interactions, and in your storytelling. Why not? It’s what you believe, and it’s pretty important stuff. So why not let those beliefs imbue and inform your fiction?

Will you lose some readers? Probably. Will you lose some friends? Quite possibly. But I have to ask, if your values are so diametrically opposed to another person, what kind of friend can they be to you, or you to them?

Similarly, if those things do bother you, why not speak up?

Not everybody is going to like what you say. But they were never going to. Because you simply can’t appeal to all people (shut up, Vaughn).

I’m not saying you should turn your fiction into some thinly veiled sociopolitical diatribe. But I am saying you should be willing to let your story accurately represent the things you care about. Things you believe in. Things that bother you. Things you are passionate about wanting to change.

How? By including characters who believe in those things. Characters whose situations exemplify things you care about, or things you believe need to change, or need to be better understood. And maybe have those characters DO extraordinary things because of those situations, even if it requires them to involve themselves in – you guessed it – conflict.

Opportunity might be knocking

If you’re like me, there are some things going on in the world that are REALLY bothering you. So maybe there’s an opportunity to make others more aware of those things through your storytelling – knowing that doing so might make them uncomfortable. By avoiding or tiptoeing around the issue in an effort not to offend anybody, your writing won’t do anything to improve the problem.

So maybe it’s time to lean into it.

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. - Elie Wiesel
I’m with him.

I’m not saying it’s easy

We live in a highly sensitized time, with many of us far more conscious than ever of the oppression and appropriation that many people experience, particularly in entertainment. Scarlett Johansson was excoriated for starring in the live-action adaptation of the Japanese anime “Ghost in the Shell,” which many considered an example of the “whitewashing” that is still so prevalent in Hollywood filmmaking. Johansson subsequently withdrew from the opportunity to star as a transgender person in a high-profile biopic after enormous pressure from the LGBTQ+ community. Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt, although promoted by Oprah, has taken a lot of heat for both stereotyping and cultural appropriation. The latter is a topic that has come up frequently here at WU, and for good reason: This stuff matters.

So how do you draw the line between standing up for an opinion, and potentially hurting some marginalized group?

Here’s what I remind myself: Cultural appropriation is about taking something from a marginalized group.

To me, simply having values that are different than mine doesn’t qualify as marginalization. And I’ve got statistical data to back me up, the most recent being the 2020 election. Even the losing side had at least 74 million people who took the time to vote in the last presidential election. Given that they represent more than one third of the voting-eligible US population – and just under one half of the votes cast – I’d have a hard time considering their views as being “marginalized.” Their candidate may not have won, but that doesn’t make them a minority that’s being marginalized, a group whose voice is not being heard. That just makes them a group who backed a candidate who didn’t win this time around.

Which is something that happens in Every. Single. Election.

Sorry, but that political back-and-forth is in NO way analogous to the decades or centuries of consistent marginalization and oppression that some other groups have faced, often based on personal elements over which they have little or no control, like race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. So in my case, if my writing is going to offend people who back a party that historically wins 58% of their presidential elections, I have two words. Well, one word and one contraction – and they rhyme with “duck ‘em.”

Writing without fear

All of this is admittedly mighty brave talk, but am I walking the walk, when it comes to my own fiction? Not yet, but I’m planning to, next time around. Because like I said, things have changed.

And I gotta say: I admire the hell out of authors who do. Salman Rushdie, Judy Blume, Chuck Palahniuk, Toni Morrison, Dan Brown, E.L. James, and countless other authors have demonstrated their willingness to take on sensitive, often polarizing topics (although to date, Rushdie is the only one whom Iran’s former political and religious leader has ever formally ordered to be killed). These are authors who’ve been unafraid to polarize. Unafraid to offend. And you know what else?

They’ve all sold a crapload of books.

Hmmm, maybe there’s something to this whole not-afraid-to-offend thing.

Speaking of Palahniuk, he has some strong feelings on the topic, which he expresses in his wonderful how-to, Consider This:

“If you were my student, I’d tell you to forget about being liked. Tastes change over time, public taste as well as personal taste. Your work might not be immediately celebrated, but if it remains lodged in someone’s memory you have a good chance of being embraced over time.”

After sharing some examples from literature and film, Chuck concludes:

“So do not write to be liked. Write to be remembered.”

Write to be remembered?

Yeah, I kinda like the sound of that.

How about you?

Does your writing address the polarizing issues that bother/inspire/frighten/anger you most? If so, how are you approaching it? And if not, why not? Please chime in, and above all, stay safe out there. Thanks for reading.

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About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels Me Again (originally published by Five Star/Gale), and Tony Partly Cloudy (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and alligators with his ukulele.

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