In a recent interview with SotoColor Graphics (by way of Chris Sims), Mark Waid had this to say: “The audience doesn’t know what it wants. If it knew what it wanted, it wouldn’t be an audience. It just knows that it wants to be entertained somehow, and that’s a perfectly reasonable expectation. I wish we were better at it. The 50,000 hardcore fans of periodical print comics that we have left, the ones we haven’t and can’t drive away, seem to indicate with their buying patterns that they’re interested only in nostalgia, which is terrifying. And I understand why publishers cater to that; they’re kinda forced to, given that the print distribution system is targeted SOLELY TO THOSE 50,000.”
“The audience doesn’t know what it wants” is an old adage shared by many many writers, including me. That’s not an easy statement for some fans to hear over their own shouting, “Why do DC and Marvel not respond to our concerns and demands?” After all, we’re the audience. We should have a say in what kind of stories we read, right?
Well, of course we do. But we say that with the decisions we make about what to buy and read, not by crying over being “forced” to read things we don’t enjoy and then demanding that writers give us exactly what we tell them we want. Art doesn’t work that way.
One of the writers of Grey’s Anatomy explained it this way to fans of the show: “We read your comments – maybe not all of them but a lot of them – and sometimes we use them as a jumping off place for discussion in the [writers] room. Like, ‘A lot of fans don’t like this character right now. Why is that?’ … Our discussions that are prompted by your feedback often lead us down interesting paths, but they never end with us going, ‘Yeah, some of the fans don’t like that, we should just stop it.’ Ever. Because it’s our job to keep you on the edge of your seats, it’s our job to inspire you to write us in a feverish rage, it’s our job to sometimes piss you off and hopefully, always, to keep you coming back for more. ”
Sam Raimi also explained how catering to the audience contributed to the ruin of Spider-Man 3: “I had worked on the story with my brother Ivan. Primarily, it was a story that featured the Sandman. It was really about Peter, Mary Jane, Harry and that new character. When we were done, Avi Arad, my partner and president of Marvel at the time, came to me and said, ‘Sam, you’re not paying attention to the fans enough. You need to think about them. You’ve made two movies now with your favorite villains and now you’re about to make another one with your favorite villains. The fans love Venom. He is the fan-favorite. All Spider-Man readers love Venom. Even though you came from ’70s Spider-Man, this is what the kids are thinking about. Please incorporate Venom. Listen to the fans now.'” Yeesh.
Here’s another quote by Pixar writer Andrew Stanton: “I don’t mean this in a negative way, but I don’t think of the audience at all [when I’m writing], because I don’t go to see a movie hoping the filmmaker’s second-guessed what I want. I go to see what he wants, because I like his taste and style, and I want to see what he’s going to do next.
“The day we start thinking about what the audience wants, we’re going to make bad choices. We’ve always holed ourselves up in a building for 4 years and ignored the rest of the world, because nobody are bigger movie geeks than we are, so we know exactly what we are dying to see with our family and kids. We don’t need other people to tell us that. We trust the audience member in ourselves.”
And here’s Johanna Draper Carlson: “When did fans get the idea that they could dictate content to creators? If you aren’t enjoying something, stop buying/watching/reading it. (And if the overall ongoing story gets to a place you’d like even more, you’ll feel like an idiot for not having any patience or trust in the creators.) If they’re creating something you like, then have a little faith.”
On not quite the other hand, literary agent Jessica Faust reminds writers that completely ignoring audience-feedback is a bad idea: “The difficulty you all face when getting published is living up to the expectations of your readers. There is no publicity as good as the publicity you get when you write a great book, and then your next book is even better. Let’s face it, we’re all fickle readers. We have limited incomes and when an author disappoints it’s often difficult to get us to spend our money on the next book.
“…Writing suspense? Your readers are going to expect the same level, if not a higher level, of suspense with your next book. What about fantasy? Your world building needs to be just as strong in your second book as it is in your first. The minute you become a published author you are writing for a lot more than yourself. You’re writing for your agent, your editor and, most important, your audience.”
Though that last sentence appears to contradict all of the other quotes, Faust follows it up with, “Does that mean you need to write the books they think you should write? Not at all, but you do need to come as close as possible to matching the expectations you’ve now set for them.” Which is more or less what that Grey’s Anatomy writer was saying. Audience feedback is important, but it doesn’t have the final say.
The question that Mark Waid goes on to pose in his interview is: Which audience should we be seeking feedback from? “I can’t wait to hear what the non-hardcore audience wants; digital will tell us that. I don’t care nearly as much what ‘comics fans’ want as I do what ‘potential readers’ want.”
Is he right?