There’s been a fair bit, or a lot in certain circles, made about having new stories and new voices. But not much about just where that comes from, or even how far from previous work do you have to go to be considered “new”. But more than that, little has been made of what really matters and that is who decides what gets read or seen. After all the writers are around, writing away. It’s a matter of what are those who have the power to determine what gets read or seen actually willing to go with. How far from the established usual are they willing to go.
Perhaps the thorniest part of it is personal biases and internalized issues. Which could effect even usual stuff. Take for instance a story about workplace sexual harassment and the failures of HR department. A topic that’s been done, a topic of known general public interest. So can’t argue there’s a lack of audience. Now imagine this story has a primary antagonist, a secondary antagonist and some ancillary antagonizing characters (or don’t imagine it, that’s what it has). Oh they’re all men. And none is redeemed in the end. Part of the story is that in the environment and in light of their actions and words, they can’t be redeemed.
So now what happens if someone were to read it? Well a man might object to all the named male characters being or ending up not good guys. After all, “not all men” as the mantra goes. A man might also object to the absence of redemption. Why aren’t they allowed to redeem themselves? Can’t we have at least one man make himself look good? And this is all just internalized stuff for a great many men. They want men, because they are men, to be portrayed in certain comfortable and familiar ways. They don’t care for something that might make them squirm on account of being men. Or even something that might make other men squirm. Even if it’s in the service of driving home a point or trying to trigger some thinking.
Which leads to the next part, what happens to the story? Well if the editor or producer feels strongly enough about having their ego soothed, changes can be asked for. Like redeem someone. Which if it’s a novel, pad the ending a bit perhaps change a thing or two elsewhere and you have it. Not the ending intended and it breaks the mood a bit, but it could work. It also could be cat box liner. If it’s a movie, because of how things weave together in movie, changing the ending a bit and you are going to have to change other things. After all a character turning on a dime in the last 20 minutes in order to be redeemed is going to seem forced, fake, a consolation to men and/or other things. Never mind the mood is quite altered.
So a story that on the surface is pretty usual stuff, could end up altered into something watered down, minus it’s intended message and mood. Just because of someone’s own internalized feelings. And this without getting into appeals based on marketing potential, target audience preferences and a whole lot of other stuff rarely included in the public discussion.
Now what if a woman reads it? Well being a woman, she pretty likely can relate to the story at hand in some form. Just reading this post has probably made a few of my women readers go “Oh I’d like that”. Because, relatable content. A woman could see the story and think it’s great, it hits all the points she’d want such a story to tell. But. But there could be a man involved in the process who isn’t going to like it so much. Or she might worry she’s seen as endorsing ball busting or something. Which could have future consequences for her professionally. Or she might just feel that it could. So you’re back to making changes. Not necessarily the same changes as a man would want but still changes. Also a woman could be of the mind she has to treat the story the way her male peers/counterparts would for some reason.
So either way, a story that’s nothing out of the ordinary, mainstream as can be, might end up not being what it was meant to be. Simply on account of personal feelings someone in power can’t get past or won’t get past.
That’s a usual story, what about something that would qualify under the heading of “new stories by new voices”? Like say a character study of a trans woman who as she has various interactions ends up talking about what it is to be trans (I’m nowhere near naive enough to write out the full synopsis here. want it? Get in touch.). So it’s definitely not a trans woman version of Boys Don’t Cry and nothing like Dallas Buyers Club. Or much of anything else that’s centered on LGBT issues.
Show this to someone and right off the bat you’ve got an issue, they’ve almost certainly never read anything like it. Which gets into the whole “it can’t be worth it because no one’s done it before” self-fulfilling prophecy trap. Certain editors or producers would take someone else not going first as an excuse to not bother. In part because they like the security of someone else showing something works first. Even if they’re on the record of wanting new stuff, they didn’t mean this new. Or this kind of new. They’re not about to jump first. And this possibly without even reading the full thing, whether manuscript or screenplay, just an outline or synopsis.
But let’s say they don’t have that hang up or get past it. There’s the next one, who would want to read/see such a story? This especially because people tend to get caught up in their own social and professional bubbles. Though of all the hang ups, this one might be the most rationally amenable to challenge. Point to numbers, even back of the envelope stuff could point to a nice plausible case for getting enough people to read or see the story. Each would have different lines it would be helpful to demonstrate you cold reasonably cross eg copies sold or certain box office returns. But it could be done. If that’s what it takes.
Though before that might be the whole issue of it being a character study. Something where the person’s revelations are the point of the story and everything else just serves as a way to get them out. On the written side, character studies are common enough it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. On the movie side, well there’s always The Breakfast Club. And other movies to bring up. But there may still be the feeling you need something that revolves around plot, not plot in service of character development and nothing more. But along with the audience issue, at least there’s some rational way to stand for things.
Which leads to the issue of is whoever is reading it really into the whole new story thing or just treating it as a marketing/PR thing or relegating it to sideshow status? Because they’ll be looking at something that tells a story totally outside of their experience (unless you manage to get the Wachowski sisters to read it). And it may turn out that’s not what they want. They want something they relate to that just happens to be a bit different so they can label it something new. Or it may be there’s no real desire to make a big thing out of it with the idea it be treated as such met with some condescension. Or maybe no desire to follow through on whatever they’ve hyped as wanting and called the future. It was just cynical PR.
Of course with something seemingly outside of the mainstream, there’d be the temptation to go to a small publisher or independent production company/studio. Both of which could have issues the bigs don’t have, like everything has to conform to the tastes of whoever is in charge. Since that’s why they run it. Also there’s a different sort of audience size issue here, how many people would ever get to read the story or see it coming from here? Oh sure it gets published or produced, but how worth is it to have something on few shelves or on few screens? Sure some people see it, but not many and it can fuel the feeling that that’s the only audience there is.
I know I’ve left out the issue of changes to the story, but that’s because in this case it’s hard to imagine a scenario where some rewrites would turn someone from not wanting to publish or produce the story. No amount of changing settings or pacing is going to alter what it is. It’s just what it is, a character study about a trans woman. Making the dialogue a bit different is just different dialogue. It’s not like the first example where you can change things to make certain themes or characters more agreeable.
So in the end, it comes down to who is in power, who is in charge. Which is an issue itself these days in relation to other things. Though part of changing that has to do with that if you change it for other reasons, you could get new stories and new voices. But even if who’s in charge changes that doesn’t mean it changes how things get done. And while talking about new stories and new voices sounds great, makes for great copy and sound bites, it’s not the whole conversation. After all it’s been around a while now and how many new stories and voices have come out? Not very many, even if you use the most liberal concepts of new stories and new voices. But as with any thing to do with power, nothing is in a vacuum. And it’s well worth remembering that because it determines how real the desire for new stories and voices is, but also the futures of various participants in two industries may depend on it.