Steve Jobs and literature

Two articles this morning came together for me in an interesting way. It shows how in the age of diminished awareness of what we call for want of a better word “The Humanities” coupled with a tech obsession, we are very filled with wisdom in some areas and not so much in others. (For an example how little the Humanities are respected today, just read this recent Forbes story calling for the abolition of its teaching.)

The first article was sent by my friend Susan Gabriel. It’s about how today’s readers—and writers!—are basically ignoring literature of the past. They don’t look to what we call “the classics” for guidance, but rather read today’s pot-boilers. So many readers—and writers!—seem to think novels without tight plots and lots of action and snappy dialogue, what used to be called novels of ideas, are boring, wordy, irrelevant for our fast-paced society. No one wants to slog through The Scarlet Letter anymore. So yesterday.

It’s hardly a new argument. Give the people what they want. When George Lucas screened a first cut of Return of the Jedi, Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams, died in the end, as the Millennium Falcon didn’t make it out of the Death Star before the explosion. That’s the reason for all that foreshadowing talk earlier involving Han Solo—Bring ‘er back without a scratch and I have a funny feeling I’m never gonna see ‘er again.

The ended didn’t test well, so Lucas redid it, having Lando make it out in the nick of time with a big Yeeeehah!

Okay, on to the second article I read this morning.

It’s about the man at left, Steve Jobs. It calls him one of the greatest entrepreneurs of our time.

It would be hard to argue with that assessment. Jobs seemed to be able to anticipate our tastes. Under his guidance, Apple created products that flew off the shelves and changed the way we live. But what really struck me about that article was this statement:

Perhaps the most astonishing fact about Jobs was his view that market research and focus groups only limited your ability to innovate. Asked how much research was done to guide Apple when he introduced the iPad, Jobs famously quipped, “None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want. It’s hard for [consumers] to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”

This struck me hard because for so long (forever?) the assumption has always been reversed. In the arts and literature, people didn’t know what was good for them. You didn’t tailor art to order. The character Frederick in Woody Allen’s Hannah And Her Sisters, played by Max von Sydow, barked, “I don’t sell my work by the yard!” when a young rock star asked for a custom creation for his cool new loft. Commerce got tailored to people’s expectations. Art didn’t. And that was considered The Way It Should Be. Now, from Facebook to Apple, companies are coming forth with innovations that people have no idea they want until they get them.

There’s a lesson to be learned there. People don’t always know themselves best. In fact, quite often they know themselves least. They should keep an open mind.

Which is great, except it’s not being applied to “the Humanities” (There’s that term again!) as it used to be. Here, in the hustle for bucks, everyone is more than happy to create “art” to order, fan fiction being just the latest incarnation.

There’s nothing wrong with this to an extent. But know what you’re getting—artistic fast food, Mickey Dee’s for the soul. No one knew the world needed Roman Polanski’s brutal and shocking noir classic Chinatown—until he made it. The film that’s now usually ranked as No. 3 or No. 4 on movie lists sent people angrily out of the theater at the premiere, where they hated hated hated the ending! (This includes the film’s screenwriter, Robert Towne, though he later admitted he had been wrong to diss Polanski’s switcheroo.) When director Matthew Vaughn made another noir thriller, Layer Cake, the suits forced him to film a conventional happy ending, certain it’s what the audience wanted. For the premiere, Vaughn slipped in the scene he really wanted, and it polled off the charts, forcing the studio to change its mind.

Yes, sometimes people don’t know what they want. Steve Jobs is so right. We should remember his words the next time we’re considering that commercial, easy book vs. the more unconventional, possibly thorny one. I didn’t know I liked raw fish either, until I bit into my first piece.

By the way, I don’t take the study from the chair of the Dartmouth’s Mathematics Department all that seriously on its own, and I’d have liked to hear from some contemporary authors themselves on this argument (and I don’t mean James Patterson and E.L. James), but I still think there’s truth in what they’re getting about. Whether it’s music or art or literature or comedy or TV programs, we are surprisingly ignorant about the past, even the recent past. Everything that’s old is new again. And vice-versa.

For another take on the Dartmouth study, read this.

2 responses

  1. Micky Dee’s for the soul–what a great and tragic phrase. Perhaps if people, in general, valued silence and introspection more they might have a better idea of what they truly want. My guess is it probably wouldn’t be anything Steve Jobs dreamed up. R.I.P., Steve.


    May 31, 2012 at 12:47 pm

  2. Glad to see you have a second book out. You haven’t mentioned anything about it. I’m glad you went with “my” cover. :-)


    May 31, 2012 at 2:14 pm

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