Hedgehogs and Bananas


In general there are two kinds of writing instruction: one says you should write for yourself; the other tells you to write for an audience – and generally this means a market, preferably focus-grouped.

The first method – and it is most people’s first method – says that the integrity of the art, the work, is the most important thing. An artist will create great work if they are entirely engaged with it, because this is what they want to say, and this is the way they want to say it. In this case, selling the resulting work is secondary. The act of creation is what matters. If people want to buy it once it has become a Thing, then that’s a bonus.

It’s a nice clean way to start out as an artist – any kind of art: writing, painting, sculpture, whatever you want to do. But unless you are genuinely not interested in whether you find an audience, or make a sale, then sooner or later you are going to have to confront the other question: should you attempt to create work to suit what the market wants?

Well, if you do, make sure you get it right. If you can. Whatever anyone might tell you, nobody really knows what the market wants. Of course you can see what’s selling well now, but that doesn’t tell you what will sell tomorrow. What does happen is that the gatekeepers start agreeing with each other about what people are going to want – without any evidence. Well, how could there be evidence of the future? A kind of orthodoxy develops where everyone has the same idea of what will work.

These gatekeepers will always say that they are looking for something truly original, new, ground-breaking. But they don’t mean it. They think they do, but they don’t. They want something that will repeat a recent success – something different, but not too different. They’re not worried about whether it’s good art; they want something that will sell. And you mustn’t blame them. It’s their job. Publishers, film and television companies, galleries, exist to make money – and as soon as you try to live from the proceeds of your art, so do you.

But it’s often a fool’s game, because public taste – the market – just will not stay in the same place. Things that sell like banana splits one year, can’t be given away the next.

So it’s up to you. Write for the market – but you’d better make sure you can get to market quickly, before it all changes. Or you can write for yourself and see who else likes it.

Hedgehog image from Gilbert White's "A Natural History of Selborne" 1879 edition - artist unknown