Ages ago in 1991, Sinead O’Conner refused to participate in the Grammies, because the music industry, “(has) created a great respect among artists for material gain – by honouring us and exalting us when we achieve it, ignoring for the most part those of us who have not.”
That is, in an industry oriented towards profit, “success” is determined by sales – and it’s just the same in books and journalism.
O’Conner also pointed to the fact that the vast majority of artists were unwilling to do anything about the “sickness” (poverty, abuse and so on) in society. Almost thirty years later, it’s still true in the arts generally that being political – that is, taking a stand on issues that matter… or even worse, critiquing the whole fucked up economic and social system – is a “success” killer (where success is understood to be sales).
So for the writers that put justice before commercial success – how should we actually judge ourselves and gauge if we’re on the right path?
Our starting point has to be our own values, rather than the industry’s, even if there ends up being some overlap. And though those of us who write for social change will have a diversity of values, as an example, I might say that rather than sales and profit, our starting point should be things like solidarity, humility (understanding that writers are part of humanity, not above it), raw truth, giving voice to the voiceless, and so on.
From there, I suggest three key elements to gauging how well we are doing as resistance writers:
- Artfulness: Respecting our readers and our art involves dedicating time, research, and accumulating experience so that our articles, books, and poems are creative, original, humorous (if that’s our thing), beautiful, and thought provoking. We fight for humanity because it is wonderful, and our writing should reflect that passion.
- Integrity: We cover an issue or issues or facet of injustice or a message without betraying anything/any oppressed group or cause in order to be popular and to sell well. That means, for example, no misleading clickbaity titles, no using objectified women in order to draw in a broader audience (as Calle 13 did), no leaving out important statements because it’s cooler and more shareable to talk about stupid Trumphead than it is to talk about how economic forces collude.
- Impact: This is the hardest, because we can’t change things if no one reads what we write, yet for most of us – oppressed groups like non-white people, poor people, women, those living in countries other than the US and UK etc – having access to a broad readership is very difficult. It’s also questionable if your writing has more impact if it is read by lots of people who already agree, or by a few who don’t, or if it is read by many people who change little about how they understand things, or by a few who are completely awakened to a new idea, or empowered in a new way. Writing can be powerful when it strengthens an existing movement, or when it paves the way for the creation of a new movement. Ultimately, I don’t have a mathematical formula for this. I would just remind fellow writers to consider all these things when looking at impact, rather than read numbers alone.