THE CONTENT MILL

Posted in Rants on April 10th, 2017 by Ed

Jason Vuic is a non-fiction writer who has chosen, apparently, to specialize in writing books about things that were spectacularly bad. His first two cover The Yugo, that punchline of the late 80s, and the legendarily winless and incompetent 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who lost their first 26 games as a team).

If you were born before, say, 1985 and have paid even passing attention to professional football at any point, you probably recognize the Buccaneers for their legendarily bad uniform – color – logo combination. "Creamsicle" is a commonly used metaphor. It turns out, Vuic describes, that they originally (and unbelievably) decided simply to copy the orange-and-aqua colors of the Miami Dolphins and the "pirate" logo of the Oakland Raiders. When the league (and lawyers) complained, team execs – with no focus groups, relevant experience with design, or particular forethought – changed the aqua to red and had a new mascot, "Bucko Bruce", redesigned in a less pirate-y, more Three Musketeers style. Oh, and Bruce is winking. He was supposed to wear an eyepatch but the Raiders complained. So the swashbuckling rake is winking.

The fashion faux-pas underscored the team's punching bag status, and in the 1990s they redesigned the colors and uniforms to something more aggressive and manly. And you know what? Before long, people missed the Creamsicle uniforms. Now, of course, the Creamsicles, Bucko Bruce, and all the other garish stuff is back.

The logo and color scheme devised in the 90s was what we would expect: professionally done, carefully market tested, and in every respect it met expectations of what a uniform might look like. It was absolutely, totally Fine. Competent. Guaranteed to appeal widely. The old logo and color scheme, in contrast, was drawn up without much thought by people with (apparently) bizarre taste and no real interest in getting feedback from the public. And that simply is something people don't see a lot of anymore. It might have been bad, but its "badness" made it unique in the era of highly polished public image crafting. Bucko Bruce would never happen today, and that, to people who like it, is precisely the point. Now we get things so generic – "Las Vegas Black Knights", most recently – that I guarantee you will forget everything about it ten minutes after you see it.

And now, the payoff for the extended metaphor.

Lately I've made an effort to expand into Serious Writing, the kind of thing that appears in legitimate media outlets rather than a self-maintained blog. In that process I've learned that one of the hardest things about Serious Writing is that in the process of bringing it to the standards and expectations of a Real Media Outlet Editor, the less interesting it is. The more Serious my writing is, the more it sounds exactly like anyone else. I understand the industry conventions and professional obligations that require writers to omit things I like (gratuitous profanity, constant parentheticals, the non-sequitur, seemingly out of place historical anecdotes, dick jokes, odd metaphors). I do. I get it. But once I take all that out, what is there to make it worthy of notice? It feels (and is) generic, anodyne, and tepid. It is easy to digest and easy to forget.

Nothing. It's Fine. It sounds reasonably Professional and Serious. But an Editor could (and will) see it and conclude correctly that a thousand other writers could have turned out the same thing. And that is why it is very hard to succeed in Professional, Serious Writing. If you have a particular voice that stands out, you're not giving them what they're looking for. If you smooth out all the quirks, you're bland and unlikely to stand out.

It's not a grand conspiracy. Again, it makes complete sense why Editors and publishers can't have writers who talk like longshoremen making odd and oblique references that will confuse rather than enlighten. It is disappointing, albeit unsurprising, to see the way the Machine is designed to churn out a consistent and predictable product and that only the rarest writer – and I know some damn good ones – can produce work that comes out of the cutting room with any sort of personality or recognizable Voice. Publishing has some uncomfortable similarities to the music industry, designed to ensure that everything sounds essentially the same.