Ever see The Fountainhead?
The Ayn Rand-scripted adaptation of her novel (which I haven’t read, so I’ll focus on the movie) focuses on Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), a brilliant architect outraged that his customers won’t build his designs exactly the way he designs them but instead want—changes. He grimly soldiers on, refusing to compromise, and finally attains success as people realize his genius and he attains success without having to compromise or change his designs one iota.
With that outlook, Ayn Rand must have been a nightmare to edit … but I digress. The point is, as a creative person, I have mixed thoughts about this.
On the one hand, I can think of many ways the creative people who didn’t bend have benefited us. The art of the past 150 years would have been much poorer if the French artist Manet had stuck to subjects that the public and the tastemeisters approved of, instead of then-edgy shots of modern life such as “Olympia” (check out the book The Judgment of Paris for details). If Maya Lin had backed off from the shitstorm of hostility her Vietnam memorial triggered and compromised on something more conventionally memorialish, we’d be the losers. Sticking to their vision in the face of great odds produced greatness.
On the other hand, compromise isn’t the death of art. Almost all the great motion pictures of the 1930s and 1940s were compromised, in a sense: The studios told the directors what movies to work on, what stars they’d be using, assigned the writers; the writers could create a great script, then find it rewritten for one reason or another. Yet somehow greatness did result, repeatedly. The same compromises take place in theater and television in only slightly different ways (check out The Twilight Zone Companion for how much Rod Serling had to deal with).
Plus a great many talented artists-Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Dickens—wrote with money in mind at least as much as having their “vision” put into print (as TYG sometimes points out, Dickens got paid by the word, hence the length of his books).
I guess the long and short of it is, purity is commendable, but as a friend of mine says, if it takes a compromise to get your work before the public, that doesn’t condemn you to mediocrity (he specifically cites Ariadne Auf Naxos, a Strauss opera in which a clown troop and an opera company are forced to merge their performances to fit into a limited time slot).
Peter David, for example, started off in comic-books, later added Star Trek spin-off novels to his repertoire. Both those represent a compromise of sort—when you work with corporate-owned properties, you can’t do whatever you wish—but that didn’t stop him becoming a successful fantasy novelist as well. Successful fantasy and SF writers including Theodore Sturgeon, David Gerrold and Larry Niven have put time in writing TV scripts, which again, includes compromise (check out Harlan Ellison’s account of the classic Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever for how nutty it can get). So far as I know, none of them insisted every word be said exactly as they wrote it, and not even Ellison went around blowing up Star Trek sets (in contrast to Roark, who blows up one project when a friend welches on his promise to build it exactly as Roark designed it).
Certainly compromising can go south. If the money’s good, the temptation to stick with the low-hanging fruit rather than pursue your personal vision is tempting—not that I’d know personally, but I’ve read enough accounts to accept that it happens. And the market can be a lot more supportive of people who keep working within a limited range rather than someone who hares off after something completely new.
On the other hand, purity can go south too. It’s a short step to the idea that being successful proves you’re a sell-out (yes, I have seen that argument made). One of H.P.Lovecraft’s disastrous beliefs (from the point of view of professional success) was that writing with an eye to selling was degrading; you should write to please yourself, then if someone buys it, that’s just gravy. To think about the market meant lowering yourself and pandering to the common herd. Small wonder HPL didn’t become a success until he was dead.
And the illusion that your work is genius and that tampering with it is like putting charcoal on the Mona Lisa is seductive. Take the film Black Hunter, White Heart: The thinly fictionalized story of making The African Queen by the screenwriter came off as “How, I, the sensitive artist, struggled to save my beautiful script from a crass director.” Maybe it’s true, but the self-indulgent score settling annoyed the hell out of me.
Sometimes editing is good. Sometimes even talented visionary people need to make changes (The Great Gatsby underwent a lot of changes under the guidance of legendary editor Maxwell Perkins).
Sometimes it’s just a matter of money. Mystery writer Lawrence Block told a story in one of his writing-advice columns about an editor who wanted a minor scene, in which a woman goes to bed cuddling her pet python, rewritten (having a woman in bed with an animal was apparently a big no-no). Block said since he was being paid in the four-figure range, and it wasn’t essential to the plot, he did it. And apparently didn’t blow up the publisher’s office.
All things being equal, I’d prefer not to compromise. But let’s face it, how often are all things equal?
Ever see The Fountainhead?