Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Low Concept of High Concept

Well, doh! I've only just found out what 'high concept' means, though I guess if I'd known it was a marketing term I'd have twigged: it doesn't mean, as I thought, subtle and sophisticated, but quite the opposite: it means clear and simple in concept, as well as recognizable (which means I guess I misunderstood some of the discussion at the Huddersfield Literature Festival last week, where the term was used.) Here's a Waxman Literary Agency blogger writing about the fact that books need to be 'high concept' to sell:
For writers who are drawn to the obscure and the un-covered, who think “but no one has ever written about this! why write about things people already know?” I hear you–this feels remarkably like commercial pandering. But I would encourage you to think about three things: 1. it is all in the execution but no one will ever see your execution if your premise doesn’t catch their attention; 2. it’s hard to be attentive to things we don’t recognize on at least some level; and 3. who do you write for? If it’s for readers, think about it not as selling out, but about seducing people into your world, giving them a point of entry that lets them feel comfortable. High concept is all about the touch of recognition that makes readers ready to go along on your ride.
Well, this seems to me only sensible, as I've said on many an occasion, but there is one aspect of the Waxman blog post I find unsettling, which emerges in this sentence:
If the idea you're kicking around is really high concept, it should feel natural to come up with a one or two sentence affair that conveys the general premise of the work.
Run that by me again: If the idea you’re kicking around is really high concept. Ah, so it's not after all the pitch that has to be high-concept, as the blogger has up to this point been implying, but the original idea in the first place. And there are ideas that are intrinsically 'high-concept' and there are ideas that are not. It's not after all, a matter of 'seducing people' or 'giving them a point of entry' into something more subtle. It's not that, as I'm always saying, with clever marketing you can sell anything. Some ideas are just too subtle after all.

And we know where this can lead for fiction.
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