Writing and the Art of the Gimmick

I was doing my weekend errands one recent Sunday afternoon when, as I was driving, I turned the radio to NPR for distraction. It was just in time to hear a report about a university (somewhere in the Midwest) that forces its faculty to justify their existence and their jobs and the continuation of their programs by putting them through a “lifeboat” debate. Once a year, representative members of each department gather before a large audience of mostly students to present arguments as to why the study of their subject is important enough to be saved, should a person be stuck on a lifeboat, fighting for one’s life. Based on the presentations, the students vote which subject stays. I’ve heard of many ways in which employees must justify their positions and the work they do, but this was rather unique, mainly because it sought to ask a significant question: what is so important about this or that discipline that a student should devote four years (and large sums of money) studying it?

What should have followed was a series of intelligent arguments from the faculty department representatives. Instead, what was presented by these highly educated people (according to the reporter) were a series of gimmicks. One member, for example, road in on a motorcycle, an Elvis lookalike, another ripped off his shirt on stage revealing a superman costume underneath. The only one to make a gimmick-free, intellectually cogent argument was the faculty member who played the Devil’s advocate. His advice to the students was that they should vote for none of the others because none of the representatives presented a compelling argument, but merely used gimmicks.

This got me thinking about how the use of gimmicks in every area of society have largely replaced intelligent discourse. A gimmick, by definition, is a device or scheme, which is not designed to convince intellectually, but to manipulate by appealing to a person’s emotions. The connotation is negative; magicians, for example, use gimmicks or tricks to deceive an audience.

Modern writers, too, have embraced the art of the gimmick in order to stand out from the million other writers who vie for the shrinking audience of readers and the ever more selective cultural gatekeepers – agents and traditional publishers. To get the attention of the gatekeepers, writers are told they need a perfect pitch, which is a very brief summary of the work that will entice, attract and otherwise seduce an agent or publisher to read further. The reality, however, is that complex and substantial works don’t readily lend themselves to such a distillation. Writers are also told that the opening of their work must “hook” the reader (and agent or publisher) immediately otherwise they will stop reading. The opening of Moby Dick – “Call me Ismael” comes to mind as probably the most famous hook-less line in all literary history. But then in Melville’s times the idea of the pitch, hook – or gimmick – to attract readers and agents was non-existent. It was assumed that a reader would read on, see the story through, let it unfold as naturally as life unfolded in those unhurried, technologically free days.

Present day writers have it harder. Everyone has a story to tell, whether it has anything important to say or not, whether the writer can really write well or not. In order to stand out from the millions who are shouting their stories into the universe, those that are heard are often those that have perfected the art of the gimmick.

In this I prefer my role as the Devil’s Advocate and as such I advise readers to vote for none of these. If ever they are stuck on a lifeboat with only one book I would hope that book says something important about important about the human condition and the universal issues that afflict us all and because of that, it is too complex to be reduced to a one line perfect pitch; I would hope that it’s secrets unfold as naturally as life, and is not wrapped up in one opening line. In short, I would hope that book has intellectual and artistic substance and is not a mere modern gimmick.

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