Response Crafting

When something “great” isn’t good

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Imagine sitting down at a classy restaurant and the waiter slides a juicy steak in front of you. Several of your friends had recommended this place, so you can hardly cut the meat fast enough to get that medium-rare beauty into your mouth. But as soon at it hits your tongue, it’s bitter. And tough. Stringy with tendons. Dirt crunches between your molars as your gag reflex makes your stomach heave.

Sweat beads on your forehead, but you keep chewing because you remember that several food critics have described this as one of the most important steaks of the twentieth century. But after a few minutes of hopeless chomping, you lean over your plate and spit out the slimy wad of flesh. You cut off pieces from different ends of the steak hoping for something palatable, but it’s all the same—maybe even a little worse. Hours later, as you look down at a plate of chewed-up meat, you realize you should’ve bought the steak second-hand off Amazon and saved a few bucks.

This obviously does not paint a very appealing picture. And yet this is precisely how some products – many of them “highly esteemed” – make their audiences feel.

The response quoted above was actually the reaction one reader had to William S. Burrough’s book Naked Lunch, a piece which has been called “one of the most important novels of the twentieth century, a book that redefined not just literature but American culture” – as well as “extremely controversial in both its subject matter and its use of obscene language,” with a writing style that, given the nature of the book, is fundamentally difficult to follow. Despite its “literary acclaim” and “cultural importance,” countless readers have come away from the text feeling, as our quoted reader, Dave Reuss, did: confused, repulsed, offended and frustrated.

There are, of course, a few people who side with “the experts” in loving the book. But for the most part, people find it unpalatable; tough. Some reviewers on Amazon admit that they “didn’t get some of it,” while others warn “you’ll have to read it 6-8 times and you still might not understand it,” And yet, for over fifty years, readers continue to try to muddle through it. Why? Because we continue to hear – and tell others – how “great” it’s supposed to be.

This is not necessarily how we want creative work to be received. It really goes back to the argument of “what is ‘good?'” and who is this really for?” Because while the fellow designer may celebrate your work or your writing may receive acclaim in the literary world, this does not necessarily mean that your work offers real meaning to the layman, who instead is left feeling left out. Maybe this doesn’t matter to you. (I’m sure Burroughs didn’t necessarily care.) But if it does – if delivering a good product to the market at large is important – it is equally important to make your work appealing, accessible, and, yes, appetizing. It should be agreeable; believable. When it comes to a “market” product, the last thing you really want is a market that comes away wondering, “was it just me… or was that emperor wearing no clothes?

In other words, as Reuss puts it: “if someone tells a joke and nobody but the person who told it gets the punch line, is it still a joke?… I’m not advocating that work be dumbed down so everyone can easily understand it, but if you’re the only one laughing at your jokes… you might need to modify your routine.”

That, or run the risk of nobody – save the lone “expert” in the back of the room – applauding it.


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