While watching the film Howl, which recounts the landmark freedom of expression trial of beat poet Allen Ginsberg over his poem by the same name, it suddenly occurred to me that I was watching a movie made in 2010 about a poem written in 1957. In terms of creating a sustainable revenue stream, it seems Howl did pretty well for itself.
In the film, prosecuting attorney Ralph McIntosh attempts to prove Howl as obscene on the major premise that the poem could not be considered literature, because analyzing the merit of a new literary work required the ability to sift its contents through the historical lens of currently accepted forms.
Those on the pro-censorship side of the argument believed the poem did not have literary merit, because it did not appear to have an explicit connection to other forms. It was filthy for the sake of being filthy. Defense attorney Jake Erlich counters on the basis that it is impossible to make that judgment—he cites Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which made no explicit connection to previous forms either, as an example.
The judgment ultimately doesn’t matter—the fact that Howl’s obscenity was debated so hotly, and the producer felt a poem created in 1957 is relevant to 2010 is indicative of a more important takeaway. Howl’s controversial content captures an essential pattern native to all enduring literary works—the ability to capture and leverage latent societal sentiment to fuel content that endures the test of time, by freeing people to express themselves similarly within the new boundaries created.
Followers echo these new sentiments and explore these new boundaries until others develop a latent desire to shift the conversation. In the case of Howl, Ginsberg captured and exploited society’s latent need for frank, even vile, self-expression. And, this is what seminal literary works have always achieved. Since books are ultimately products, this begs the question—can this endurance theory be applied successfully to create perennial products? In our current age, innovation has become many things, ranging from a merely obnoxious buzzword for many, to the harbinger of sustained business success for others. But, for those that successfully innovate, the primary question is almost always one of how to sustain it.
I believe product innovations, in much the same way as literary innovations, emerge from a societal context. Take SMS messaging for example. Text messages were enabled by a technical innovation—but, I would argue, were ultimately adopted because of the latent sentiment they captured in terms of allowing people a quicker, more passive way of communicating with each other. If you doubt that statement is true, look at what followed: social media sites who leveraged this sentiment and took it a step further to provide constant passive connectivity. From Myspace to Facebook to Twitter—they are all working within a context initiated by SMS.
So, with anecdotal evidence of a strong parallel—let’s turn back to examining the sentiment pattern further in literature. Literature conveniently lends itself as a pure testing ground because literary evolution does not historically depend on technology (except for key technical advancements in printing and distribution methods)–allowing us to isolate literary form and function as the primary variables in successfully leveraging sentiment. And, we need not look further than the foreword of any perennial text. Consider, for example, the way Ovid’s masterpiece, Metamorphoses, emerged as one of the most enduring literary works of all time– as discussed in Robert Squillace’s forward to the poem:
(The intent is to examine key fragments and phrases from the text to tell the contextual story from Squillace’s introduction in as few words as possible. Rather than story-specific details, key into how Ovid’s Metamorpheses signaled impending change by creating a bold contextual narrative through his use of form, then captured and shifted the latent sentiment.)
On the structure of Metamorphoses:
One can hardly take [Ovid’s previous works], then as harbingers of the Metamorphoses…Epic poetry was written in hexameter lines (six feet per line), while elegies were composed in distichs (paired lines)…If the fact that Ovid composed an epic at all is surprising, that the epic he composed was like no other is not…Ovid rejects much of what had previously seemed the defining characteristics of the genre…the Metamorphoses is all digression, with no one character, theme, or issue unifying the whole except for the motif of transformation itself.
On the unlikely success of Metamorphoses in spite of Ovid’s exile:
Having somehow gotten itself written, the Metamorphoses might have flickered back out of existence almost at once; Ovid was exiled by the emperor Augustus from Rome…All the poet’s works were banned from Roman public libraries, and important means of distribution and preservation of manuscripts.
On the political sentiment Ovid captured and shifted:
The fundamental opposition between [Ovid and Emperor Augustus’] outlooks…is clear enough….each envisioned the idea of order in an entirely different way, a disparity that parallels the manner in which Ovid reorganized the genre of epic in opposition to his poetic forebears…to identify Augustus with repressive, totalitarian control and Ovid with anarchical subversion of all authority, poetic as well as political, would caricature their positions. Augustan order…was a surprisingly informal affair…The senate continued to meet for generations, though its role and influence…differed from one regime to the next…[Post Metamorphoses] the imperial era saw a rapid extension of Roman citizenship…and a relative improvement in the still-miserable conditions of slave life.
But the purpose of Augustan order, to mitigate or even suppress the danger personal desire poses to the smooth conduct of public life, sorts very ill with the themes of Ovidian poetry. The Metamorphoses in particular not only identifies desire as the sovereign power of the universe, but does so within the framework of a genre, epic, traditionally used to celebrate the triumph of “masculine” restraint over “feminine” desire; he thus implicitly challenges the imperial and epic visions simultaneously. The Metamorphoses…declares its suspicion of the power of restraint, and even of power itself…[and Ovid’s vision] of the Golden age [was echoed by Shakespeare] in Gonzalo’s famous speech about humanity’s natural innocence in…The Tempest, and Camoes…quotes it…in Lusiads…
On the way Metamorphoses allowed future artists to express themselves within the boundaries created, and cyclical nature of continued conversation about the poem:
…the Metamorphoses endured and even flourished…it’s versions of the myths it recounts became their standard Western forms…due to their dispersal throughout Europe in, of all places, the monastic libraries of the Middle Ages…Medieval commentators found ways to accommodate Ovid’s appealing distrust of earthly power to Christian morality…
…Shakespeare almost certainly learned the technique of his Soliloquies from the interior monologues of [Ovid], and images from the Metamorphoses stocked the canvases of innumerable artists…The vigor, humor, and invention of the poem…appealed to all audiences until the end of eighteenth century…when its arbitrary and idiosyncratic transitions from tale to tale [answered] poorly to the Romantic [era’s] demand for organic unity…until very recently, [when] the renewal of academic attention the poem received in the 1990’s rivaled or exceeded any of the past century.
On the further conclusions to be drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
In singing the tale of ceaseless change, of course, Ovid implicitly raises the question of his own relevance to readers of a later time. Over the nearly 2,000 years since the appearance of the Metamorphoses, the plan of the poem itself inspires one to ask if the ceaseless flow of cultural change has left Ovid’s magnum opus a bare and sterile field…While the Metamorphoses may demand more work from a modern reader…in other ways, compared to [the authors of Greek epics]—Ovid stands almost in our midst…Ovid draws remarkably close to the present world in his central themes, concerns, and methods of narration. We, too, live in a world where consciousness of ceaseless change is inescapable. Indeed, such a state of uncertainty has often been thought to define the modern condition. Everything old is new again; Ovid not only perceives the instability of all relations and structures (whether social or natural), he also recognizes that the widespread presence and preservation of the past tends to blur the distinction between past and present…Conversely, the sort of culture a historical consciousness produces will perceive the present as the outcome of decisions, precedents, and circumstances hundreds or even thousands of years past. Fashion models, supposedly the most modish of creatures, are frequently styled to allude to the look of Marilyn Monroe, of Louise Brooks, or even of Nefertiti, whose famous bust, found in an Egyptian tomb of around 1340 B.C.E, inspired a recent L’Oreal ad.
So, how do we distill Ovid’s approach into a winning product strategy?
1. Understand how sentiment works.
Unlike the straightforward trajectory of technology, sentiment is cyclical. Had anyone ever used the words Ginsberg used in a poem? No, but the desire to self-express, the desire for frank communication—these sentiments will always exist, and they will always be waxing or waning along the same spectrums. Had anyone ever blended the form of epic narrative with a stream of consciousness style? No, but Roman society’s desire to shed the formality of it’s current government was palpable. Once a critical mass of people such as Ginsberg and Ovid choose to frankly express themselves, people inherently grow tired of the change they so eagerly welcomed, and wonder what was so shocking and pleasing about such expression in the first place. And while Ovid’s Metamorphoses fell in and out of relevance over it’s 2,000 year life, it remains relevant because capturing sentiment sealed its place in history.
2. Find the pulse.
Look to modern literary innovators and the modern conversation to capture the sentiment of the times. Do a lot of listening, reading, and observing. Search out the fringes of public opinion to get a sense for what could happen next, and listen to the people others brand as radical–they are either before their time, or lack the voice to make the statement you are going to make. You don’t necessarily have to say it first–just say it best. And, if you are bold enough to say it best, be prepared to defend yourself.
3. Pick your battle.
Whether Ovid was openly upset by Augustan rule and the pseudo-authority of the senate, or the muse uncovered his own deep emotions during the writing process, the themes and ideas Ovid was attacking were clear enough to the audience that, even when cloaked in metaphor and poetic style, the public understood what was being attacked, and at the very least, agreed that it was a divisive issue. Sure, the poem was layered with other complex themes, but the dominant issue was clear.
4. Create a signal.
Explicitly, Ovid had the fame and method (literature) to be widely heard. But, implicitly, with his use of digressive structure and disunity, Ovid created a bold signal that quickly gained attention and got people talking. This, of course, had the potential to distract from his message. But, in this case, Ovid’s style aligned with the themes he was speaking about, and this style enabled the signal to work as an amplifier, rather than a distraction.
5. Make a bold stand at the right time.
Had Ovid waited to publish Metamorphoses, he may not have ended up in exile, but Metamorphoses also might not be remembered as the poem that ushered in a new Roman order either. For early movers, the right time is typically a little bit before anyone expects it. Too early, and nobody is prepared to follow. Too late, and you are just another one on the bandwagon.
6. Don’t respond with dilution.
Ovid was unapologetic about his position. Unless you have made a genuine mistake, defend your product until the end. Building products around sentiment is not about consensus building; it’s about making a stand that others can identify with. Don’t apologize for seeing the world the way you do, or creating products based on that view. Stay true to who you created it for. Focus on those people. Never respond to criticism by diluting the original message. Take pride in the heavy response–for better or worse. This is how enduring ‘cult’ products are born–whether you create poems, or Ipads.
Have you ever examined the underlying social implications of your innovation? Have you ever considered the way your innovation emerges from the modern social context? Do you see now how capturing latent sentiment might give your products an enhanced position in the broader social context, in a way that brings endurance to your product lifecycle? Is the connection between literary and product innovation apparent? Will you decide to pay attention to the conversation now? Will you use it to create perennial innovations?
Ovid’s Metamorphoses (w/forward by Robert Squillace)
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl