Dec 312016
 

I recently posted a negative review of a book that is, IMHO, bad. The author is well-known, especially for an earlier work that is very well regarded, and a commenter was wondering if they should bump it further back on their “to read” list based on the weakness of this latest work.

My short answer is No.

The longer answer is that for artistic (I) and business (II) reasons, (as well as some fears of my own (III)) it’s very hard to estimate how good one piece of art will be simply based on the fact that it was made by the same creator as a different piece of art.

I.

The artistic reason is because no one really knows what makes something resonate with people at the object level. There are a lot of hints and guidelines (“bleed onto the page”), but there is no way to evaluate a work and say “This will be known as a work of genius” short of releasing it into the wild and watching the results.

This is infuriating to artists (especially to those of us who equate love of our work with self-worth. It sucks to have your value as a human fluctuate based on criteria that are unknowable and spooky and seemingly random!) There is a famous story about Harlan Ellison that really demonstrates this. (I don’t have a cite, so consider it apocryphal until confirmed) He poured his soul into a story. It drew on everything that made him tick, so it’s hard to say how long he spent “writing” it, but in terms of working with ink and paper he spent weeks creating, revising, and polishing it, until it was perfect. It would be his masterwork, and he sent it to his publisher in the knowledge that soon his name would be cemented in SF history. That same night, he jotted off a quick story on a lark, to take a break from the serious writing, and sent that off the next day to a different market. The first story never gained any acclaim, no one remembers it, I don’t even know what it was called. The second story is “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” which is one of the best-known and most-reprinted SF short stories in the genre’s history.

And this sort of thing happens all the time. Every single writer in my Top 5 post has put out work that I considered sub-par, and in some cases just plain shitty. Even Vellum, which I can say probably makes up a portion of my soul, was followed-up by a sequel that was…. well, I basically just ignore that it exists. The same director that gave us Blade Runner (one of the best films to grace the screen) also gave us Prometheus (which I can’t bring myself to link).

Artists have an extremely difficult time seeing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to their own work. The fear is that this can result in great things being lost. My current go-to example is “The Fifth Season“, which is fucking amazing, and one of the best things I’ve read in at least two years. OMG it’s so good. The author, NK Jemisin, said in an interview (which I read myself, so True Fact) that she nearly threw out the entire manuscript because it was such a foaming pile of shit in her eyes that she couldn’t face putting her name on it. Her friends convinced her otherwise, and it made my year, and (perhaps more importantly) won the 2016 Best Novel Hugo. For this reason artists are told not to “self-reject.” The tragedy of a Fifth Season being lost is much worse than if a CrossTalk makes it into publication. Artists to encouraged to simply keep putting things out and let the public judge.

 

II.

The business reason is pretty straightforward. Once an artist does produce something truly amazing, they gain a fan base. Before this time, an artist is a financial risk. Editors and publishers look critically at all work from unknowns, and in theory only things of a certain minimum quality get through. There is a check on the worst stuff. Upcoming artists know this as well, and they often put a ton of effort and angst into making their work as good as it can possibly be. The Jinni And The Golem took the author seven years to write, which is a ridiculously long time. But it paid off.

Once a writer is an award-winning, best-selling author, these checks basically disappear. A publisher knows that the author’s next work will sell, period. An editor may still try their best to force improvements and changes, but the editor is employed by the publisher, and the publisher wants the next book without too much hassle, so they can make a profit. They certainly won’t accept a flat rejection from the editor. And the editor is under psychological pressure as well… they’re altering the work of an award-winning, best-selling artist. That likely causes them to overlook things simply because “maybe this is the new zeitgeist the author is tapping into,” or similar. Of course everyone involved wants the book to be GOOD! They have brands and reputations to maintain, and a good work sells better than a poor one. But the knowledge that this isn’t a major financial risk anymore, combined with the fact that no one really knows what’s good or not (as per Section I), means more mediocre stuff will get through.

 

III.

I also have a couple personal fears about causes behind this.

The first fear is that no one has more than one truly genius work inside of them. This is the terror that keeps me up at night. That everything that makes someone who they are can be best expressed in one ground-shaking work. Most people will never make their ground-shaking work. But some of them are lucky enough to make their Neuromancer or their Catcher In The Rye. And everything after that is simply chasing the dragon. It is riding on the glory of that first success. For some people this artistic climax doesn’t come until midway through their career, or maybe at the very end of it. For others it comes right at the start. I don’t know which is worse. If it comes near the start, then you can live off your art for the rest of your life, as your fans continue to buy the rest of your works. On the other hand, you will forever be striving to match that first incredible piece, and you will always fall short, for as long as you live. Oh god. :(

This is basically a “regression to the mean” effect, and one shouldn’t miss out on an artist’s fantastic outlier at their peak simply because later/earlier works have regressed to the mean.

The other fear is that art comes from pain. Once an artist puts out that big hit, they get acceptance, and love, and money, all of which make life suck less. Also they can often use that money to get therapy and become more complete and less-broken humans. Which also means they can’t put out work as good as they did when they were in pain. So, horrifyingly, the choice is between a good life or good art. :( Naturally, most people choose a good life.

 

IV.

So in summary, no, don’t bump something down a list just because other works by the same artist are kinda crappy. There isn’t much relation. You can certainly judge some things based on author… I’ve read a few things by Mira Grant, and despite her popularity, I really hate all of them. I will never read something she’s written again, unless I get a LOT of assurance from sources I really trust that this work is a break from the past, and actually is in-freaking-credible. And likewise, I’ll probably read everything Yudkowsky and Chiang ever put out.

But if you’ve heard a work is genuinely great, like The Doomsday Book is said to be, and it’s well-regarded by the community and/or people you trust, and it’s won awards… well, then it is very likely good, and don’t let future works affect your ordering.

 

  One Response to “The Non-Transferability of Artistic Success”

  1. Wow! Thanks. This is way more of a response than I could have reasonably expected. Seems like pretty in depth case for its position.

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