Friday, August 27, 2004

More thoughts on randomness

Six

In his book Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says ‘All my life I have suffered the conflict between my love of literature and poetry and my profound allergy to most teachers of literature and “critics”.'

The man has sound instincts, you see, not to mention a greater capacity than most of us for detecting bullshit.

Seven

Taleb makes the point that modern behavioural science demonstrates that our cognitive apparatus exerts far less influence over our actions than does our emotional machinery. He adds that this is a circumstance which we need to be more aware of, if only for our own protection.

In few areas of life is this problem more obvious than in the world of writing, where it is almost invariably the case that a writer will make her decisions on the basis of emotion rather than on a calm assessment of the facts. Among writers, hope, naivety, and blind optimism reign supreme.

The writing world is absolutely teeming with people who are filled with an alarming ambition to be rich, famous, and admired as a ‘leading writer of our time.’ (Quite why and how they have acquired this burning ambition is difficult to say, but it doubtless has something to do with the fact that (a) they are trusting souls who tend to believe what they are told, and (b) they have been told lots of things by teachers of Eng. Lit., who, it is well known, firmly believe that the world is flat, that the curve on the horizon is an optical illusion caused by your new glasses, and that the moon is made of green cheese. Cheddar, actually. The result of being taught by such people is normally a complete failure of the rational processes. Equivalent to an amputation of same.)

If our would-be writers were clear thinkers, they would take a hard look at the facts and conclude that their chances of success as a writer, on the scale which they envisage, are somewhat similar to the likelihood of their being kicked to death by a donkey on their next trip to the seaside. Success is remotely possible, in other words, but not very likely.

But ambitious young (and old) writers don’t assess the situation rationally, do they? As you and I know full well (in some cases from painful personal experience). No, all our ambitious young writers plough on regardless, wasting endless hours, expending vast amounts of emotional and intellectual energy, and not a little money, getting nowhere fast.

A writer who doesn’t think clearly is a writer who is going to get into a whole heap of trouble, and sooner rather than later.

Eight

Taleb is quite taken with the Greek philosopher Solon (known as the lawmaker of Athens, died 559 BC).

Solon makes the point that a success which is delivered by Lady Luck can also be taken away by luck (and often rapidly and unexpectedly at that). Once again, publishing and writing are two areas in which this is often demonstrated. A writer who has an early success, typically on the basis of an autobiographical novel, may subsequently have absolutely no real idea as to how that success was achieved, and may well struggle to repeat it.

If you want examples of such problems, writ large, consider the lives of Thomas Heggen and Ross Lockridge. Both of these men had massive successes with early novels, Mr Roberts and Raintree County respectively, and both had difficulty with going anywhere after that. Both men committed suicide. Their lives and deaths have been studied in some detail in John Leggett's Ross and Tom, and make sobering reading for anyone who is working on a novel. Perhaps, come to think of it, compulsory reading.

Conversely, good things which come with little assistance from luck are more resistant to randomness. So it pays to learn your trade. For instance, James Siegel, about whom I was less than enthusiastic yesterday, has at least this virtue: he has learnt his trade. He knows how he did it. Siegel could no doubt go on producing books like Derailed for as long as he can be bothered. In fact he could produce them for longer than he can be bothered, because the trend among successful writers these days is to sub-contract the tedious business of actually writing the book. Once you have a brand name, such as James Patterson, Lawrence Sanders, or V.C. Andrews, any skilled professional can produce another of the same, working to a template known as a ‘bible’.

I note that, in commenting on Fooled by Randomness (having first read the whole thing), I am still only on page 12. But you and I may both weary of more. We shall see.

6 comments:

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