Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Even more thoughts on randomness

You probably thought that we were through with thoughts prompted by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s extraordinary book Fooled by Randomness. But you’re wrong. Here's some more.

Twelve

Taleb expresses, very sensibly in my view, a preference for distilled thought over newer thinking. Thought distilled, that is, by the passage of time. If an idea has survived for a good many years, say a few centuries, it is likely that it is a relatively good idea; noise, so to speak, has been filtered out; the idea has been tested and not found wanting.

After making this point, Taleb goes on to argue that, by contrast with distilled thought, the information which the modern media provides, in an unending stream, is not just (generally) diverting and useless, but it is also toxic. And he recommends that anyone involved in decision-making under conditions of uncertainty should ensure that he or she has minimal exposure to the media which pump out this unending stream of trivia. Instead, they should concentrate on ideas and information which have withstood the test of time.

Now. It is beyond doubt that publishing editors who have to select books for publication are decision-makers (either individually or collectively) who are operating under conditions of uncertainty. What could be more uncertain than the actual reception, by public and critics, of that much-hyped masterpiece about which even its author may have a few secret doubts? And who can possibly be certain about that sure-fire winner which has been persuasively put forward by the chairman’s wife because it was written by her nephew's girlfriend?

Question. How many of such decision-making editors do you think actually observe Taleb’s dictum, and seek consciously to isolate themselves from the constant flow of media babble? And how many do you think adopt the reverse policy, and consciously and deliberately immerse themselves in the latest best-seller lists, the witty repartee on Richard and Judy, and even – heh heh heh – the occasional blog?

Is it any wonder that the book trade experiences a few problems?

Thirteen

Consider the lot of the as-yet-unpublished writer. And there are an awful lot of them whose lot we ought to consider.

An as-yet-unpublished writer is forced, of necessity, to submit her work to agents, because publishers won't look at a ms from any other source. The chances of being noticed by an agent are possibly 1 in 500. I have a note in the file of a Curtis Brown person – possibly the amazing Geller – who was sent 1200 unsolicited mss in one year, and took on 2 new clients. The last time I had lunch with Al Zuckerman he told me that he was being sent, on average, 35 novels a day.

It follows, as dogs follow a bitch in season, that an as-yet-unpublished writer is going to receive an awful lot of rejection slips. If she’s lucky. If she’s not lucky the ms will get lost. Or held on to for 15 months. And this experience is not going to fill the writer with positive emotions. On the contrary, she is pretty soon going to feel bitter, angry, and frustrated. She will, ere long, come to recognise the truth, namely that success in this game is not determined by talent, hard work, good looks, or even knowing the right people (though all might help a bit). No, what determines success (initially in the sense of an agent being willing to talk to you) is the random working of a factor which some call luck, chance, fate, happenstance, or whatever.

And after a while, the contemplation of this randomness will generate a kind of emotional burnout, a corrosion of the soul, when the writer realises that she has expended a vast amount of time and effort to no good purpose. That publishing, in short, is ‘not fair’.

Taleb points out that highly negative experiences (of which the rejection of one's novel is a prime example) have an effect on the mind and body which exceeds (by an estimated magnitude of 2.5) the positive effect of a good experience. So, if, after 15 submissions, our writer actually gets an agent to give her the time of day (which is in itself most unlikely and indicates nothing in particular) then our writer will still be left in emotional deficit.

And this is not a trivial matter. The first sentence of my book The Truth about Writing declares that ‘Writing can seriously damage your health.’ Which I firmly believe to be true. And Taleb reminds us that:
People in lab coats have examined some scary properties of this type of negative pangs on the neural system (the usual expected effect: High blood pressure; the less expected: Chronic stress leads to memory loss, lessening of brain plasticity, and brain damage).
Still wannabe a writer? If so, don’t say I didn’t warn you about the potential hazards.

Fourteen

My own conclusion, after reading Taleb, is that the wise writer is one who assumes, from the outset, that the end result of his work will be complete failure in every respect. Because that is the most likely outcome.

It so happens that, more as a result of many years of bad experiences than through any sensible thinking on my part, I pretty much came round to that point of view about ten years ago. And believe me, it was much to my advantage that I did so.

For example. About four years ago I came home from a holiday to find about six messages on my answerphone from a theatre producer in New York. She had read a copy of my play Artists and Models, and she had read 200 other scripts, looking for something suitable to produce, and mine was the best. By far.

In tones of increasing anxiety, over the six or seven calls, the producer begged me to contact her. It was important. Time was of the essence. She wanted to put on my play in September. (It was then August.) There was a slot. She had been auditioning the cast. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Now, had I been 25 years old, or even 45, I might well have rejoiced somewhat. I might have assumed, not unreasonably, that this was my lucky day.

As it was, hardened by exposure to years of randomness, I more or less shrugged my shoulders. I have learnt, the hard way, that the only time to believe anything about a theatrical production is when you’re in the car, on the way home, after seeing it.

So, I got in touch with the New York lady, and had a few conversations with her. But no, of course it never happened.

Another example. Two years ago I published a novel through my own small press. I faxed every film producer in town, asking if they wanted to read the novel, and the detailed film treatment which I had also completed. Four or five producers asked me to send both novel and treatment. After receiving my package, two of the producers replied promptly, indicating that they were very enthusiastic. One of them phoned me several times.

Did I, ladies and gentlemen, open the bottle of champagne which sits under the stairs? No, sir and madam, I did not. Because I knew very well, after many years of experience in the business, that enthusiasm and kind words come cheap. Film options, on the other hand, even modest ones, cost money, and they require the initial enthusiast to convince his partners.

Nothing happened. Of course. I didn’t expect it to. But it was worth a try.

Fifteen

Taleb points out that, at the age of 16, he was dumb enough to buy Manhattan Transfer, by John Dos Passos, because the jacket revealed that Jean-Paul Sartre had claimed that Dos Passos was ‘the greatest writer of our time.’

Sartre, suggests Taleb, may not have been entirely sober at the time.

But there is another explanation, which those more familiar with publishing will already have thought of. Namely that Sartre and Dos Passos shared the same publisher. An editor had probably phoned Jean-Paul and asked for a quote. And Jean-Paul had probably said, Yeah, yeah. Anything, so long as I don’t actually have to read the fucking thing.

This is what Taleb calls survivorship bias. And it is visible, in the publishing world, in terms of reviews. The reviews that survive, i.e. get quoted in publicity, are the good reviews. Sometimes it’s just a few words, such as ‘an excellent thriller’. The actual review probably read: ‘Clapham and Irons claim that this is an excellent thriller. They must be joking.’

Sixteen

Clarification.

Just so’s you don’t misunderstand me, or Taleb.

Taleb insists that he is not saying that every rich man is an idiot who just got lucky, and that every unsuccessful person is just unlucky. He is only saying that, in the absence of much additional information, it is safer to reserve one’s judgement about the causes of success and failure. Randomness, in the absence of other evidence, is the most convincing explanation of any particular instance.

So, in relation to publishing:

I am convinced that, for as-yet-unpublished writers, success, however defined, is the result of randomness. The writing and publishing whirligig is, if you will, a lottery.

But of course, to win the lottery you have first to buy a ticket. And the price of the ticket in writing/publishing is that you should first have produced a publishable book, which is capable of impressing at least somebody. Which is not at all an easy thing to do. There are many cases on record of writers who have written three or four novels before they produced one which even they thought was up to scratch.

The problem is, of course, that producing a publishable book is not sufficient, in and of itself, to get you an agent. If you have an agent, being publishable is not sufficient, in and of itself, to get you a contract. If you ever appear in print, it is not sufficient to get you reviewed, favourably or otherwise; and it is certainly not sufficient to ensure that you will receive the kind of word-of-mouth buzz which, in the absence of a massive publicity budget, is the only thing which is going to achieve lift-off.

What happens after success is achieved is, of course, subject to a phenomenon called hindsight bias. In retrospect, it seems perfectly obvious that Harry Potter should be an enormous success. It’s just that no one was able to see this when it was just a pile of paper. To that extent, therefore, all success for as-yet-unpublished writers is the result of randomness.

And, since randomness is not something which you can influence, all writers should learn to be relaxed about the situation.

Ah! If only they could!

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