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Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is discourage people


Nice little piece in Paris Review about a young novelist who slips Philip Roth a copy of his first book while serving him coffee. Without reading the book Roth advises him to give up before it's too late. "I would say just stop now." He knows what heartbreak awaits the young novelist. Given the state of graduate unemployment nowadays Roth must get a box-fresh novel every time he goes into Costa. I'm sure he's not meaning to be hurtful. He may be trying to avoid being recruited to the young writer's team.

Even at my footling level I run a mile to avoid anyone who wants to give me their CD. I do that because I can't win. If I like it people expect me to somehow help them make it a success. If I don't like it I'm clearly a bastard. Furthermore there is no middle way between those positions. No matter what they say musicians do not want anyone's advice about how they might make their music better. They don't want it anymore than a mother wishes to learn how to make her children more appealing.

Back to Roth. Presumably he also reasons that anyone who is serious about being a writer isn't going to be put off by any discouraging advice he might offer. As Laurence Olivier told the young would-be actor, "if you're not an actor then you simply didn't want it badly enough."

I sometimes find myself facing classes of journalism students and having to mutter variations on "it was competitive when I got in this game but it's far more competitive now." People say to me I shouldn't be discouraging. But maybe a little discouragement isn't actually fatal. Furthermore, in weeding out the more easily discouraged I may be making things easier for the more deserving ones. Let's face it. For the last thirty years there's been an awful lot of encouragement around.

8 comments:

trenchardcleats said...

Ah yes, it is a double-edged sword with no hilt ... when ever people ask for my advice (and they know there's nothing I can actually do for them), I simply ask them whether they're sure. I only give one type of critique, and that's honest. Almost every student - whether musician or literary type - has ultimately appreciated it.
I once told a student he was a busker (and it was meant affectionately) and it caused him to abandon the search for guitaristic virtuosity (for which he was monumentally unsuited), and concentrate on his skills; songwriting, performing.
He told me this fifteen years later, while thanking me for being so apparently rude ...

Phil said...

I'd agree with Olivier's take. In any case, the whole notion of needing a leg-up from an established writer, musician or actor is surely outdated, these days. Giving away one CD or book might garner you a handful of fans; the DIY approach of posting it online could get you millions (see 'Gangnam Style' and 'Fifty Shades Of Grey'). But what kind of recognition is your budding author or muso looking for, anyway? Will we be still be singing Psy's hit in 2023? I doubt it. Instant success is one thing; longevity is quite another.

Wills said...

I'd encourage anyone who is creative and enjoys it to keep going. But I would advise them that the chances of making a living at what they love is probably nil.

In the old adage: "Don't give up your day job."

Nigel said...

Gangnam style had a huge Korean management company representing Psy (one of the top 3 certainly), whose had many hits in South Korea/Asia. I don't think anything in KPop is along the lines of DIY.

Nigel said...

(Forgive if this is a repost)
Psy is represented by a huge South Korean management company. They are certainly one of the top 3 in the country. They make Stock Aitken and Waterman look like DIY (that's the only UK reference I have, but I was in Seoul this summer). Nothing DIY about KPop.

Phil said...

Thanks, Nigel. I defer to your superior knowledge. So Psy is a poor example. But there are cases of online sensations where people achieve their fifteen minutes of fame by seemingly rejecting older methods of promotion. And if management teams are shrewdly jumping on this online bandwagon too, then this illustrates again how giving a CD to someone 'in the business' to put in a good word for you is a now pretty poor strategy.

bingojesus said...

Anyone remember Sandi Thom, one-time YouTube sensation whose success was apparently assured? Thought not. Widely touted 'viral sensation' The Arctic Monkeys, had a crack label team behind them.

You've only got to look at the BBC 'Sound of 2013' to see the effort that management and promotion companies put in to ensuring their acts are well-placed - none of those 'tipped for the top' are there because they slipped a CD to someone at Radio 1, they are there because of canny promotion and the critics' desire not to be the one who wasn't on the band-wagon when the self-fulfilling prophecy came true. "Self-fulfilling" because if you're a media player who (along with your fellow taste-makers) has publicly tipped Johnny and the Bluebottles for major success this year, you're going to do everything in your power (be that blog, radio, tv, print) to make that prediction come true.

bingojesus said...

Anyone remember Sandi Thom, one-time YouTube sensation whose success was apparently assured? Thought not. Widely touted 'viral sensation' The Arctic Monkeys, had a crack label team behind them.

You've only got to look at the BBC 'Sound of 2013' to see the effort that management and promotion companies put in to ensuring their acts are well-placed - none of those 'tipped for the top' are there because they slipped a CD to someone at Radio 1, they are there because of canny promotion and the critics' desire not to be the one who wasn't on the band-wagon when the self-fulfilling prophecy came true. "Self-fulfilling" because if you're a media player who (along with your fellow taste-makers) has publicly tipped Johnny and the Bluebottles for major success this year, you're going to do everything in your power (be that blog, radio, tv, print) to make that prediction come true.