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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.