On Risk

Originally posted 8/1/11

A while ago, a friend of mine made a comment about one of his formerly favorite bands, and it's stuck in my head for a while now. Honestly, it's been so long that I can't even remember which band he was talking about, but the bottom line is that he had previously worshipped the ground they played on, but then he got their new album and he really, really hated it. He said the new album was so incredibly bad (so unforgivably bad) "that it makes me reassess their earlier work." In other words, he was realizing that maybe those earlier albums, which he had once raved about, and which had been the very soundtrack of his life for a few years, were actually bad, simply because their new one was bad.


This was maybe a year after my first novel had been published, an experience which forever changes the way one feels about book reviews, movie reviews, the online reviews of kitchen products, blog posts about that one restaurant with the one waitress who was a total bitch that night because she forgot to put my salad dressing on the side, etc. So maybe I was feeling a tad over-vulnerable, and over-defensive about artists being knocked, and over-protective of my friend's formerly favorite band. (Whom I'd never really dug much, actually.)

But I started thinking: Even if the new album is the worst album my friend had ever heard, and even if he felt a sense of profound, even personal disappointment (as if he was let down not by some musicians he'd never met but by one of his own friends, or as if he'd been cheated on by his girlfriend), why does that have to alter his feelings about their earlier albums, which he'd always loved? Those albums haven't changed. They're still awesome (or at least, as awesome as he'd always thought of them as being). Why does he feel the sudden need to "reassess" them?

Because here's the thing: I think we want to think of our favorite bands, and writers, and directors, and athletes, as perfect. I still remember when I was in high school and I was in a big, big U2 phase, I liked them so much that I'd blow $12 on a UK import of one of their singles, just so I could get the one or two rare B-sides that came with it. These were tracks that they hadn't put on their album, or released in the US, but still I had to have them. And I listened to them, and ... they weren't very good. And I found my opinion of the cherished U2 lowering a bit. OK, the band was still great, but it's not like every time they plugged in their instruments they created perfection. Some of their songs were just ok. The lads were smart enough to keep those songs off their albums and use them as B-side fodder, yes, but still. Those inferior songs were proof to me that the band wasn't perfect. Which was disappointing to discover.

So it's all the worse when your favorite writer/artist/director tosses out a bad follow-up album/novel/movie. It proves to us that they are human. They make mistakes. But does it mean that their earlier successes weren't actually successes at all? Just because they aren't successful <em>all the time</em>?

The reason, I would submit, that a work of art succeeds is because the artist takes risks. My friend dug that band's first two albums because he'd never heard anything like it; they melded various sounds together in a new way, they took their listeners to a bold new place. I feel the same way when I crack open a great novel by a writer I've never read before, or an amazing film. We want our artists to take risks, to tread on new ground, to avoid playing it safe. We hate it when someone plays it safe and writes the same damn book over and over, or records the same album three times. Where's the sense of adventure, we ask? It all feels too ho-hum. We want another bold leap forward.

But risks, by their very definition, are incredibly likely to fail. Sometimes when the artist takes another risk, it works yet again (wow! even better than their first!) but sometimes, yikes, it's a risk that just doesn't pay off. It doesn't mean their earlier work was worse than we realized. It just means that the odds got them this time, and that our romanticized version of the artist as perfect is being replaced by this unfortunate glimpse into the sausage-making process of art, which ain't always pretty.

And am I thinking of this now because I'm about to publish a book that takes a lot of risks? That is in many ways quite different from my first two? That combines various elements that aren't normally placed in the same narrative? Perhaps. Of course, I happen to love the darn thing, and I think it's a lot closer to perfect than sausage. (Though I do like sausage.) No doubt someone else might feel differently, and they'll be so enraged by the new risks that they'll think maybe my first two books weren't as good as they thought. Well, maybe they weren't. But it's my job to test out that tightrope, so I'll continue to do so, one imperfect step at a time, hoping as usual that someone's holding the net.