For instance, I was talking recently to someone about all these superhero movies and how I thought it was a pretty big bet to make on the public’s continuing taste for movie after movie that’s exactly the same thing, and someone said to me. “Oh, Marvel is smart. They know exactly how to please their public.”
But I’m dubious.
You know what other company was smart? Pixar. They made movie after movie that was high quality, critically-lauded, and fantastically successful. For the first fifteen years of their history, every single movie they made (with the possible exception of Cars) received universal acclaim. But for the past four years, ever since releasing Toy Story 3, they haven’t gotten nearly the same reception. Their movies still make money and people still enjoy them, but they’re also not really exciting. It’s sort of the same old stuff. What’s changed?
Oh, you could go into Pixar headquarters and pick pick pick at the way they operate and come up with a dozen explanations for what changed, but the real problem was with your flawed assumptions.
There is an assumption in the world that just because someone (or some company) made one good thing, or a string of good things, then they’ll keep doing it.
But that is a false assumption. Because no one really knows what they’re doing. People can be really good at giving you more of the same, but no one is consistently good at giving you the thing that you don’t know you need.
Competence and skill are something that come into play when you’re dealing with craft: trying to produce a known thing in as good and efficient a manner as possible. A company can, for instance, consistently do the thing that it does. Amazon can consistently sell things to you cheaply over the internet. Apple can consistently sell you iPhones that are slightly faster and slightly larger. Hollywood can consistently give you a big superhero movie with lots of explosions.
But that’s not enough. Because eventually other people come along and produce that thing too, and the market gets glutted. Or maybe people just get tired of that thing and they want something new.
In order to stay successful, companies need to either cheat (by using unfair business practices or government intervention to give themselves a competitive advantage) or innovate.
But innovating is really hard. Vision is hard. And eventually whatever it was that allowed your company to innovate (and does anyone really know what that is?) will become dead and ossified.
It’s the same for authors. Few are the authors who keep producing great work. Most authors who produce one great novel will never produce another one. For instance, I just read Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. That was her first novel. After it, she wrote 22 more. None of them caught the public imagination to nearly the same degree. I don’t know, maybe they’re unfairly forgotten. Maybe there was brilliance in them. But maybe she just failed to innovate.
We read all these books on creativity, and we study the thoughts and techniques of great visionaries. And we try to pretend that there’s some secret to coming up with something new. And the truth is that there’s not. No one knows where ideas come from. We might be able to tell the good from the mediocre, but no one knows how to consistently separate the great from the mediocre.
There is no sureness. There is nothing but people trying and trying and trying and, sometimes, succeeding. But even that success carries a dark price. Because with success comes the flailing around for more success, and, often, that flailing devolves into self-imitation and, eventually, self-parody. Some authors manage to avoid that terminal mediocrity, but most don’t. And even the ones who don’t fall prey to it are, more than anything else, just lucky. There are plenty of authors who sit down every day and read lots and stay active and observe the world and avoid destroying themselves with alcohol and still find themselves unable to avoid the loss of whatever vision they might once have possessed.