Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Freedom and Power of Failure

Have you ever been to a freeform jazz concert, or maybe a Phish or Grateful Dead concert?  In these shows the artists give themselves license to play around and freely experiment on stage in front of a live audience.  The audience knows this going in, and understands that sometimes the experiment fails.  Sometimes the bass and drums just aren’t jiving with the lead guitar, and sometimes the modulation that one guy tried didn’t get matched right by the rest of the crew and the whole thing comes crashing to a halt.  Everyone takes a deep breath, shrugs, and then the show resumes with a new song.

That’s not the end of the story, though.  Because jazz fans are often jazz musicians themselves.  And sometimes a guy in the audience hears the glimmer of an interesting riff in the experiment that crashed and burned, and he takes that back to his garage studio and plays around with it a little more.  He might even do so subconsciously.  Maybe four bars wedged into the back of his mind and gestated for a week or so.  Then it crawls out during a Friday night garage jam session with his friends.  So they play with it, iron it out, smooth out the rough edges, and take it to their next show.  The next time they have a gig, they play “their” new song for an audience that falls in love with it.  This happens more often than you think.
It’s a lot harder for that magic to occur in the preparation of a big budget studio album.  It can only really happen in small venues where the stakes are lower.  But when it does, oh man, it looks and feels like magic.
Even more interesting, this constant churning and boiling and experimenting that occurs on stage and backstage can shift tastes on a national scale.  Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit smashed into the public’s consciousness like a hurricane, but it spun out of a Seattle music scene that had spent years grinding through a number of different sounds, styles, and iterations.  Had that song hit five years earlier, it may just have bombed, because it needed earlier, less successful, efforts in the grunge sound, to set the stage.  There are probably a number of other examples of cultures tucked into out of the way corners of the market detonating the establishment’s plans for future sound.  I’m not a music guy, so you’ll have to look elsewhere for those examples.
The recent democratization of publishing has changed the culture of literature such that it now operates the same way.  You’ve never needed the permission of record producers, and you’ve never needed to sell massive numbers of albums or travel the country to build an audience, to play in front of crowds.  You no longer need the permission of New York editors, and you don’t need to sell massive numbers of hard copies or do national book tours to get your writing in front of an audience.
As I said, I’m not a music guy.  I’m actually more of an internet nerd guy, so the culture that I’m more familiar with is the Chan culture.  By which I mean the anonymous websites where people are free to throw threads up on anything and everything.  A lot of it is simply dreadful, if not outright horrifying, but the good stuff gets shared and passed around, and the best of it even penetrates all the way to the public awareness.  (Why, hello there, Pepe!)  That Darwinian approach to ideas is an incredibly powerful thing.
Just as the failures in Seattle provided an incubator for the grunge sound, the chan culture provided an incubator for the strategies that made GamerGate an unmitigated success and even – if the chan’s press is to be believed – enabled the ascension of the God-Emperor to the Cherry Blossom Throne.  Sturgeon’s Law holds for music and for the chan’s.  We needed ten cities playing around with new styles of rock to generate one Seattle sound.  We needed ten thousand anonymous threads to generate the hundred or so brilliant ideas that paved the way for GamerGate to unleash the fatal combo on the press that left them ripe for the Trumpening.  And this is all coming from a guy who is not active on any of the chans.  I’m as normie as the come, and rely heavily on the weeding-out process to occur such that I’m far more familiar with the one success than the nine failures, both in music and internet rage comics.  As are most people.
And really, that’s the point of this post.  The freedom to fail gives creative types the power to create.
That holds true for music.  And for memes.  And for writing.
For a long time, writers did not have the freedom to fail.  Gatekeepers held them out of the market and prevented their voices from ever having a chance.  But those days are done.  Now, the bulldozed barriers to entry facing writers had created the same culture in literature as already existed in music and meme magic.
Today, writers can whip up a story, throw it into the mix, and maybe they pull a Neimeier, make solid money in sales, and even win a prestigious award.  We read about those successes all the time.  But what happens if a writer fails?  Well then…meh.  They’ll be forgotten and no one will care.  But the act of failing does a number of very important things:
  • It gives the writer a chance to try, fail, learn, and get better.  It offers the writer a chance to see what works and what doesn’t, and since the experimenting doesn’t cost all that much, there’s no reason not to keep on doing it.
  • It gets the ideas out there, like a jazz riff, that some other writer might pick up and play with it.  It allows other minds to pick up the notes, smooth out the rough edges, and build something even better.
  • Those combined help push the general culture in a direction that it never could under the old centrally planned autocratic culture.  Even the failures help move things along – we could never find the one success if we didn’t have the nine failures to lead the way.
This power that arises from the freedom to fail is an amazing thing.  It’s a deadly threat to the gatekeepers, because it means that even the clumsy voices are pushing back against their plans.  It means even books and stories that sell five or six copies are moving the culture in a direction that the gatekeepers didn’t pre-ordain.  That’s got to scare the hell out of them.

At the end of the day, this amazing power of failure means that there really are NO failures.  There are only varying degrees of success.  If you throw a title down on Amazon and sell a dozen copies, you didn't have no effect, you just added your voice and your vote to the conversation.  You just struck a blow for what you believe, for what you think should be in the market, and maybe only a few people immediately agree.  But maybe you planted a mustard seed.  Regardless, you just added - you had an effect.  It's an amazingly liberating feeling. 

If you take away only one thing from this post - take that.  Everything helps.  Every little straw aids in breaking the back of the jackasses who don't like your taste, who don't like your works, and who don't like you.

This is the reason that even a Pulp Revolutionary like myself loves the New Pulp and the Sad Puppies and the Superversives and Chuck Tingle and the Blue Sci-Fi Crowd and the half dozen movements that I haven’t even heard of yet.  They are all a part of this grand and glorious soup that will allow the literary version of Curt Cobain to splatter the contents of his mind all over the bathroom wall of the market.  And that literary version couldn’t hope to pull the trigger on his ideas if the rest of us weren’t out there jamming on the Amazon stage, playing with themes and ideas and word riffs and moving the culture away from New York City and towards something bigger, better, more creative, and maybe even a little bit grungy.



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