Forgive me for a moment while I discuss singer/songwriter/poet-of-the-damned Jewel.
I know, I know: You don’t paid enough to read this shit. Bear with me.
Jewel comes to mind partly because The Duchess, my formidable wife, forced me to watch the execrable Nashville Star this summer. What can I say? The Wife is powerful and scary and likes crappy TV. She even admits it’s crappy, in weaker moments, and does not care. Jewel was one of the judges on this show, and has a country-western album out this year. That’s right, country-western. Why? Because she’s flailing. Jessica Simpson is flailing too, and is also coming out with a CW album.
Jewel began her career as a folky/hippy type, with loose, acoustic folk songs. She stuck to that for a while, but her album sales dropped with each new release, so a few years ago she tried her hand at slinky pop songs like Intuition (a song I actually liked, and damn your eyes if you think that makes me lame). When this failed to launch her back into the pop stratosphere, she cast about for something else, and hit on country music. Why not? It has to sell better than her last platter.
Simpson’s in a similar pickle: Falling album sales, falling label interest–she’s got to find a gimmick to get her back, and she’s hoping the same people who bought so many Carrie Underwood CDs will buy hers too. They’re flailing. They have no artistic point of view, nothing sincere inside them. They’re just trying to chase trends to sell CDs.
Nothing wrong with that, though its 99% chance of failure ought to be intimidating. Most artists who flail like this just end up looking foolish.
One thing I understand about this is that flailing is hard to avoid sometimes, because success – on any level – is addicting. Once you’ve had some level of success, it’s difficult to sink back down to a lower level. If you’ve had a platinum album and been the darling of the media, it’s tough, five years later, to be a modest-selling small-timer. The temptation, when you smell the looming dead-rat stench of failure, to just flail about for anything that looks like it might save you from obscurity is pretty strong. I know, because I’ve imagined it myself.
Certainly it’s not like I’m at some lofty perch in the literary world. Most people don’t know anything about my writing. But I’ve done better than I had any right to really expect, considering my work ethic and general lack of common sense, and if I allow myself to start imagining going from being a published author with new books on the horizon to Jeff Somers, local hooligan who once had a few books, well, the temptation to look into the literary equivalent of Country Music is strong.
And it’s easy to imagine. My bookshelves are stuffed with SF/F books I bought in the 1980s while a tender youth. We’re talking trilogies, series of books published over the course of several years. And many of the authors on my shelves are now, as far as I can tell, nowhere to be seen. Take a fellow named Dennis McCarty, who wrote a series of books about a place called Thlassa Mey back in the 80s and 90s – five book in total (my memories of these books is poor, which doesn’t mean anything – my memory of everything is poor). Nowadays I can’t find anything about him at all via Google. Granted, that doesn’t mean anything beyond his lack of online presence, but if he was still publishing he’d be somewhere online, I think–if nowhere else, on Amazon. Apparently he published 5 fantasy books and then promptly disappeared, and he’s not the only example.
Of course, some folks may have died. Or found new careers. Or gone on to write the sorts of things I don’t pay attention to – who knows? But most likely, of course, is that their last books didn’t sell well, their publisher passed on their next idea, and that was That.
That’s the fate that makes you reach for your cowboy hat and boots. Resisting that urge to crap out and try to do something that matches up with the newest trends, whatever they are, or maybe try to write a – gasp! – children’s book, is difficult. At least until the next book contract comes through.
In the mean time, let’s take comfort in the lyrical wisdom of Jewel Kilcher:
Follow your heart
It will lead you in the right direction
Let go of your mind
It’s easy to find
Just follow your heart baby