The second system effect
Note: This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 14, 2015.
Why are second novels or movies so consistently underwhelming? Even if you account for such variables as heightened pressure, compressed turnaround time, and unrealistic expectations, the track record for works of art from The Postman to the second season of True Detective suggests that the sophomore slump, whatever it reflects, is real. For the economist Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, it’s a case of regression to the mean: any artistic breakthrough is by definition an outlier, since only exceptional efforts survive to come to light at all, and later attempts revert back to the artist’s natural level of ability. There’s also a sense in which a massive success removes many of the constraints that allowed for good work to happen in the first place. By now, it’s a cliché to note that the late installments in a popular series, from Harry Potter to A Song of Ice and Fire, feel like they haven’t been edited. It’s certainly true that authors who have sold a million copies have greater leverage when it comes to disregarding editorial notes, if they even receive them at all. Editors are as human as anyone else, and since commercial outcomes are such a crapshoot, you can’t blame them for not wanting to get in the way of a good thing. It didn’t hurt Rowling or Martin, but in the case of, say, the later novels of Thomas Harris, you could make a case that a little more editorial control might have been nice. And I’ve noted elsewhere that this may have more to do with the need to schedule blockbuster novels for a release date long in advance, whether they’re ready or not.
Yet there’s also a third, even more plausible explanation, which I first encountered in The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., a seminal work on software engineering. Writing about what he calls “the second system effect,” Brooks notes:
An architect’s first work is apt to be spare and clean. He knows he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he does it carefully and with great restraint.
As he designs the first work, frill after frill and embellishment after embellishment occur to him. These get stored away to be used “next time.” Sooner or later the first system is finished, and the architect, with firm confidence and a demonstrated mastery of that class of systems, is ready to build a second system.
The second is the most dangerous system a man ever designs. When he does his third and later ones, his prior experiences will confirm each other as to the general characteristics of such systems, and their differences will identify those parts of his experience that are particular are not generalizable.
Brooks concludes: “The general tendency is to over-design the second system, using all the ideas and frills that were cautiously sidetracked on the first one.” And it’s startling how well this statement describes so many sophomore efforts in film and literature. It’s the difference between Easy Rider and The Last Movie, Sex Lies and Videotape and Kafka, Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, in which a spare, disciplined freshman work is succeeded by a movie that contains everything up to and including the kitchen sink. When you first try your hand at any kind of storytelling, you discover that the natural arc of the project tends toward removal and subtraction: you cut, pare back, and streamline, either because of your natural caution or because you don’t have the resources you need. Every edit is necessary, but it also carries a charge of regret. If your constraints are removed for your second project, this only adds fuel to an artist’s natural tendency to overindulge. And while the result may be a likable mess—a lot of us prefer Mallrats to Clerks—it rarely exhibits the qualities that first drew us to an artist’s work. (Even in movies made by committee, there’s an assumption that viewers want a bigger, louder, and busier version of what worked the first time around, which leads to so much of the narrative inflation that we see in blockbuster sequels.)
So what’s an artist to do? Brooks has some advice that everyone trying to follow up his or her first effort should keep in mind:
How does the architect avoid the second-system effect? Well, obviously he can’t skip his second system. But he can be conscious of the peculiar hazards of that system, and exert extra self-discipline to avoid functional ornamentation and to avoid extrapolation of functions that are obviated by changes in assumptions and purposes.
Translated into artistic terms, this means nothing more or less than treating a second attempt as exactly as hazardous as it really is. If anything, the track record of sophomore efforts should make writers even more aware of those risks, and even more relentless about asking the hard questions after a big success has made it possible to stop. When Francis Ford Coppola followed The Godfather with The Conversation, it was both a regathering and an act of discipline—in a movie largely about craft and constraints—that enabled the grand gestures to come. Coppola certainly wasn’t beyond insane acts of overreaching, but in this case, his instincts were sound. And I have a feeling that a lot of writers and filmmakers, in hindsight, wish that they could have skipped their second system and gone straight to their third.