The myth of finite goodness
Recently, a friend pointed me to a quip from a source I know (from observation) to be all talk, and no walk. One of those chaps who spends all his time jabbering about writing, publishing, The Art, ad nauseum, but he never actually manages to finish or publish much. I suspect he’s far more in love with the idea of being perceived as a Serious Author, than he is with actually telling stories to entertain people. So I tend to ignore him. But when I looked at this latest assertion, I knew it had to be countered. Because he was making the same asinine claim that many before him have also made: that there is a finite pool of “good” prose in this world, and that increasing the total number of writers actively publishing, somehow dilutes or obscures this “good” prose. Unsaid: therefore, it’s bad that we have so many people writing and publishing.
You will usually see this argument trotted out by self-appointed critics and aesthetes who believe that their personal taste becomes objective fact for the rest of us. These critics typically bemoan the overwhelming tide of “bad” writing that is endlessly swamping the scene, thus condemning true literary gems to obscurity.
Folks, don’t buy it. It’s bullshit.
The truth is that we are in the midst of a literary renaissance. There are now more people putting out more books and stories — across a broader range of tastes and interests — than ever before in history. The birth of viable indie publishing has allowed the fiction market to explode with variety. Is all of it stellar? That depends on what you like. Not everything is going to be to your taste. Nor will everything entertain you. But not everything has to entertain you, for it to entertain somebody else. Consumers are no longer dependent on the “deciders” of traditional publishing. The creator can meet the consumer in the common square of the marketplace, sans filter. This means readers now have more choices, and there is more business being done reader-to-author, than at any time since the printing press revolutionized European publishing in the 15th century.
What I think the dimwittedly pretentious chap (noted above) is on about, is the fact that people like him no longer have the power they once enjoyed — to choose for us what is “good” and what is “bad” in the fiction world. The “deciders” have seen their influence drastically diminished. We’ve entered a period of unrestricted, often chaotic growth, combined with unrestricted, often chaotic innovation. And the literary cognoscenti are positively perturbed about the whole thing.
How will they ever be able to protect the masses from “bad” fiction, if the ability of publishers and critics to gatekeep the literary world, is eroded or offset? The “deciders” are unused to asserting themselves in a fluid environment where most of the old rules have been challenged — if not outright destroyed.
Now, more than ever, story is king.
Not style. Not flowery word-masturbation. Not “relevance” according to a specific social or political algebra.
What makes a good story? Readers know it when they see it.
Story. Can you tell a good story? Can you make people turn the page without thinking, because they’re caught up in the world, people, and events you have created? Can you propel them all the way to The End, and leave them desiring more?
Your stories won’t work for everyone. They may not even work for a handful. Decade after decade of writers — laboring under the old system of gate-kept publishing — beat their heads against the wall, trying to discern the scientific formula for coming up with broadly-appealing stories that would work for a broad audience, every time out of the box. At best, their goal was like a mirage, ever-receding on the horizon. Because what worked in one instance for one author, failed for another. Or, having succeeded with one path, an author finds diminishing returns if (s)he attempts to re-travel that same path, over and over again.
Your best bet is to simply keep making new stuff. Productivity. New books, new stories, on a regular basis. Try new things. Go in new directions. Explore new genres. Which means flagrantly violating the warnings of the stuffed shirts who fear that the “good” books and stories are being washed away by a tsunami of crap.
Now, the stuffed shirts aren’t 100% wrong. There is a sliver of truth to their complaint. A lot of things reaching the market are not camera-ready, in my opinion. Writing is an art simply because there is no “arrival” moment, when you can sit up at your desk and declare that you’ve learned everything you need to know, to succeed; then you push the REPEAT button, and get rich as well as famous. The reality is that you have to work at it all the time. Hopefully, if you’re applying yourself, you’re getting more proficient with each new book or story you produce. Your tenth book ought to (in theory) be a much better product — from the standpoint of your readership — than your first. But that’s a dialogue between you and your readers, not you and the cognoscenti.
Which is somewhat different from enjoying a good editor — who knows how to help make a poor story good, a good story great, and a great story timeless. Good editors are rare, mostly because a good editor has to know how to recognize what you the author are trying to do, and then simply helps you do it better. As opposed to trying to tell you what (s)he thinks you should try to do — which is what an agent sometimes does, with varying degrees of success or failure. Both the agent and the critic have seen their stocks fall rapidly in the new Wild West of publishing, mostly because their value to authors and readers alike is debatable. A good agent will have the connections and the know-how to help your business thrive. Since here is no school, nor any formal training and qualification, good agents are even harder to find than good editors.
But that doesn’t mean good stories could not exist without good editors, or good agents.
Good stories sprout up all the time, like wildflowers. A few of them gain so much readership momentum, that they become phenomena unto themselves. The cognoscenti hate this, because wildflower literature has not received proper anointing and baptism. Very often, the cognescenti will attempt to retroactively embrace a wildflower. “We knew it all along!” I just chuckle, and shake my head, whenever this happens. And it’s occuring with increasing frequency, as indie hit after indie hit turns the publishing world on its ear.
But make no mistake: there is no such thing as a finite amount of “goodness” in the world of stories, or storytellers.
Is the marketplace a challenge? You bet. The renaissance has placed the onus on the author, more than at any other time. You must be your own best advocate. You must learn and perfect your business model. You must teach yourself how to make better, more engaging stories. You must be disciplined and hard-working enough to endure setbacks and mistakes. You must always be ready to do for you, what no one else will do. Because it’s increasingly difficult for even large publishers to manufacture a winner.
The renaissance is hell on “corporate band” authors, who have relied (too much?) on the clout of their publishers, to do the walking and the talking.
This too perturbs the cognoscenti, because it overturns their artificially-orchestrated pattern of eliteness — which was much easier to enforce when self-publishing was given kiss-of-death branding as “vanity” and almost all English-language fiction publishing was controlled by a few offices in New York City, and London.
Thankfully, the “vanity” days are receding in the rear-view mirror. No author worth his or her salt, need fear that (s)he is going to get blocked from the market by a screen. In fact, traditional publishing is using the market itself as the new screen. Wildflowers that bloom prominently, get picked for lucrative contracts. There is much less guesswork in making money off an already-proven winner, versus casting unknown seeds upon the earth, hoping enough of them sprout to financially offset the seeds that don’t.
So, ignore the preachers of the finite. They’re not only wrong, they matter less now than they ever have. The publishing world is open-ended, for authors and readers alike.