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.

25 thoughts on “The myth of finite goodness

  1. Funny. I’d think writing, like visual art and music, would be one of the last places to try and argue “limited good.” Not that it does not stop people, and I’ll be one of the first to decry what the galleries seem to consider “fine works of art” these days (you go on. I’ll just plant my little tush in the Old Masters through Impressionist wing. Or hang around in the Western Art gallery, where at least we can all agree that what is labeled “Grand Canyon at Sunset” is, indeed, the Grand Canyon.) but that’s my personal preference. I have friends who really like Expressionist paintings. I have a friend who is a devotee of hip-hop and can give a full musicology and music history of the genre. I detest the stuff.

    But gate keepers, and the formerly favorite, have to have something to explain WHY people are detouring around their carefully curated gate.

    1. “… gate keepers, and the formerly favorite, have to have something to explain WHY people are detouring around their carefully curated gate.”

      They certainly do … bless their hearts.

    2. Art that’s recognizable is a treat, and western art is especially good for it, with grand, sweeping vistas that can be breathtaking. I think that besides the Met, the two art collections I’ve enjoyed most were the one at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, WY and the great collection at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis. Mountains, plains, canyons, and waterfalls, Indians, cowboys, cavalry, and trains, bears, dear, elk, and eagles, all recognizable as such, and in vivid, vibrant, but realistic color.

  2. Zero-sum thinking is at the root of a great many modern idiocies, I’ve found.

    Bravo, Brad.

  3. In time, the cream will rise to the top. It won’t be the same means of separating the cream as what used to be, and I’m not sure anyone knows what the means will be yet.
    Used to be they could dump skim milk in the separator, give it a whirl, and claim they’d got the cream. Who knows what’ll float to the top now? But I figure it’s a pretty safe bet it’s not going to be the folks afraid there’s too much. (That’s why they’re afraid.)
    The creme de la creme will eventually surface, and since it’s coming from a larger volume, it’ll probably be better than anything before.

  4. A finite number of good stories. Ohhhh kaaay. There’s a point, though: It’s creating a buyer’s market, where there are so many publishers in the field that it’s harder to justify a high price for mediocre work. From the author’s standpoint, it’s been a buyer’s market for generations, just that the buyer used to be publishers and now it’s the readers themselves.

    Such whining is an admission that they cannot compete with indie publishing. For if indie is drek and they cannot compete with drek, what does it say about their writing?

    1. Well, technically, you could define it so that there is a finite number of stories. There are numbers so large that a collection of so many words would be impossible to understand as a story. (Take the fastest reader alive, and the number of words it would take him a thousand lifetimes to read.) There may not be a limit to how many words can be in language, but there are numbers bigger than we have managed yet. Take your favorite absurd overestimate for both, and put diction to the power of length. This is a very large number, but finite for a given pair of numbers.

  5. Reblogged this on Barbarian Book Club and commented:
    Brad nails it. We are in a Renaissance where Story is king. With my Kindle, from anywhere I can have an internet connection I have almost unlimited entertainment. I can support small writers from around the world and enjoy stories created by anybody.

  6. Ah, the myth of the great editor. A myth in the sense that everybody has heard of one, maybe some can even cite an instance where one helped the writer find the magic fix to his story, but so rare that you might as well be hunting El Corazon (

    Also elusive, but not quite as much, is the great critic who can help you see things you may have missed in an enjoyable work of art, and help you get a deeper understanding and enjoyment of the work that you may love but only get at a more surface level.

    Two ways to spot a waste of time–novels with the subtitle, “a Novel,” and self-appointed arbiters of taste who obsess over a great opening line. There’s only one GREAT opening line I’ve ever read, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice,” and that’s because the line itself tells such an intriguing story that it easily withstands translation. I’ve read a number of great openings, but only one that has a great opening line.

    1. My favorite opening line of all time is a tie between: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” and “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.”

    2. Have you read Larry Correia’s “Monster Hunter International”? Epic opening line. (Not the same as the one you quoted -which I agree is spectacular- but still awesome)

  7. I sure hope you’re right (all indications say you are): we are just beginning. Why? Because I’ve come very late in life to the game, and I dreadfully slow, and I’m having a wonderful time.

    I’d hate to have spent all this time on a dying art.

  8. I wonder how our “fan club” will try and spin this post? Since they assume that we’re always speaking in Evul Fascist Code, it should be interesting to see what hidden meanings they magically glean from it.

  9. hmm a zero sum quality argument from the end of the things that also tends to support the zero sum financial argument.
    Well, there are zeroes involved, but it tends to their intellect and not reality.

    1. There are zeroes involved! They come at the end of the royalty check, not the beginning. This is good, because it pays the rent, and the internet bill, and the electricity that lets Peter write more stories!

      But then, that’s because he tells good stories, and instead of worrying about draining the worth of other stories out there, he’s focused on making the next story be the best one he can tell, and growing as an author and entertainer.

      1. As long as the zeros come with one or more non-zero digits preceding, that sounds like a good approach. 🙂

  10. Fixed pie, zero sum, limited good. Call it what you will, but the concept is pervasive throughout much of the world. Whether it is in economics, life, or literature, the concept is far too appealing to certain mindsets, and far too seductive an explanation for ones own failings.

    1. Zero sum people are very annoying. Just ask them, “If you really believe people get wealthy only by stealing from others, did you get your car by stealing it from a caveman, or did somebody have to invent it first?” It would seem impossible to deny that new things are brought into this world by human ingenuity when we live in a world demonstrably more safe and comfortable than any in history.

      I recommend Dan Bricklin’s Cornucopia of the Commons essay: We live in interesting times, and that’s not just a supposed Chinese curse.

  11. Reminds me of when my father would warn me not to “use up all the words” when I was reading one of his books.

    Except he knew he was making a joke.

  12. If the Lord can create worlds without number then we, his children, can create fictional worlds without number. To create is divine.

  13. I’m a bit guilty of this in the computer world: I feel bad whenever I waste a GUID. I get over it quickly.

    For those who don’t know: Globally Unique IDentifier. They are generated from various things that allow distributed uniqueness (network card MAC address, current time, CPU serial number, etc…) and are – as a practical matter – infinite in supply.

  14. If people in the writing business want to complain about zero-sum, then complain about the number of good editors available.

    And how Baen is hogging more than their fair share.

  15. What we have is a situation where anybody can write a book. Anybody! And so Sturgeon’s law still applies, but that 10% that isn’t Crud is going to be a lot more books. But god will there be a whole lot more crud to sift through.

    The rise of guides and reviewers is coming, and, well, 90% of them are gonna be people who think they are tastemakers and can influence their followers, and it may take a while for them to fail. The sorting out will be ugly.

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