Is Good Subjective?

(Remixed from a post I did a couple of years ago).

The Lost Symbol is formulaic. Twilight is simplistic, both in plot and writing. Eragon is ridden with cliches (Warning: TV Tropes link). The Shack reads like it was self-published (oh, wait).

And yet every one of these books sold millions of copies.


For those of us who have devoted a significant portion of our lives to the written word, this can drive us nuts. It's unfair, we say. If people knew anything about quality literature, they wouldn't buy this cotton candy nonsense.

But that's just it. People don't know about quality literature. They don't know you're not supposed to start a novel with the weather. They don't know that the farm-boy-as-chosen-one plot is old. They don't know that adverbs are a Bad Thing.

But people know what they like. They know these books are thrilling, engrossing, uplifting. "But they're not!" we cry. "They don't even follow the rules!"

Okay, so here's the thing. I know this is going to be hard to hear, but...all those rules that agents and editors and critique partners keep telling us we should follow? None of them make a story good.

For those of us trying to break into the business, it's easy to convince ourselves that "good" is objective -- that all we have to do is figure out the rules and follow them. While the rules certainly increase our chances, nothing in this business is a sure thing. Nothing.

So how do you break in? Well, not having broken in myself yet, I'm going to go with the stock answer: Write lots. Write well. Get lucky.

Usually in that order.


Matthew MacNish said...

The thing is, and this is just as true with music as with writing, pretty much any art, really ... the thing is that commercial success has almost no correlation to quality. In fact, if there is a correlation, it's more likely that commercial success goes along with shitty art, because most people are morons.

I'm not mad about it, and I'm not trying to complain, but it is what it is, and I think if we, as writers, can come to accept it, it will be easier to accomplish what it is we're really after: telling great stories.

Joshua McCune said...

As Rick Moranis opined, "Good is dumb." :)...

Seriously, though, in some ways, simple is good, because, in many ways, most of us are simple creatures who often prefer the familiar (Harry Potter, for example, merged common monsters and myths into a school setting... not the most original idea, but the execution was brilliant).

And Eragon had dragons, and dragons are very, very, cool and everybody should buy dragon books (For the record, I never read Eragon, but I believe my dragons are cooler b/c they glow :)

The Writer said...

I don't know that people so much like the sum of one thing. Maybe it's just a part that reaches out to them and touches them in a way we can't see.

Laurel Garver said...

Sadly it seems like the innovators of today had to have broken into the market years ago and earned an audience. Nowadays, you break in by writing to formula and trend. I just don't see anything else happening--the big publishers are insanely risk averse now. They want a sure-thing--work that's just like something selling well.

For those to whom that option doesn't appeal, there's always making your own path--build your audience and backlist in a grassroots way using e-book and POD technology.

Annie Laurie Cechini said...

See, here's the thing. If I'm a 14 year old girl in a hospital bed, I want to believe for a while that the scariest thing out there is a vampire clan and a pack of fickle werewolves, as opposed to cells I can't see that are destroying me from the inside out. In art, it seems to me that there are two audiences to consider: the usual audience, people who haven't studied the craft for years, and other crafters, who know all the degrees of quality. I think it's possible to write quality for an audience who doesn't know "the rules", and let the other crafters make of it what they will. It's kind of a different bear if you're writing FOR those other crafters, but personally I'm not, so I don't worry too much about established rules if it's getting the way of my story.

Sarah McCabe said...

The thing is...

Weather is not objectively boring.
Adverbs are not inherently bad.
And the farm-boy-as-chosen-one may have been done a hundred times before, but it DOESN'T MATTER if the reader is enjoying this version.

Writing may be an art, but books are entertainment. And the only measurement for whether or not entertainment is "good" is how much joy it brings into the world.

jjdebenedictis said...

Good must be subjective, because I have rather tepid reactions to Neil Gaiman's books, and he's obviously more than good.

For whatever reason, his stories don't resonate with me.

Sean said...

There are no rules. Do your own thing. And measure your success by the happiness this brings.

Adam Heine said...

I'm kind of in love with these comments, in spite of the fact (or maybe because of it) that some of them contradict each other :-)

Annie, for me, you win the internet today.

Myrna Foster said...

Okay, but I really LIKE the farm-boy-as-the-chosen-one trope. Unless it's boring. Eragon wasn't my favorite version, but it held my attention the first time through.

Good is definitely subjective. I love Jane Austen's books. My husband does not.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Annie is brilliant.

Bane cracks me up (go kiss some dragons already!).

Here's my 2 cents: Ideas are what compels us. Stories are ideas delivered in a way we can readily absorb, like moisture seeping into our skin. Badly written stories can have brilliant ideas tucked inside them and then it doesn't matter - the ideas still stick. And become insanely popular. Fantastically written stories can lack a compelling idea and are like a beautiful, ornate frame with a stock picture.

Each of your examples have an idea that resonates with millions of people. We can only hope to write one of those in our lives. :) #butIllkeeptrying

Annie Laurie Cechini said...

Thanks. :)