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on goodness

fetishpunk recently posted the question, "Is there value in asking 'am I as an artist any good'?" My long-winded reply can be found in his comments, but I'll also reproduce it here, in the interests of furthering the conversation:

This is an issue I've been thinking a lot about lately, but it's hard to tackle because so many parts of it are subjective. What qualifies as "good"? As "successful"? As "art"? Since these are so much in the eye of the beholder, how can the artist himself evaluate his own work? Does success or goodness depend upon publication, or sales, or acclaim?

I don't know how much of this we can really answer. Is Dan Brown a good writer because The Da Vinci Code sold a million bazillion copies? From a writing standpoint, he's horrible, but from a story standpoint, he would seem to be a success, since what so many people talk about when they talk about the novel is the exciting plot and intrigue, and not the sloppy POV shifts or awkward phrasings. (Btw, I haven't read the novel; this is just what I've gleaned from other discussion and a few extracts posted online.) So how do we look at our own work?

An artist must simultaneously be incredibly egotistical and insecure. He must view the work as worthy of seeing print (and worthy of someone else paying him for it), but must also see the flaws, what didn't quite work, what could be improved upon. He must strive to always push himself to do better, and this depends on looking on one's work with a critical eye.

As Tim Pratt reminded me a while ago, once one decides to become a Writer, one must realize that this involves a career that will most likely last the rest of one's lifetime. There should be that constant progression toward the Platonic ideal of narrative "goodness" that one knows can never be reached, but one must never stop striving for it. So that even if someone is not technically good today, they may be tomorrow, or next week, or next year, or next decade, and that if they are passionate about their chosen profession they will keep at it.

This is why I enjoy teaching writing, because that untapped potential can be found in anybody, but it must be worked at, and hammered at, and pounded into shape, and it may take a very long time. This is why the passion must be there, because sometimes it is the only thing that sustains the artist during their obscurity.

There is, of course, the argument that there are already too many writers, and not enough of them are at a high enough standard. To which I reply: bullshit. There may indeed be a glut of publishing right now, but what could be better than a vast conversational literary discourse? There's a lot out there right now because a lot of people are reading right now, and I certainly consider this a Good Thing. Much of it may not be up to an arbitrary standard of goodness, but that's not to say it never will be. Each artist progresses at his own pace, and one can't expect perfection right out of the gate. But the fact that there is so much out there, that there is pretty much something for everyone, is a remarkable thing. It's an exciting thing to follow a writer from the beginning of his career, to see the growth and progression and mastery.

It's also exciting, as a writer, to realize that you have a whole lifetime in which to get better, that the tools may not be there now to tell a particular story, but they may be someday. Which is why I tell my students never to quit. We all suck when we first start out, but with enough practice, we can continue to grow as artists, to reach for that ideal.

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Comments

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lotus_faerie
Sep. 30th, 2006 04:09 pm (UTC)
I have wondered the same thing, especially when I see something an artist put out but I consider awful. In that vein, I think your attitude is the best one in the end. Keep trying and honing skills, and with luck, it will work out.
jlundberg
Sep. 30th, 2006 07:33 pm (UTC)
It's frankly the only approach that won't drive me nuts with self-doubt. :)
jaylake
Sep. 30th, 2006 04:19 pm (UTC)
Hear, hear.

I do think there is a distinct and important and value in questioning the quality of own's work, but I don't think any artist can onbjectively, or even reasonably, evaluate themselves in terms of their wider field. "Good" as a measure of comparison to one's own development is very different from "good" as a measure of comparison to critical or competitive acceptance in a professional landscape.
cyperus_papyrus
Sep. 30th, 2006 07:31 pm (UTC)
Hi, I'm new here, and just thought I'd chime in an agreement.

Popular acceptance, such as the DaVinci Code received, has little to do with the quality of the "art" and much to do with how it satisfies the needs of those who bought it. That is one kind of success. But art can be very well done and simply not be of wide interest.
jlundberg
Sep. 30th, 2006 07:36 pm (UTC)
That's part of why the subjectivity of art is so difficult to measure in terms of goodness. Something can be extremely successfull commercially but utter shit artistically. Or the other way round. Kafka, Beckett, and Poe were far less appreciated while they were alive than they are now.
cyperus_papyrus
Sep. 30th, 2006 08:17 pm (UTC)
Agreed. This is very interesting, so thinking on a bit: There's a difference between being influential and being popular. Being influential may have much more to do with influencing other artists, doing something innovative and exploratory. Being popular may have much more to do with being accessible to a wider group of non-specialists. And then perhaps there are people who want to be artists but don’t really understand and produce something that may be entertaining in some way but is derivative or just junk.

To do something innovative and make it accessible to a wider group of non-specialists, now there’s an achievement.

So I guess each of us has to understand what is important to us and what we are trying to do, in order to figure out if we are growing as artists.
jlundberg
Sep. 30th, 2006 08:58 pm (UTC)
You're exactly right. We can get outside feedback, but no one can tell us that we're growing other than ourselves.
jlundberg
Sep. 30th, 2006 07:34 pm (UTC)
That's an important distinction to make, Jay, of judging your work within your own writing oeuvre and not trying to place it within a wider context of the genre. You can only do the best that you can do.
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