Over at 1writeway.wordpress.com, K. Jayne Cockrill (interminablewriter.wordpress.com) posted a response to an interesting little piece called “What does ‘MFA’ Stand For?” KJ said this: “I don’t have an MFA, nor any other degree, but I believe (and have been told) that I am as good as any other writer being published today.”
When I see this kind of assertion, my immediate reaction is to say, “Oh, really? Who told you that, your mother?” Giving ourselves, and giving one another, a little moral support is a wonderful thing. But statements that fly in the face of reality don’t actually work as moral support. Statements that fly in the face of reality are an invitation to remain ignorant, egotistical, defensive, and irrelevant.
Setting aside my own irascibility, the central problem is this: What exactly does KJ mean by “good”? The definition of “good” with respect to fiction-writing (which is what the original post was about) is not even faintly one-dimensional. Without breaking a sweat, I could probably list 20 independent dimensions by which the “goodness” or “badness” of manuscripts can legitimately be compared. Are the characters believable? Is the flow of the action clear? Is language being used in precise and original ways? Does the theme have significance? Does the story evoke emotion?
And so forth.
A manuscript that is excellent when measured by one of these parameters is not guaranteed to be excellent with respect to others. My favorite example is Erle Stanley Gardner. Measured by many of the standards that are usually applied to fiction, Gardner was a dreadful writer. Yet he sold literally millions of books. He was excellent at the things his readers cared about (mainly fast-paced action, dramatic reversals, and innocent people doing stupid things to get themselves into hot water), so it didn’t matter that he was lousy at everything else.
So what does KJ mean by “good”? It seems pretty clear, for instance, that if she was as good at writing sexy vampire novels as Laurell K. Hamilton is, her sexy vampire novels would be found in bookstores across the land on the shelf next to Hamilton’s. One suspects that when KJ says “I am as good as [published writer Laurell K. Hamilton],” she means something other than, “I am as good at writing sexy vampire novels as Laurell K. Hamilton.”
I’m not sure what she means, actually. And I can’t help wondering whether she’d be able to define it.
I cringe when I see that sort of sweeping statement, and it’s because I’ve participated in a few critique groups. On more than a few occasions, I’ve observed that aspiring writers generally don’t want to be told about the deficiencies in their stories. Not even when they’re members of a group that exists for the express purpose of pointing out said deficiencies. Most aspiring writers want to believe what KJ boldly asserts: that they’re as good as Stephen King or John Updike, that they only need to be “discovered” or something for their innate genius to shine forth.
One important difference between a professional writer and an amateur is that a professional knows there are other writers who are better than she is. If you catch her in a non-combative mood, she’ll be able to tell you exactly how they’re better. Only a rank amateur thinks she’s so good she doesn’t need to improve.