What Does “Good” Mean?

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.

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8 Responses to What Does “Good” Mean?

  1. 1writeway says:

    Jim,
    Thanks for providing me the link to your post and for commenting about my blog here. I can’t speak for JK, but when I hear a writer argue that she is “as good as any other writer being published today,” I don’t automatically assume that the writer is also saying that her writing cannot be improved. Rather, she is saying that she has enough support from her readers that, eventually, hopefully, the value of her writing will ultimately be recognized by the gatekeepers who decide whether or not she can be listed among the famous.

    I like Stephen King. I would like to be as famous (and wealthy) as he is. But not everything he has written is perfection. I’ve rolled my eyes through a few of his novels and been chillingly riveted by others. What this means to me is that even published authors as famous and ubiquitous as King are only human. Sometimes their stuff isn’t up to snuff. It’s the gatekeepers who decide whether they are published or not, whether the rest of us struggling writers are published or not.

    In the meantime, I am fortunate to have friends who will tell me what they do and *do not* like about my stories. I’m no Pollyanna. I know there’s always room for improvement. For me, that’s just a part of writing.

    Cheers,
    Marie

  2. midiguru says:

    “Rather, she is saying that she has enough support from her readers that, eventually, hopefully, the value of her writing will ultimately be recognized by the gatekeepers who decide whether or not she can be listed among the famous.”

    Hmm … I’d have to say that that’s a decidedly non-intuitive meaning of the word “good.” “Good” is not the same as “has support,” and it’s not the same as “will ultimately be recognized.” Nor, _a fortiori_, does “good” mean “the author has enough support that her writing will ultimately be recognized.”

    It’s possible that KJ was asserting some sort of moral or spiritual form of “goodness” rather than talking about good writing. But I don’t know — I’d want to read her definition.

    “Ultimately” is a very slippery place to plant your feet. Talent is not always rewarded with success.

  3. K. Jayne Cockrill says:

    Jim,

    Not that I need to respond to every knee-jerk reaction of a few brief words that were meant as encouragement to a sister writer — that person being one who has worked long and hard on her writing and apparently did not get the respect she deserved — but since requested to respond, I am.

    My mother hardly ever reads my stuff, but of course, she’s wholly complimentary. She’s my mom, and she’s supposed to be. But, Jim, I’ve been writing for many years, both creatively and professionally. Anyone who’s been writing for as long as I have and has been exposed to agents, editors, other writers, and endless critique groups knows that the publishing business is entirely subjective, and what may be rejected today may be a blockbuster tomorrow. Too many cases in point to list, but let’s look at one: Can you say Harry Potter? A lot of excellent authors are not published today, not because their writing isn’t as good as Laurell K. Hamilton’s (whom I certainly don’t presume to compare myself with), but because they lack mass market appeal or a “platform.” Any agent will tell you this.

    All that to say, 1Writeway has the potential to get her writing published, just like I do, with hard work, persistence, a thick skin, good writing, and COMMERCIAL APPEAL. My hope is that she will not give up because she’s had some bad experiences. AND many published writers today do not have an MFA, and many of my MFA friends tell me the benefits are not all they’re cracked up to be.

    Where you got off on the other tangent of comparing “good” writing with my super simple expression of writerly support, is beyond me. Maybe you should set aside that irascibility a little more often.

    Please consider my words defined.

    Thanks,
    KJ
    http://interminablewriter.wordpress.com

  4. midiguru says:

    Hmm. I can’t find a definition of “good” in there anywhere, no. Sorry.

    And why drag Harry Potter into it? You haven’t said anything whatever about J.K. Rowling. You seem to be implying that the first HP book was rejected by a bunch of publishers … but I’m guessing here. One of the essential qualities of good writing is that it explains things rather than just assuming the reader knows them already.

    Asserting that your own writing is top-notch as a way of supporting another writer? I confess I don’t quite understand that approach to peer counseling.

    And let’s parse this sentence closely: “A lot of excellent authors are not published today, not because their writing isn’t as good as Laurell K. Hamilton’s (whom I certainly don’t presume to compare myself with), but because they lack mass market appeal or a ‘platform.’ Any agent will tell you this.” Not quite. What any agent will tell you is that if your book has mass market appeal, they would LOVE to represent you. This bit of confusion is what I’ve been trying to underline: If your writing is “as good as Laurell K. Hamilton’s” but also “lack[s] mass market appeal,” then by definition it isn’t as good as LKH’s, because mass market appeal is the ENTIRE definition of “good.” At least as far as agents are concerned. So until and unless you define “good” in an explicit and careful way, your sentence is nonsense.

  5. K. Jayne Cockrill says:

    You will not find a definition of “good” in concrete terms anywhere, as that is clearly subjective. Do you just need “good” blog fodder, or what? That you challenge me to define a subjectively defined term is what is nonsense.

  6. 1writeway says:

    This could be an interesting thread, except for the undercurrent of antipathy which makes the thread read more like an argument than a discussion. Perhaps, Jim, you could give us your own definition of “good” writing. From what I can discern from your blog so far is that good writing is published writing. Am I right?

  7. midiguru says:

    Not at all. Good writing … well, let’s confine ourselves to fiction. That makes the discussion a little easier. Now, what I’m about to offer are not RULES: A good writer could turn any of them upside down in order to achieve a deliberate effect. But I would be very surprised to see a good writer turn all of them upside down at once!

    1) Good fiction is about people that we can care about. That is, they’re portrayed in ways that allow us to understand their character and motivations, and they are not so morally depraved that we’re disgusted by them. (The “people” need not be human. I’m thinking of a charming little yarn Mark Twain wrote about a talking blue jay….)

    2) Good fiction depicts incidents that could realistically occur, given its own framework. That is, it could be set on a spaceship, or it could involve fairies, neither of which is realistic, but if it jumps back and forth from space travel to fairies we’re probably in trouble.

    3) Good fiction uses language in precise and well controlled ways. It is not sloppily written. When metaphors and symbols are used, they are appropriate to the theme, not jumbled up.

    4) In good fiction, every incident is chosen for its contribution to the whole. Irrelevant scenes are not tossed in. There is a sense of balance: Important scenes are given greater weight and positioned at key points. There is a sense of pacing: Events build toward a key revelation or confrontation.

    5) Good fiction provides enough information that we can understand what’s going on. It is not confusing.

    6) Ideally, good fiction tells us something true about ourselves or the world.

    7) In good fiction, there is something fresh. It’s not just a rehash of tired old ideas.

    Whole books have been written about this stuff. I don’t claim to know it all. But I do claim that those seven (or nine) concepts will get you off to a very decent start at writing fiction that you can be proud of.

    I can recommend John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. It’s a bit pedantic at times, but it’s very good.

  8. 1writeway says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Jim.

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