More artist angst is caused by this question than any other: Is it good enough?
This question is unanswerable because it’s incomplete. The true question is, Is it good enough [for what]?
For novelists that usually means, Is it good enough for publication?
Even that is unanswerable, because “for publication” can mean many things, and involve many people’s opinions. The only statement resembling a universal truth is: Books loaded with typos, sloppy formatting, and underdeveloped plot and characterization almost always result in rejection, be it by agents and editors or readers and reviewers. It thus behooves all authors to invest in making their novel as polished as it can be.
Then it’s time to deal with the subjective elements. Is it good enough for a Big 5 traditional publisher who only is interested in selling a gazillion copies? Is it good enough for other traditional publishers who cater to smaller, niche-specific audiences? Is it good enough to be accepted by genre readers who expect certain tropes and themes? Is it good enough to self-publish without embarrassing yourself? Is it good enough that your friends and family won’t snicker behind your back? Is it good enough to win a contest? Is it good enough that you’re willing to own it proudly and promote it with every resource you can draw upon?
To understand “good enough,” you have to understand subjectivity. Since no two people who read the same book come away with the same opinion, there’s no novel that can satisfy everyone. Therefore, authors must focus on making their work good enough for the people they want to read it. Which is not, and never will be, everyone.
My personal path to understanding subjectivity, which has shaped my approach to editing fiction, came not only through reading, writing, editing, and reviewing over several decades, but also from judging. The most profound impact on my thinking came from three disparate experiences:
(1) An outdoor art show.
The biggest town in our area hosts an annual art fair, which I attended most recently the year I began full-time editing and had to start thinking like a business. I moved to editing as an occupation later than many of my peers, having begun life as an artist. During school, I planned to become a commercial illustrator, but abandoned that path during college, for intensely personal reasons. Nevertheless, the art aptitude still biases my viewpoint and expectations, so I walk through exhibitions with a critical eye.
By the time I got to that art fair in the park, I hadn’t produced a drawing or painting in twenty years. Yet as I passed through booth after booth, I mentally sneered at the artists’ works and patted myself on the back because I’m so much better. What kept distracting me, though, was the cash register. It rang and rang for what I felt was second-rate artwork, with everyone smiling through the transactions.
That “ka-ching” finally stopped me midstride with an epiphany: It doesn’t mattert how “good” the art is. People buy what they like, just as I do. There is no accounting for taste. All that counts is the fact these artists are doing it and making people happy. My opinion is meaningless. And talent is meaningless if not harnessed by effort. Art itself is meaningless if locked away.
In other words, my attitude was pure snobbery, my talent a wasted gift. Since that day, I’ve believed that being an artist, in any medium, means putting one’s work out into the world without shame, and appreciating other peoples’ efforts, whether one likes the product or not.
(2) A weeklong writing retreat.
Our state houses a residential arts center open to international artists and writers on a juried basis, and occasionally offers a subsidized equivalent for state residents. I managed to get into this program from my writing samples and thus enjoyed the luxury of a full-week withdrawal from the world to do nothing but write a novel. Well, not quite. As part of the deal, everyone was required to contribute six hours of labor to support the operation.
I ended up in the business office with the task of collating and filing three-ring-binder pages of slides submitted by hundreds of artists for the jury process. For six hours I stared at artwork of every conceivable type. On top of that, each evening there was an “open mike” presentation where attendees could show their paintings, recite poetry, what-have-you.
The scope of that exposure boggled my mind. Although my personal opinions of the works ranged from ho-hum to what-the-heck-is-THAT and everything in between, I came home vibrating with awareness of the passion behind each artist’s output; how much time, soul, energy, labor, money, creative brilliance-a huge percentage of life-went into their work. Whether I liked it or not.
(3) An e-book contest.
In an attempt to support the emerging indie-author movement, I volunteered to be a judge for the biggest contest then available for such novelists. It proved to be painful: hours wasted reading dreck I would never buy or borrow from a library, then having to rate the stories in relation to one another.
Still, that tsunami of words showed the same passion and commitment and imagination as the artists at the retreat center and the outdoor exhibit. In my opinion, none of the novels deserved a prize, never mind a publishing contract. But people won anyway and went on to success or failure or, yes, something in between. Whether I liked their work or not.
Today I am a published author on the receiving end of other people’s opinions and their purchase choices driven by taste. My primary business, however, is editing, where I spend every day reading and evaluating other people’s books. My mind and heart live in constant wrassling between taste and opinion, in a state of subjectivity where there’s no right or wrong, quality is undefinable, and context is everything.
I can neither explain nor understand why one novel is embraced by millions of readers and another falls into oblivion (or anywhere in between). I cannot reconcile what I think merits applause and what other people think merits condemnation (and everything in between). Then there’s the sheer grit of survival: If I only took on what I like, I would starve.
That’s why I concentrate my business on the mechanical aspects of prose and storycraft. Editing is a rational process, while art is a balance between emotion and execution; it takes all three to create a work, and all three at a high level of competence and authenticity to create a commercially successful work. So I accept at face value whatever novel crosses my desk and do my best to enhance it, focusing on coherence, plausibilty, and accessibilty to the most readers possible. Because somewhere out there is a reader or many readers who will love or hate (and everything in between) each book-regardless of what I think about it. My job is to help ease its transition from author’s head to reader’s hand, then wave it good-bye when it ventures onward to whatever fate, hoping as much as the author does that the arrow hits the bull’s-eye.
The degree to which I do my job is constrained by what the author or publisher is willing to pay and what service they direct me to perform. I might wince at the parameters, but I’m still obliged to meet them. Also to honor the author as a fellow artist who’s presently at some milepost along the life-road to mastering their craft.
Other people have the privilege of deciding whether a novel is Good Enough. Those are acquiring editors, agents, readers, and reviewers, most of whom do not know I exist. The best editor, it is said, is an invisible one; so my intent is to invisibly help authors achieve their goals. In the process I enjoy as many types of stories as there is art in exhibitions. All of it deserves to be out there. All of it will find a home in somebody’s heart. All of it will have detractors. If the author and editor have done everything in their power to make a novel the best it can be, then it is Good Enough to face the world.