Decent Enough is Just Not Good Enough

Dan Green addresses a literary agent’s post on bookangst about there being too many books.

The fact there is so little money and so much arbitrariness in publishing is liberating, actually. It saves me the bother of praying for worldly success.

Rather than criticize the book industry, I’ll talk about another writerly habit I find disturbing: writing too many words, stories and novels. That is a response to society’s tendency to reward prolific writers rather than thoughtful ones. (I exclude blogging because I consider it informal writing and everybody needs an outlet to bloviate on). Some talented writers whittle their talent away by turning thoughts too quickly into text without shaping them into something meaningful or stopping to ponder whether the story was really worth writing. After a good ten years of practice, anything a halfway-decent writer can do will be passably decent, and if they are lucky enough to get paid for it, the temptation to be satisfied with something less than great is irresistable.

Take Stephen Dixon, a writer I generally admire (I could also pick J.C. Oates or Stephen King). All excellent writers. But when I read Stephen Dixon’s works before 1995, I couldn’t help get the feeling that some of his stories just weren’t that important. Interesting, yes, competent, clever, moving (sometimes), yes, but important? I have a hard time saying that. For those writers, I get the feeling that writing is a habit, a compulsion, a ritual they perform whether they need to or not.

I’m sure postmordem anthologies of each of these writers will be fantastic. But Stephen King (who is capable of knocking off a few terrific stories–see Misery, for example) has written novels totalling thousands of pages. Even a fan might find those things hard to wade though. It’s not just a matter of diluting a brand name (although there’s a bit of that). It’s diluting the quality of the writing as well. Perhaps if the audience and the publishing industry didn’t have unrealistic expectations about an author’s output, this problem wouldn’t occur.

If I had the luxury of time and money, perhaps I too would be experimenting with a lot of glib mediocre stuff. And of course, one’s person’s high art is another person’s pablum. Self-delusion, after all, is part of the writer’s calling. But writers can’t satisfy themselves with being anything less than perfection. If they don’t, readers will never forgive them.