Nobody Really Knows What Good Enough Is

The other day I mentioned you have to decide for yourself what “good enough” means to you. I want to elaborate.

I opened this “Add New Post” page with the intention of noting that I don’t mean it’s okay to be mediocre.

But then I got to thinking, “What’s mediocre?” Just like we wonder “What’s ‘good enough’?”

The truth of the matter is nobody really knows, and the further truth of the matter few want to acknowledge is that, judging by the Internet and reality television and Twilight and etc, let’s be honest: nobody really cares. Some people worry about being able to sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, but really they’re few and far between, because the simple fact is that they are contributing to the noise even as they lament being unable to separate the signal from it.

Dictionary.com indicates that “mediocre” means something “of only ordinary or moderate quality.”

I’ve gotta be honest here: 90% of what I encounter on a daily basis is of “ordinary or moderate quality.” That’s what ordinary means; again to dictionary.com, “of no special quality or interest.” It’s kind of like “average.” I always told my students that marking a 75% score as a ‘C’ or average was misleading; technically, “average” represents a “typical” amount, which introduces the idea of “typical,” and now there are way too many quotation marks and terms in this paragraph, but my point is that for the most part everything we encounter is ordinary simply because so little is extraordinary. Television sitcoms and reality shows are typical. Vegging out on the couch with beer and pizza is typical. Watching FOX News and listening to Justin Bieber are typical. Judging by numbers, that’s what people do.

So when those things are typical, what’s “good enough” to publish?

I don’t know, but I have some ideas, and an argument.

First, got a manuscript or story all the agents and “online literary magazine” editors you’ve contacted have passed on? A novel some agent picked up but couldn’t get an editor to buy?

Lately the argument is those things mean it’s not “good enough.”

Now, as we’ve established, I don’t know what that means. But here’s something I’m thinking.

Say you’ve got a novel you’ve finished. You like it. In fact, you love it. You worked hard on it, and it ranks for you among your favorite books. You had fun writing it and you think people will like it. You send it to agents. Most of them have a “You won’t hear from us if we pass” policy, so the ones you do hear from send you a form rejection (addressed to “Author,” even though they advised you to personalize your query).

You can rewrite it. Revise it.

But here’s a thought: if that’s not “good enough,” how can you get better without knowing what you could improve? And how can you know what you need to improve without hearing what readers think of it?

(Finally the argument:) Maybe, just maybe, publishing it on Smashwords or your blog or on Kindle for 99c is how you’re going to realize what didn’t quite work.

From experience: sometimes a story is as good as it can be. But how can you know how to make the next one even better?

Honestly, that’s sort of what MFA programs are: a lot of writing of stories to figure out what doesn’t work as you discover what does.

Further from experience: I revised the hell out of “For Cynthia,” the first story in my collection, and I ended up with a story that, I think, is perfect for what it is. Is it great? I don’t know what that means, but I know that Mike Curtis, the fiction editor of the Atlantic liked it but was sorry to say it wasn’t for them, and I know that it was part of the application that got me into USC, so I’m pretty sure there’s something to the story. On the other hand, I think it’s as good as it could be, and if I wanted to write something better, I’d have to do a new story, which is why feedback on that story was so crucial.

I went on to write what became, basically, my entire collection. And there again: I think it’s good for what it was but, if I were going to write something better, I needed to know what worked and apply what I learned to a new story.

Hence my MFA.

That new story, incidentally, was Meets Girl.

My point is, maybe sharing, maybe publishing can help you get to the next level. Maybe all the agents you’ve contacted have told you they’re not “in love” with your book or, even worse (?) said absolutely nothing at all, and maybe you can write a new, better book all on your own.

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A lot of people lament independent publishing for the reason that it further contributes to noise they propagate but can no longer separate quality from. How, they wonder, are they to find work they like among so much crap? I saw someone refer to independent authors’ work as “raw sewage” the other day while in the same breath requesting a filter by which one might find only books that had been “vetted” by corporations (never acknowledging that lets Snooki and Palin right on through).

How, after all, will we know what’s good enough to read if agents and editors don’t tell us?!

I’m being facetious right there, but only just. Because I’m thinking of all the books I’ve sought or found out by accident. All the books I’ve loved.

There are precious few. That’s why my favorite books are so important to me. I’ve read hundreds of books over thirty years, and who knows, maybe thousands (I’ve obviously never kept count), and of those, I’ve actually outright loved maybe a hundred or so. The great majority of the books I’ve read have been utterly okay (which is why my favorites stick out, and why I love them so unabashedly). This relates directly to Sturgeon’s law, a maxim coined by a famous sci-fi author, which is that “90% of science fiction is crap, but 90% of everything is crap.”

What I’ve noted as a corollary is that that last 10% of anything that isn’t crap differs by person, and some people will put books where others might not. I know people who love Jonathan Franzen; I found The Corrections and Freedom boring. I’ve seen people rave about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, but I just thought Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist, was as maddeningly unlikable as Hamlet, and for my money, Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible was way better (they’re brothers).

Me, I’ve read enough Stephen King and Neil Gaiman to like fantasy and horror and vampires, but Christ I loathe the Twilight series. Millions of readers, on the other hand, do not. I’ve read enough of the book to know that I wouldn’t have personally thought it “good enough,” but it was obviously “good enough” to sell millions of copies.

Wouldn’t it be wrong to deny those readers the books they so enjoy just because some other people thought they weren’t “good enough”?


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