I had a lively debate with another writer a few days ago. It all started with a recounting of two widely respected and beloved authors ridiculing the work of another bestselling but (newer, younger...what's the word) author's take on the same subject.
It's not important to go into any of the specifics of who the parties were or what the subject matter was because the argument transcends the topic. The gist of the argument was that the new author's work was not a valid expression because it was "bad writing".
Well, who are either of those authors to decide what's good writing and what isn't? Who am I or the other author with whom I was arguing. Before you hit me with the obvious...yeah, I know there's a line. The reality star who got a multibook deal...I read her stuff and it's so godawfully bad that I kept reading it because I couldn't comprehend something so awful, with such glaring errors in style and grammar, with no redeeming qualities of plot or character could actually make it out of this girl's hot pink laptop and onto the shelf at Wal-Mart.
But the obvious clowns aside, who is to say what is a "bad" book and what is a "good" book. Sales certainly tell us what the readers think. I think a million copies flying off the shelves is a pretty good indicator that the material is being enjoyed by more than a fringe niche. And a volume that actually makes it out of a publishing house and into a real-live bookstore only to wind up with three, manky bargain stickers on its poor, battered cover six months down the line must tell us, at least in part, that the public is not interested in the story being told.
Of course sales figures alone cannot claim to separate the stories that ought to be read and those that should never have made it past the slush pile. Good writing must have characters about whom the reader cares, a plot in which the reader finds themselves invested, conflict that keeps the reader turning pages and a climax that makes the reader really sorry that they've reached the end.
Thing is...there's a whole bunch of stories out there and a whole bunch of different readers.
My whole family (three generations of 'em) are all voracious readers, and we've a lot of the same titles in our collections which argues the point that there is a firm standard of good writing.
There's also a whole bunch of books on my shelf that my daughter wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole, same thing with me and her shelf. My husband wouldn't be caught dead with half the stuff either one of us reads and my mother (with whom my reading tastes are most compatible) even had a singular taste in her own well-worn favorites.
My point with my friend was that there is an audience out there for pretty much any book. She wasn't crazy about that idea, but I think it's great. It's great for the writers and it's great for the readers. It's unfair for all readers to be expected to only embrace the classics, to only be given the choice of one mythology for their favorite fantasies. It's a much more pleasing thing to get out there to the library or the bookstore (or...*deep sigh*...browsing the Kindle or iTunes e-book selections) and find an author whose voice seems to be tailor-made for that reader's taste. It's a little like falling in love, often with much longer lasting relationships and lots less disappointment.
As for the writers, perhaps my attitude is colored by my quest to get published, hoping...feeling certain...that there is an agent, a publisher, and yes...an audience for my books. I'd be an egomaniacal fool if I believed for a second that my work will be universally loved and revered by everyone who reads it. But I think it's perfectly reasonable to believe that with continued work, optimism, and determination I will find the perfect fit that will enable me to get my stories into readers hands, readers who will enjoy them and be left wanting more.
Not every novel is a candidate for the National Book Award, and that's okay. Just because a work isn't traditional, conventional or even (god help me) perfectly well written doesn't mean it isn't a good book. It doesn't mean the story is without merit or that it isn't enjoyable.
At the end, this is a debate with no end in sight. I feel pretty confident throwing that out there, because I had nearly the exact same debate about twenty five years ago when the older, highly revered author my friend was defending so vigorously was a fairly new commodity. He was ridiculed when he was new, and even after his work caught on and every book he wrote sold a grillion copies, critics still found fault with him. I offered the same argument then:
There is an audience for just about every author, and that is a good thing.