Good Versus Mediocre

I found myself asking, Is one person’s good book another person’s mediocre fare? And if so, is there in reality a standard of art writers should be aiming for and readers should be looking to support?
on Apr 18, 2011 · No comments

There’s been considerable discussion at Decompose, author Mike Duran’s site, regarding Christian fiction. The initial article, “The New Demographic: Christians Who Don’t Like Christian Fiction,” began by discussing an audience of Christians who want “faith-based” stories, but not the usual fare. The discussion, however, soon turned to why this audience wants something different.

One statement in particular generated much conversation:

– Katherine Coble April 15, 2011 at 7:59 AM

Some commenters pointed out that not all writers, not even a majority of writers, publishing in the general market succeed in creating the best fiction. In fact, some suggest, the proportion of good writers to bad is the same in both the larger arena and the smaller.

All this conversation got me to thinking about speculation — how one person can make a statement like the one in the last paragraph, and people will leap to contradict it or repeat it based on their presuppositions. In the same way, a reader can read a small sampling of a genre and speculate that the entire genre is X or Y or Z based on how their one experience either met or contradicted their expectations.

All this to explain how I got to today’s topic. In the end, I found myself asking, Is one person’s good book another person’s mediocre fare? And if so, is there in reality a standard of art writers should be aiming for and readers should be looking to support?

Is “Art” a real thing, or is it merely a term we use for our subjective response to what has been created? I’ve made a case before that art is real in the same way that beauty is real. No one questions that sunsets or rainbows are beautiful. It’s a given that they are, though some might be more so. In the same way, I believe there is human imitation which we call art that draws closer to the reality of beauty than do others.

Which means, there are some stories that are “better” — more artistic, more skillfully created — than others.

However, not every reader may realize the difference or care for the books considered artistic. Does that make those readers ignorant or wrong in their assessment? I don’t think so.

Along with true artistry is personal preference.

Let me illustrate this with visual art. I happen to prefer landscape paintings to portraits. I’ve been to museums before where portraits by the masters hang. They’re fine, in my opinion, but not pictures I’d want hanging on my walls. I understand they are great works of art because someone has put them in a museum and the artists have great reputations, so I don’t disparage them. I may even appreciate them. I just don’t really like them. After all, I’m not a painter. I don’t understand all the things the artist accomplished in that work. I’m mostly looking at the subject matter and responding according to my preference.

In the same way, I believe most readers respond to novels based on subject matter and preference.

But here’s the key question. Wouldn’t the reader have a greater experience reading a story containing his preferred content if it was also executed with great artistry?

Back to my visual art illustration, because I prefer landscapes, I might choose an amateurish pastoral scene to put on my wall, but how much better if I had a true work of art depicting that same scene?

Taste drives our likes and dislikes. Many people like speculative literature. Many Christians like faith-based stories.

Writers of Christian speculative fiction can find an audience based on who likes our content — overt Christian themes or cool superhero characters or fast-paced car chases, or whatever else readers are looking for.

I believe, however, we can broaden that audience considerably by writing artistic Christian speculative fiction. The more we invest in our stories, the more content will be present for a wider audience.

Do readers love The Lord of the Rings for the spiritual message? Some do. Others may love the adventure or the magic or the characters. The point is, the more that’s there, the more reason a variety of readers has to like the story.

I suggest that the stories that aim to do the most have the best chance of reaching the greatest audience and staying around the longest.

What do you think?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. Mike Duran says:

    I agree with what you’re saying here, Becky. The book that inspired me the most to be a writer was Tolkien’s The Two Towers. Yes, the scope of the trilogy and its vast mythology and characters was a part of it. But, in that instance, it was the author’s craft and attention to detail that inspired me so much. There were different layers, as you’ve noted.

    As to the art is subjective issue, I am growing weary of Christians using that argument. From my perspective, it is usually employed when defending a work that others don’t like. Frankly, I wish believing artists would spend more time raising the bar, than arguing there isn’t one.

  2. Fred Warren says:

    “I wish believing artists would spend more time raising the bar, than arguing there isn’t one.”>

    While I agree with this sentiment, I don’t think we can discount or ignore the audience’s subjective reaction. It’s genuine, meaningful feedback, even if it may not be well-articulated.

    We write for a much broader slice of humanity than critics or English professors, and no matter how high the technical bar, there will be a sizable and vocal subset of readers that simply won’t like any given story. This doesn’t make the story poorly-written or lacking in literary merit, but those complaints will always be out there. It’s also not an excuse to give up on excellence, but it will always be frustrating for the writer.

    I find that Christian writers in particular don’t take criticism well. I think many of them don’t expect negative comments about their work, especially from other Christians. It feels like somebody standing up in church and telling the world your kids are ugly. It’s not nice.

    On the other hand, there’s a lot of pure dreck on the market that people embrace because it resonates with them on some level. It’s maddening to a writer who’s trying to put out quality work but can’t find the elusive “thing” that keeps the junk flying off the shelf.

  3. For me, I know that even if I don’t like a an Artistic Thing, I can at least appreciate that its artist/singer/writer/director/whatever has done a good job.

    For instance, I don’t care to see the film Avatar, and have heard (I’m sure accurately) that the story is lame. But praise is nearly universal for the way the film was done visually. Few can criticize that side of the film’s artistic excellence.

    However, that’s different from arguing that an Artistic Thing simply isn’t done as well for intrinsic reasons. For example, as much as I like Fireproof (mostly by comparison with other Churchian movies), its dialogue was flawed in many ways simply because people agree that Realistic dialogue entails not constantly naming the speaker as if someone has just walked into the room (every minute or so) and needs to know what is going on and what the two characters’ relationship is. (“Dad …” “Son …” “Dad …” “Son …”) So in that instance “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” doesn’t count.

    But characteristics such as “edginess” are more variable. One must see a Thing in the context of its time. For example, a movie that gets shown more often this time of year — DeMille’s The Ten Commandments — was incredibly boundary-pushing for its time. Yet much of the film’s dialogue and oddities strike as today as hokey, and it’s certainly not “edgy” compared with contemporary effect-tricked-out films.

    With that in mind, another popular Christian-labeled Thing right now, the movie Soul Surfer, fails on all counts (and several of them are outlined, by a non-Christian writer, here. Even reviewers who want the film to succeed can see, when applying the standards of similar-genre movies, that its writing, acting and cinematography are subpar. And as a Christian who wants to see us telling better stories to ourselves and to the world, it gives cause for both gracious constructive criticism and incentive to do better. After all, it doesn’t help to sit back and critique without also offering and showing how books, films, songs and more can glorify God better through excellence.

  4. Galadriel says:

    A lot of very good points here. I wouldn’t go into the discussion about modern art, because that’s not the point of this discussion. I was recently thinking to myself that even if you divide art into catagories based on skill, there are times when lesser works are just what is needed.

    • Galadriel, I was going to explore that aspect, too, but the post was already getting long. Maybe next time, or if I have a chance to do justice to the topic in a comment, I’ll put some ideas out there and you can tell me what you think. Thanks for interacting on this.


  5. Bob says:

    “However, not every reader may realize the difference or care for the books considered artistic. Does that make those readers ignorant or wrong in their assessment? I don’t think so.”

    I hope you’re right, because I think I fall into this category. Upon embarking on writing a fantasy novel (inspired by Lewis’ Narnia) five years ago for my grandchildren, I read many parts/excerpts from published writers and found much of their styles to be not to my liking. Reviews, however, praised their styles as artistic, and I would not disagree. I think, however, reviewers are a more sophisticated, but smaller segment, of the reading audience. If readers are like me, the story is the most important thing and the telling of it shouldn’t interfere by being too stylized. Another analogy – It’s like when our theology gets in the way of our practice. If the Bible says it, believe it and do it. Don’t make the rightness of the theology the primary concern. So in writing, style and linguistics are good, but a good story is what matters, at least to me.

    • Morgan Busse says:

      I agree with Bob. The more and more I find out about the writing world, the more I realize I do not care as much about style and artistry as much as I care about a really good story. I will forgive an author of almost anything if they hook me 🙂

  6. I really appreciate these thoughts, all. I think I’m going to have to explore this topic more next time.

    Here’s what I’m thinking at this point: story still trumps all. It just does. We put up with stuff just so we can find out what happened next. BUT, wouldn’t great writing make even a good story better, let alone a great story? Wouldn’t great writing amplify and therefore be something we writers desire, and something we as Christians should see as our responsibility?

    OK, I think that might be the outline for my next post. 😉


  7. Morgan Busse says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. But sometimes its seems to me a writer sacrifices story for style and artistry; that they are trying too hard to write on a higher plane and thus let the story suffer. One example I see a lot is we are told not to use cliches or the same old descriptions. So we become more creative (we’re writers, right? creativity is our thing). But some descriptions are so out there they pull me out of the story and leave me scratching my head going how is a piece of licorice like a long road? lol 🙂

  8. Henrietta Frankensee says:

    Art transcends human understanding and ability. It is that which takes us out of and above ourselves and must be done with the ability God supplies. Unbelievers are entirely capable of producing art since ‘God has put eternity into the hearts of man’ Eccl. 3:11 It is when believers release themselves to the impulse of God that the world receives the truly transcendent and glorious.
    There is a paradox in the mingling of the divine and the human. I would dearly love to be rid of the failings and frailty of my condition, however, it is that loss and lack that is absolutely essential…according to God. He chooses to work in the weakest and most foolish.
    This is very hard work on the part of the one releasing herself. It requires study and honing to create a vessel for God to pour Himself into and for the art to pour freely from the brokenness of that vessel. Study that includes craft as well as healing and reconciliation.

  9. Luther says:

    can the artist become to self-absorbed in their artistry to properly convey a good story? The book/movie/play/etc may be excellent in style but poor in substance ( avatar as Stephen said )

  10. […] the corner slightly, I want to move from how a writer writes (see “Good Versus Mediocre” and “Another Look At Good Versus Mediocre”) and how a reader reads (see “Readers, […]

  11. […] their own standards of acceptability for Christian fiction, and some observers have argued, here and elsewhere, that the result is a homogenized product that looks Christian on the outside, but doesn’t […]

What do you think?