I spent a little time last night crumpled into a ball of existential woe. There were many reasons for this, but one of the issues at the core of my unhappiness was a pervasive feeling of loneliness. I had gotten pulled into several online arguments among writers, and all of them left me miserable and confused.
Art is a tricky, confusing thing. On the one hand, it seems that all art is subjective. How do you tell whether a piece of writing is "good" or "bad"? Can you just hold it up to a rubric of expected qualities and tropes? What about the writing that breaks all the rules but is deemed "good" (or even "amazing") all the same? What about books that are loved by readers but hated by critics, or vice versa? And what about the books that everyone agrees are awful, but love anyway -- those "guilty pleasure" stories?
The whole thing is so complicated, and it's very easy to take an easy way out and say, "All art is subjective, there is no such thing as quality."
But that doesn't seem right. Surely we can objectively state that a child's scribbling is not the same as a literary classic, just as we can tell that a person's first attempt at playing the piano is not on the same level as a grand master pianist. We can identify skill when we see it.
So then there's other theories tossed around. One popular one seems to be, "If it sells well, it must be good." The idea suggests that quality is democratic, that it's something that can be voted on. This is a very popular theory of late. Not only are there best-sellers lists guiding the purchasing decisions of buyers, but art and services of all kinds are decided by popular opinion: from game shows like American Idol to Yelp ratings to up-votes on Youtube and even social media like Reddit, the theory seems to be that if a lot of people like something, it must be good.
Yet even that seems unsatisfying. There are lots of things that are popular that aren't particularly good, and things that are great that are unpopular. Consider, for example, Honey Boo Boo, or Justin Bieber.
Which of course leads to some people holding the opposite reaction: If something is popular, it must suck.
Like I said, this whole thing is a hornet's nest. Something that seems so simple gets very complicated and ugly very fast once you start debating it.
I would argue that good art is effective. That is, it does what the creator intends for it to do, and it's well-received by its target audience.
The question then becomes an issue of defining your target audience, and determining what does and does not work for them. It also means accepting that your target audience may not be big enough to make your work "Popular." You have to decide: Do you want to stay loyal to a small but loyal target audience, or do you want to appeal to the masses in hopes of greater success?
Myself, I'm in the "small but loyal" camp. Of course, I would like it if my books spilled over into other groups and gained popularity and became break-away hits of awesomeness, but that's not really in my control.
What about you guys? Do you know who your ideal readers are? Do you have any tips for reaching your target audience? Or do you think that something else determines quality? Let me know in the comments!