A short time ago I entered a writing competition and, unfortunately, came in fourth where the first three places were the finalists. Like anyone else, I was disappointed that, by a mere two points in this case, I had been pipped at the post, but like my ex always used to say when he had just missed hitting a car, “Almost doesn’t count.”
I had actually not entered to win (oh,whom am I fooling, please?) but to get feed back on my writing since I had undertaken to start a western historical novel which no one, but no one, in New York reads. Therefore, I obviously looked to the three judges of this contest for some useful critique. Two of the judges scored me at 99 and 94 out of 100 respectively and the third—whose marks happily didn’t count as the contest only took the two highest scores— scored me a whopping 56. For anyone who’s ever found themselves in a similar situation with a bad review, you’ll know that the only thing to do is to pour yourself a stiff drink. And that helps until you ask yourself….WHY? Where the first two judges raved about my dialogue and said they could hear the voices of my characters, No. 3 said they sounded like the 1960s instead of the 1860s. Whereas Nos. 1 & 2 loved the story and claimed they wanted to read more, No. 3 told me it was over-plotted and maybe I should try writing something else. In fact, if truth be told, No. 3 didn’t have a single good thing to say about my opus though she did finally concede that I had “flashes of genius!!!” Not even ‘some bits were ok,’ but actual genius! Hmmm.
So, was she having the literary equivalent of a bad hair day? Was she simply a hard marker? And who was right? Is good writing, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?
Some years ago, in another life in Britain, I co-edited a poetry magazine that took both solicited and unsolicited submissions. It included work from many well known poets from both sides of the Pond—Ginsberg, James Schuyler, Gerard Malanga, Anne Waldman among them—and a number of then unknown poets, including as yet to go stratospheric Peter Ackroyd (unsolicited). I remember a lengthy argument via snail mail with a pompous Christopher Hitchens whom we refused to publish; even he now admits he made an awful poet. What I don’t remember is ever having arguments with my co-editor as to what was or wasn’t a good poem. On the whole, we pretty much agreed what to take and what not to take. I accept poetry is a different fish to fiction but can there be such a gap between critics as to explain my results? And, by the way, I looked at the marks for all 20 contestants and the nearest gap to mine was a measly 20 point differential to my 40. Did my critic just hate “westerns”? Or did she see something the others didn’t?
So, is good fiction a subjective concept? When sentences are grammatically correct can ideas, imagery, voices, story be thought ‘good’ by one person and ‘bad’ by another? Obviously, it can or critics would be out of a job. On the other hand, the existence of classics and bestsellers says that there is often a general consensus of opinion. But why (and how and when) does a difference of opinion occur? The book on which they are voicing opinion has been thought worthy by agents and editors as well as the author. Maybe one person’s ‘good idea’ is another person’s ‘you must be kidding.’ Or maybe that flash of genius sometimes just doesn’t flash enough…