What is a novel, and who are the arbiters of quality? These questions were raised on Bubblecow and got me thinking, but much of the discussion focussed more on the issues of production and distribution than the implicit judgement as to how good a a book is. On a commercial level, and in the context of publishing, I stand by what I said there, which is that the reader (the market) decides.
But, and it’s a big but, I don’t believe the market is a good judge of quality. Look at the popularity of reality TV, or the overwhelming dominance of Tesco. Even less do I think some abstract evaluation of what appears to be selling in Waterstones or your local supermarket is the best way to judge the quality of one’s own (unpublished) literary efforts.
It was therefore exciting to read Liz Forgan’s introduction to the new Arts Council strategy. She talks about the importance of excellence, saying
it is simply the bravest, most original, most innovative, most perfectly realised work of which people are capable – whether in the creation of art, its performance, its communication or its impact on audiences. … it is to be measured in its effect on both those who make it and those who experience it – and it is the opposite of the safe, routine and imitative.
That seems a good yardstick to start with, if from a rather intimidating source. Of course any artist should be able to feel that moment when it’s right, when it’s as good as you can make it. None of that addresses those times when you lose sight of whether the work’s any good any more, or the niggling dread that as good as you can make it simply isn’t good enough. So finding writer’s groups (and yes, I wish there was one active in Ipswich right now), and relying on friends to beta-test your work are important too. Plus the constant re-assessment of your own work and the greatest of what there is in your chosen field. So I’m off to hunt excellence in the next short story in my seafarer’s collection.