An old saying goes, “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” I may have brought it up before. It keeps echoing back in my head any time I attend a panel on writing or comics, or these days am on such a panel. Or heck, even when someone comes by our table at a convention and asks for advice.
Now I’m not sure that I feel like a king any more now than I did several years ago, but I’ve begun to consider that the realm of fiction is, was, and continues to be one big land of the blind where even the experts would be lucky to have a single functioning eye. Ask thirty writers what makes good writing and more often than not you’ll get thirty different answers… sometimes very close, sometimes wildly different, but none of them 100% the same. Ask the same thirty writers ten years later what makes good writing, and they may not even have the same answers their younger selves gave. I don’t even have to be speculative there, Alan Moore published a guide in 1985 that not a decade later he was considering the worst sort of uninformed tripe. That’ll make you question whether their vision is any better now than it was then, right?
Is commercial success the way to tell who should be dictating good from bad? Only if you consider Fifty Shades of Grey the best novel ever published in the English language, and E.L. James the pinnacle of the writing craft. Personally, I like to believe there’s more to it than that.
What about critical acclaim? Well, ask thirty critics whether a given writer is “good” and chances are at least one of them may be completely ambivalent, if not actively hostile. There’s just no security in fiction, no infinitely repeatable formula the way a chemist can be certain combing two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen gets you a water molecule. There are just artists groping their way forwards the best they can, hopefully connecting with an audience groping back the other way, and if someone gropes something sensitive you just have to pray that will be an ultimately rewarding experience.
Does all this mean I see no point in giving or receiving advice on writing? No. Obviously not, or I wouldn’t be part of panels or writing these blogs. It’s a conundrum that seems as contradictory as the advice sometimes is, and like I said I do keep musing on the land of the blind and whether the only partially blind make for good leaders or are just stumbling themselves and their followers towards the pits of related Biblical proverb.
I think what I keep coming back to is another old saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” I like finding out about, and passing on, certain observations of form and function regarding the art. Here’s what this guy does. Here’s what this girl does. Here’s what I do. Check out all these tools and inspirations. Come on down to the stream of my thoughts, and drink as deeply as you want. Or, having had a look at what I showed you, trot away to find something more palatable to your thirst.
I can’t guarantee, after all, that the water is pure and good — maybe I might just have a higher tolerance for dysentery than you do.