There’s No Such Thing as “Good” or “Bad” Writing

You’re hungry. What do you feel like eating: good food or bad food? I’m guessing good. But what does that mean? A greasy breakfast? Tacos? Ice cream? Beef Bourguignon? “Good” with food means exactly nothing because it has too many conditions, the most important of which are the preferences of the person eating.

How can anyone quantify the tastes of someone else? Sure, some things are objective: undercooked vs. burnt, for example. Many things are not. Like Heinz beans vs. caviar. I know which one I prefer, and it’s not the one a French food critic would (probably).

It may have made a certain sense in homogenous societies, where a small group owned everything and ran everything, and what they liked became the best. If they thought French food was supreme, the more French anything was the better. It must also have served a purpose in making individuals view each other as competitors in everyday life; emphasizing instead of minimizing trivial differences. Divide and conquer, and all that.

Now, many communities are not so homogenous anymore, thank goodness. We are (likely) living among groups of diverse languages, arts, flavors, and tastes. We can longer act as though there is a hierarchy that places one as better than the other. I would argue that, for the sake of common human decency, we should have explicitly thrown that idea out ages ago.

I know many people disagree. As far back as high school, I was balking at literary or art criticism, and yet I realized there were reasons it could be valuable. Just as I know that with cooking there are skills and techniques to master and that people in those worlds can make a judgment on how capably that was done.

But isn’t that distinct from the art, or the story, or the eating experience itself? With its ability to provoke emotion, or to be loved? To be worth money to someone? Who the heck gets to decide that one person’s self-expression is “less-than” someone else’s? As if one person’s emotions are better than someone else’s. How arrogant, how twisted is that.

Some beloved writing is objectively not the most lyrical, or original, or well-paced. Those things don’t always have anything to do with its impact. We’ve been taught to think it does, but it doesn’t, really. We’re all supposed to want to be like the people at the top of the pyramid. Why? Because they have money? And if I want some too, I have to be like them, I guess.

Comparing is fine. Saying you like one over the other is fine. We all do that with everything. Where it becomes damaging to ourselves and others is when we pretend that our preference is some sort of objective reality. What we like is “good” and what we don’t is “bad”. People have bitter fights over whether or not a movie is “good”, like that’s a real thing.

There is no good or bad, just preference.

Viewed this way, there is no such thing as good cooking, good writing, or good books.

Working in a public library for 20 years taught me that what I think, or the reviewers think, or the awards people think doesn’t matter a whit for the person looking for a book to spend hours with. Sure, once in a while, it does, but really it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, many people feel pressured to read the “good” book instead of what they like. Or they feel guilty for reading something and call it their guilty pleasure. It’s so sad that people can’t like what they like because of this artificial dichotomy.

(Don’t get me started on guilty pleasures. Why do you feel guilty? Just call it a pleasure. Do men use that term nearly as often as women?)

Create what you want. Eat what you want. Read what you want. People will disagree with you. That’s ok. Like me and the people who love cilantro. I will never understand that, but should that matter to them? No, not a single bit.


Featured photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

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