The other night I got to talking with friends about our respective stories, and about how I was in a sense jealous of a quality that a friend of mine possesses in his work. He spans two domains very nicely in his writing — the wit and snark of, roughly, the Dave-Barry-to-Douglas-Adams-and-including-Terry-Pratchett continuum, and the more serious domains found in the works of folks like Richard Florida. I admitted to being jealous of the wit, if only because it seems to attract a broader and more engaged class of audience.
Then came a thought experiment: Suppose I were a writing teacher and I had one of my students come to me with such a lament?
I'm starting to realize how one of the biggest mistakes we can make with art — as producers and as consumers both — is to try and insist on standards of value or social utility that are simply not commutative between different works. By this I mean that while there is far more social utility (I guess) in one of Chekhov's plays than there is in John Wick, that doesn't mean John Wick is uniformly worthless. It means they satisfy different needs and by different means, and that most of the nattering and finger-wagging and chin-stroking about art as a social phenomenon only really helps when it's about you asking yourself those questions about your work.
My point is the same here. My work can only really be measured against my other work. It can be compared to other work, and I guess you can draw lessons about what it might lack or where it might excel, but those lessons only really help to shape the directions you choose to take for your own present or future work. I'm not implying that we shouldn't call out a piece of work for being socially reactionary or uninformed, only that outside of such questions, the vast majority of discussion about quality isn't commutative when it's in the service of trying to figure out how to improve your own work.
I'm not crazy about a lot of my own work. The Trough of Disillusionment shows up fairly soon after it's done, when I look back on it and realize this wasn't done well and that wasn't tangled with it at all and my god that scene was stupid. Most people will never see such things; best to pay attention to the things they do see, because they tend to differ drastically from your own blinkered view of your work (although they too may wear blinders of their own, never forget). But the only way for me to think about where it came from, where I can go with it, and what I can do about it is what comes before and after it in my own timeline.
My friend has a lot to teach me about the way he uses his ingredients. Nowhere does that imply I have to imitate him, or that my future best work will be more like his and less like mine. What it means is that I've only just started to learn how my envy of his work can be drawn on to goad me into rooms I've not even approached the door to, let alone opened and set foot inside.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind