In today’s all-or-nothing society, where everything has to be the absolute best there is, where every day has to be totally awesome and worthy of inclusion in the history books, where everyone is expected to perform at maximum intensity all day long, and where multi-tasking is not simply an uncommon though admirable character trait but an absolute job requirement, I believe we have begun to confuse the distinction between what is “best,” and what is merely “good.” So often we are expected to be “the best,” or produce “the best” or see “the best.” Good is, so often, not good enough. We have ultimate expectations on our hands. Much of what we read, see, hear and experience is touted as “the best,” as though nothing else is acceptable. Like the character of Barney in the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” every day has to be exceptionally awesome to the point of nauseous exhaustion. Almost weekly, award shows give out awards for the best of this, that, or the other. As I write this, the Cincinnati Bengals have just beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers to move to a season record of 7-0, and they are being considered as Super Bowl contenders. The winner of the Super Bowl is, and rightly so, the best in the NFL for that year. But will the Bengals be “the best?” Everyone waits, breathless. (Note in passing, I used to live in Cincinnati, and so still follow the Bengals during football season.)
But there’s a profound difference between “the best,” and “good.” As a writer, I am expected to produce written material that is not only good, but “the best.” Contests for writers abound. For short stories, for poetry, for first novels, etc. Submit and win, they say, as though that were a simple matter. Winning a contest can boost your career. Sure, but only one person wins a contest. And if you lose, does that mean you weren’t “the best?” Horrors.
Take the Oscars, or the Emmys, for example. These are two of the best known “best” shows. Always the emphasis is on what is the best: the best show or movie or song or performer or director or producer of special effects, or whatnot. It’s always “the best,” as though good has nothing to do with it. It’s vitally important to keep in mind that those awards are simply for what was best during the previous season. Nothing is ever said about how “good” the show or movie or actor or director really is. Was the winner of the Oscar for the Best Movie of 20-whatever really any “good” to begin with? Now, to be sure, so many movies are made and so many TV shows are produced each year that by the law of averages, one or a few are almost certain to be “good.” Maybe even excellent. But let us never lose sight of the real question we should ask of any award. Was it really any good in the first place?
As a writer, I look to the book awards perhaps more critically than the movie awards. The Pulitzers, the National Book Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and many others. I particularly like the fact that a Pulitzer award may not always be given out if the judges can’t agree on a winner. That happened for fiction in 2012, in 1977, 1971, 1964, 1957, and several times earlier. This happens when they can’t agree on a winner, though we generally make the assumption that the finalists for that year were very good to begin with.
In my opinion, good trumps best in most cases. I try to write a good novel or short story. It may be the best I can do, but did I make it any good, regardless of whether it wins a prize? The fact that so many agents and publishers have rejected my novels makes me wonder if what I wrote was any good at all, but I persevere with an eye toward eventual publication. This is one reason I don’t want to self-publish. There’s no way to really know if what I wrote is any good or not without some form of validation in the broader publishing world. I would certainly hate to write a lousy novel and put it out there.