Good Art is Popular Because it’s Good….Right?

This was the title of an article on NPR’s Morning Edition this morning (available here)


The general upshot of the experiment cited in the article turns out to be, “It is hard to make things of very poor quality succeed — though after you meet a basic standard of quality, what becomes a huge hit and what doesn’t is essentially a matter of chance.”

So it’s apparently not all about the quality of the work. Something can become a great hit without being of super-high quality (For example, Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown come to mind….huge hits, but comparatively ‘workmanlike’ prose*. It was, instead, their stories that got the attention, and then they went…well, viral.)

This suggests that a lot of what happens in the art world is out of the artist’s control. I know some very good writers whose novels seem to be languishing unread. And I wonder how much of that was simply not being in the right place at the right time…

And it makes me even more grateful that I’ve gotten as far as I have. ;o)

*I’ve read their work, and this is how I would describe their prose. It’s not poetic, or even particularly high grade-level reading. That is, however, totally my opinion. I won’t argue if you want to hold out that Meyer is the true scion of Shakespeare. (FWIW, I would also classify my writing as being on the ‘workmanlike’ side of the line.)


6 thoughts on “Good Art is Popular Because it’s Good….Right?

  1. This makes assumptions about what constitutes good that don’t necessarily hold. For example, in writing, is great prose ultimately the only measure of good? Good or great pacing is also a skill. So is good or great character, or world, or story. I haven’t read either Brown or Meyer, but I have read things with meh prose that are still amazingly excellent works do to other aspects of art and craft.

    Also, who gets to decide what constitutes good. There are things that you or I as professional writers might judge to be bad prose because of the context in which we read it, while an inexpert or early reader might find them amazing, because they do important things with simple structure and words. I.e. good for me or thee, is not necessarily good for everyone. I absolutely want experts deciding whether my bridge design is sound, experts deciding on esthetics is a dicier proposition. If good is a democratic ideal, it may be that good for the many who are not experts is better than good for the few who are.

    Mind you, I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but every time I see someone trying to make objective decisions about something as subjective as art I get a little bit itchy. I do think there is a line between that which almost everyone can agree something is bad, and that which almost everyone can agree is competent, but after that things go very fuzzy very fast.

    1. Yes, I did point out that there’s some excellent story-work behind both Meyer’s and Brown’s work. I was only commenting on the quality of their prose, which is not, um, high-level.

      True that things get fuzzy fast. Most people agree that The Eye of Argon is terrible….but it shares some of its problems with Eragon, which did very well. Eragon is far better written, and the tropes handled more skillfully, yet I think that a lot of people dislike it because of those tropes….so is it a good work or not?? (I don’t have that answer…)

  2. Okay, and having wandered off to read the article, I’m not sure he’s measuring what the article claims he’s measuring. Popularity, yes, and social influence yes, but quality? Who decided on which songs to include? And his methodology strikes me as a bit dodgy, particularly his sample choice. Ah well, it’s still a fun question.

  3. It is impossible to predict what will be the next Harry Potter, etc. I’ve always thought Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series should have received the same attention as Rowling’s vastly more famous works, but it is, truly, a matter of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right piece of work that sparks something in a large number of readers, etc. If it was a science, we’d just do the math and cash the checks, and swim in out Scrooge MsDuck coin pools.

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