The Harmful Pursuit of the Perfect Story
No book can appeal universally to all audiences. No work of art can. Yet, to the detriment of stories, universal perfection is still regarded as an ideal.
Universal perfection is the idea that it is possible to create an objectively masterful story that somehow enthralls each and every person that reads it. I cannot tell you the number of reviews I’ve seen complaining that a story was not fast enough or thrilling enough, when the story is not a thriller. Even if a book were to somehow succeed at everything it was trying for, it would still not please every reader.
This truth goes deeper than people merely wanting a book to be a genre that it is patently not. It exists within genres and in comparing similar books. For me, nothing illustrates this better than the Gentlemen Bastard Sequence by Scott Lynch. I love fantasy books and this series appears on countless lists of the best fantasy books. I gave it a chance, reading through the second book albeit slowly, but never made it to the third. It just wasn’t right for me. There is no guarantee that you’ll like a book even if it is of a favorite genre with lots of acclaim.
The same thing goes for book components, for example action sequences, which are a staple of many genres such as SFF fiction. I classify them as existing on a spectrum from visceral to very detailed. It can be hard in a fully explained action sequence to capture the immediacy and chaos of a sequence because the explanation inevitably slows the reader. The best action scenes strike a balance (I think of Red Rising by Pierce Brown). Yet, there is no objective measure for where this balance lies. I personally favor immediacy and emotion. (I prefer the visceral action sequences in Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter as opposed to the impressive detail in Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear.) However, this does not mean that these qualities should be favored. What it does mean is that the ideal action sequence for me, might be less than ideal for another person. There is no one writing style that is objectively the best.
None of this is to say that all writing is equally good. If you write a novel with an intended twist ending that most people figure out by page 50 then you’ve messed up. Receiving and giving feedback is good, so long as we acknowledge that each book will fail to meet some readers’ expectations. Even celebrated, ground-breaking authors like Toni Morrison were rejected at first because they failed to appeal to some in the publishing industry. (In fact, I would suggest that many works are rejected at first precisely because they are ground-breaking.)
In pursuit of objective perfection, feedback risks becoming destructive, both for the giver and the receiver. A rejection from a literary agent becomes not a singular opinion, but proof that a book is bad. A negative review ceases to be just your reading experience and becomes an attempt to drag the book and perhaps the author. (Shamefully, I felt this way about the Gentlemen Bastard Sequence for a time.) Writers can get discouraged and important stories can be shut out altogether.
Underrepresented voices, such as black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people, can be particularly hard-hit, especially by the criticism that their books are unrelatable. As Matthew Salesses notes, when you say a work is unrelatable that often just means you aren’t the intended audience (a thank you to Evan Winter’s tweet for showing this to me). If one believes in the ideal of an objectively perfect story, a critique is no longer regarded as just one reader’s opinion but a universal verdict that the story is deeply flawed because it hasn’t properly catered to the reviewer. Scale this up to the broader world and you have the loudest, most powerful voices shutting out underrepresented voices.
In writing a novel or story, it is important to decide what type of narrative you want to tell and what you hope to accomplish. If someone is trying to change your goals, even if they claim to be helping, then you probably shouldn’t listen to them. If you are reviewing or evaluating a story, remember that your opinion, while still valid, isn’t an objective verdict. Note your biases. It will be better for you and it will be more constructive for your evaluation’s audience. Not everybody wants or needs the same stories. Don’t let your pursuit of a perfect novel work against you or the stories of others.