With all my talk recently about the problems of template-driven storytelling, an insight emerged. We have a tendency to confuse the process of describing something with the process of creating it.
Meaning, we seem to have the idea that if we can document in detail what something is, we can therefore reverse-engineer the creation process (and, by extension, the work) and come up with a way to make any number of things that operate the same way and have the same effect on the audience.
The varieties of fallacious reasoning at work here are so diverse that I scarcely know where to begin.
The first problem is the implicit idea that what creative works have in common constitute the best ways to talk about the genesis of future creative works. It's not what creative works have in common that makes them interesting; it's how they diverge — how they can start from the same medium, the same subject matter, even the same set of hands, and yet awaken within us totally unheralded possibilities. It's the fact that François Truffaut was responsible for both the froth of Day for Night and the stiffer stuff of The 400 Blows.
If I showed you how to paint the Mona Lisa by showing you the exact sequence of brushstrokes used, that wouldn't mean you had taken inspiration from it. You might be able to use that to illuminate some existing understanding about da Vinci — X-ray analyses of paintings often yield up such insights — but that in turn requires an understanding about creative work, and creators, that goes beyond merely going through their motions.
I'm not arguing against the idea of, say, talking about a story having a beginning, middle, and an end. All stories have to work like that, or they aren't stories. I'm against using that understanding as a way to hold a piece of work up to a checklist. That may be what makes something marketable, but it's not what makes something good. What makes something good is not assessable through a simple formula.
Problem is, we want very much to believe that something is good because it can be sold, and vice versa. To believe such a thing removes the responsibility of having to engage with a work on anything more than a superficial level. It also has the handy side effect of reducing all difficult questions of aesthetics to easy ones of personal tastes. I don't know what's Art, but I know What I Like; who can't speak those words with a clear conscience?
On the other hand, I don't want to write what amounts to an apologia for incompetence here. It isn't art because it's incomprehensible or merely moody. I'm more specifically objecting to how, in the face of the sheer volume of work out there, critical standards have devolved to the point where we have no choice but to hold things up to prefab checklists as a way to see if they do their respective jobs. I suspect that's also why critics in general get such a bad rap, because those who can't do, teach — but criticism doesn't have to be high-brow, high-flown, or high-handed to be useful. We need good art more than ever, and we need both good artists and good critics to have a lively dialogue, instead of simply shutting themselves off into their respective cork-lined rooms and venting to a self-selected group.
What makes a work good is not how well it sells, but how well it proves to its audience that something worthy of engagement with it is going on. The nature of that proof will vary between audiences and works, but some specimen of it must be in evidence at all times.