Art via committee?

“It’s impossible to make good art by committee.”

Someone said this to me in a discussion about the use of beta readers and critique partners. Now, I’m not putting words into his mouth, it’s always difficult to discuss ideas fully in DMs over Instagram, but I haven’t been able to shake the question: “can we make good art via committee?”

As a reader, I’ve always been interested in those long dedication/thanks pages that some writers include: aren’t you the writer? Didn’t you write the thing yourself? Even the idea of an editor has been a puzzle to me, if you’re a good writer, what job does the editor have? Do the best writers just need a proof-reader? Actually, if you’re a good writer, shouldn’t you be able to spell?

But now, I’m writing my first novel. The story kept floating around in my mind, I started it in February 2019, then the characters started to chatter at me, then we had Lockdown, but it was only when I was approached by a fellow teacher/writer that the pace of my writing picked up. I was on less than 2 thousand words in August 2020 and now I’m over 8 thousand. I put this surge in words down to a few events and, a few people, in fact. And at this point, I could already fill a couple of sides with all the people who have helped, supported and input into my writing. I’m the main contributor, but I suppose you could describe it as a committee. If I ever complete my novel (I plan to) I won’t see it as something I completed in a solitary way, but I will be proud of it nonetheless.

Just a few months ago, I had the opportunity to record a radio programme with Emily Anderson (The University of Newcastle). She has a programme called “Unfinished and unpublished” and as part of our talk, I read two blog posts that I had written a couple of years previously. Following that I realised I had missed writing and that I wanted it to feature in my life again.

Fast forward to today and I have taken a new job that gives me more freedom to spend time on my own writing and I have regular writing dates with my critique partner. Both at very different points in our novel writing journeys (mine barely started, hers well on the way), we agreed to try out swapping a few hundred words once a week for some feedback. It turned out that we had a lot in common and we both found value in a reader who was distant enough to offer honest, fair criticism of the writing we shared.

I was scared to share what I had written, I’m not a naturally brilliant writer. I struggle with syntax and finding the details to move my plot forward, but as soon as I acted on the criticism from my new writing partner, I saw a marked improvement. I learnt. Equally, I made (make) suggestions that I know my partner has acted on and I hope she feels they have improved her work (a wonderful literary dystopia set after the pandemic).

My mum is proof reading as I go, offering synonyms and questions about characters that I’d assumed had been answered. My best friend has carried our historical and geographical research for me and also offered a first read of some early chapters. Each of these interactions has been a step away from the fear of being judged and a step towards learning, growing and improving as a writer.

So, we can make art by committee. The concept of ‘good’ art is another blog post all together, and an issue that I’ll inevitably spend some of the festive period debating with my brothers. For the purposes of this blog post, can we accept that how ‘good’ art is, is entirely subjective? I wonder if the issue with art by committee is more to do with the ego of the artist? If we can’t take complete credit for a piece of work, then does our value as an artist decrease? Is art not as ‘good’ if the creator received help, support, input even? Maybe so. I am certainly a less accomplished artist than someone who worked entirely on their own and produced something that was instantly adored by millions, in the way that I imagine Tolkien did (although to be honest I think he could have done with some help with his sentence length.) Is it just that publishing, writing, editing, has changed? I’m interested in your thoughts, please feel free to comment below.

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