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Mediocrity and its Sins

Published on 26th October 2019

The worst crime a writer can commit is not to be bad, but to be mediocre. Impressively poor pieces of fiction are still impressive, in the same way impressively good pieces are: they are memorable. They are capable of an emotional, even intellectual resonance, thereby establishing a channel of communication between themselves and the reader, a channel through which the writer has migrated from his being to inhabit hearts and minds as invisible to him as his are to them. That such an intimate exchange can occur between strangers, by virtue of nothing more than the arrangement of letters on a flat page, is what makes writing so profound a form of communication. 

Work that is banal, then, work that is mediocre, has committed the sin of indifference. About the most powerful response it can inspire on the emotional and intellectual spectrum is “eh.” It does not register with the reader and will fade from memory within minutes of its submission there. 

Nor is the danger of mediocrity sufficiently avoided simply by being “good.” To be good is to be competent, and to be competent is to flirt with mediocrity. Competency is little more than a well-lubricated machine, its sheer efficiency threatening to dull its impact. The profound is traded for the perfunctory, the moving for the mechanical. The expected beats are hit and the baseline standard for “good” is reached, all with little in the way of genuine innovation, for ambition threatens competency. Merely competent work, then, and the safe mindset that leads to it, usually engages an audience on a level of superficiality not too distant from that of mediocre work. It ultimately means little to anyone besides its writer, and so it does not survive the migration to other minds and hearts, doomed to waver and flicker out in the storms of foreign scrutiny.



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