On Twitter the other week I posed the question:
Would you rather be remembered as having a large body of work with both some amazing things and some crap ones, or a small body of work where everything was a gem?
The results were interesting. Sixty-one percent voted for a small body of all gems; thirty-nine percent for the larger mixed body. In hindsight, I should have phrased my question better (bad anthropologist; no biscuit), because people may have interpreted “amazing things” as being not the same thing as “gems,” which was how I intended it. But maybe not; it’s entirely possible people knew what I meant, and that’s just where their particular preferences lie.
Me, I’m on the side of “large mixed body.” Because here’s the thing: even a really amazing work isn’t going to speak to absolutely everybody, and even a less-than-perfect story can brighten someone‘s day. If I have a large body of work, there will probably be more people overall who really felt touched by something I wrote — even if discussions of my writing include people saying “yeah, but let’s just pretend X never happened.”
Plus — as several people pointed out in their responses on Twitter — we can’t really control what is and is not received as a classic or a groundbreaking work. We can try our best, but in the end, that judgment is in the hands of other people. We can’t fully control how much work we produce, either; factors like health, day jobs, family demands, and the like will also cut into that. But it’s more within our grasp than reception is. If you step up to the plate a bunch of times, you won’t hit a home run every time, but your odds having at least a few are better than if you only took half a dozen swings.
So I’d rather produce a lot of work, even if some of it is meh or even (in hindsight) a bit embarrassing. And maybe somewhere in that pile, I’ll manage a few gems.