Isaac Asimov once said that when he read a sci-fi novel that was very bad, he threw it across the room in disgust. When he read one that was very good, he threw it across the room in frustration that he hadn't written it first.
I like Stephen King, and own about 20 of his books - but until recently, I'd never read The Shining. Weird, eh? Anyway, I recently began it, and I feel like throwing it across the room. I will never be as good as that man has been. Give me a thousand years to learn and I'd still fall short. King has an eerie feel for people, and tremendous skill in expressing that. I wish I could be angry but he's just too damn good.
The same goes for Sheri S Tepper, author of The Awakeners and A Plague of Angels, among others. I'm now reading the sequel to that last, called The Waters Rising - yes, while also reading King. Even more weird. After 80 pages I'm gnashing my teeth in envy while also captivated. She's so good it's unsettling. Often her work has feminist themes, but they're so subtly done that at first I didn't notice. I think that's refreshing, because a lot of feminist authors use writing as a club. Tepper uses it as a fine paintbrush.
This is depressing. If I can never be as good as these people, why should I bother?
Well, there are other authors who I can match, I think - or even surpass. Tepper makes the ordinary seem magical; by contrast, Harry Turtledove takes extraordinary events and makes them mundane and uninteresting. Terry Brooks copied Tolkien for the first Shannara book, and has told the same story over again two dozen times since in more turgid prose. There are others, but I don't want to name them all. I'll offend too many people (and inflate my own ego besides, hehe).
Even this isn't the point, though. I tell the stories I do because that's what I've got. I can't match the highbrow novels of Jane Austen, or follow the flights of fancy of Neil Gaiman. And no, I can't match the psychological insight of Stephen King. But I think I can tell decent stories that have a bit of excitement, which feel somewhat fresh, and which hopefully give people enjoyment.
I suspect, when you strip away all the interpretations made by critics, that most authors were doing only that. Telling stories. It's a pretty good life.