I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told “good is subjective” or “best is subjective”. Every time I hear it, it makes me howl with rage. Because it is wrong.
If there is no such thing as good – because if it’s entirely subjective and personal, then it’s completely useless as a descriptive term – then how do editors choose which books to publish, how do judges choose which books to give prizes to, how do academics chose which books to study? And why don’t they all choose completely different books?
They can do all this because the quality of a book can be determined objectively. It is not an exact science, and it is subject to changes in taste and/or re-evaluation in light of changes in attitudes and sensibilities. But there are certain key indicators in fiction which can be used to determine the quality of that piece of fiction. It’s what makes one writer more talented, more skilled than another writer. It’s what makes one story worthy of study and another not worth giving away for free. It’s why we have classics of literature, andwhy some books are still in print two hundred years after they were first published.
If good is subjective, then awards are completely pointless. And studying literature, well, that’s a complete waste of time too. After all, how can you be an expert in a topic in which one individual’s value judgment is worth exactly the same another person’s? There’d be no such thing as an expert. All books would have exactly the same artistic value.
This is patently nonsense.
Perhaps it’s easier to describe what is bad – if good is subjective, then by definition bad must be too. Except, strangely, everyone seems to agree that the following do indeed indicate that a piece of fiction is bad: cardboard cutout characters, idiot plotting, clumsy prose, tin-earred dialogue, lack of rigour, graceless info-dumping, unoriginality, bad research…
So if we can determine with a reasonable degree of accuracy what constitutes a bad book, then it logically follows we can do the same for a good book. And since this is a scale of sorts, then there must be an objective element to determining a piece of fiction’s position on the scale. Which means it is not subjective.
And “best”? It means “of the highest quality”, “most excellent”. It is the superlative form of “good”. Go and look it up in a dictionary. If good is not subjective, then best cannot be either.
If you want to describe a book in entirely subjective terms, then tell people how much you enjoyed it, how much you liked it. That’s your own personal reaction to it. It appealed to you, it entertained you. That’s the book directly affecting you. Another person may or may not react the same way, the book might or might not do the same to them.
Because that’s subjective, that is.
June 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm
Testify, Brother Ian!
How many times have I heard the same argument, fans of crap writing loudly (even hysterically) proclaiming that their favorite shit books are just as “literary” (often spelled with two ‘r’s) as ANNA KARENINA.
“And, anyway,” they sniff when they encounter a reviewer or blogger desecrating the latest teen-dry-humping-vampire series, “that’s only their opinion.” The notion of a hierarchy of writing is completely alien to them–they may not know what literature is, as the old saying goes, but they know what they like. And what they like, therefore, must be great.
Genre fans are particularly thin-skinned, as you’ve found out when you’ve commented about the appalling writing exhibited by many of the “grand masters’ of science fiction during the “Golden Age” of the 1950’s. Let’s not forget that THE FOUNDATION series, excreted by SF’s worst, most inept and tone-deaf scribbler, was voted by fans as their all-time favorite. And they wonder why contemporary literature continues to give their particular smelly backwater a wide berth. Too many alligators and the fishing is lousy.
Great piece, once again. In my case, it’s preaching to the converted but, never mind, I like hanging out in your church and like the fact that you’re so liberal with the sacramental wine.
July 16, 2012 at 2:49 am
A reader has to decide what to spend his or her time on. The trouble with some science fiction is that there is not science. The writing can be great. The characters can be great. The Liberal Arts people can love it. But it ain’t science fiction. Kurt Vonnegut talked about this in 1965.
I some people don’t like the Foundation Series but think Hyperion is great, I don’t have a problem with that. I won’t argue with them about it. But I am willing to accept that everybody has a right to their own value system because it is THEIR TIME to spend reading. I would just like a much better system of describing and evaluating varying characteristics. But try getting the Liberal Arts people to evaluate Science in supposed science fiction stories. Maybe Asimov know too much science. What is all of the STEM crap they are talking about these days?
July 16, 2012 at 6:13 am
There wasn’t much science in Asimov. And there are quite a lot of “liberal arts” people who are sf fans.
June 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm
One response to the “subjective” argument might be that different groups of readers may have different criteria by which they judge the reading experience. They still have have values for good and best, but they apply those accolades to different things than do other types of readers.
For instance, an accusation often levelled at adventure-based THE fantasies is that the prose may often be functional at best and the settings and characters may sometimes fall back on stereotypes. For many readers these would equate to a poor reading experience, but for others the functional prose may facilitate an easy, quick read — all the better to enjoy the story — and any stereotypicality in the settings and characters may be translated as familiarity — even if the world and people have different names they’re still in a comfort zone imagination-wise.
You can’t say these readers are wrong — they just have different criteria by which they judge “good” (eg, the story!). And by extension, if those readers are buying loads of copies, you can’t say that the editors who publish those books are wrong to do so.
I get quietly enraged by claims that those sorts of “bad” books (and I’m not including all THE fantasy in this, there are some very original, very well written examples of the genre) should not be published, and the shelves should instead groan with much more ambitious and literary works.
Because, the people that read the “bad” books will then be forced to acknowledge what they’ve been missing and will automatically migrate to the “good” stuff, won’t they?
Well, won’t they?
June 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm
Neil, I’m not sure why you’d defend readers who stay within their comfort zone and refuse to explore the vast universe of literature. Why should we excuse or rationalize mental/aesthetic laziness? The mind is demonstrably a muscle and when you don’t exercise it with challenging work, diverse viewpoints, mental conundrums and moral dilemmas, it gets flaccid and, yes, stupid.
I’m with Kafka on this one, bro:
“One should only read books which bite and sting one. If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a blow to the head, what’s the point in reading? A book must be the axe which smashes the frozen sea within us.”
June 1, 2012 at 2:55 pm
Heh, personally I agree with you. I very much expect that I value many of the same types of books that you do, and I’d rather bathe in snails and strong vinegar than read an unimaginative book or story.
But we are not all readers. I’m not “excusing” other types of readers, I’m just acknowledging their existence (which may actually be in rather large numbers).
The principle function of the publishing industry is not to educate and improve. It’s to supply books for which there is a demand.
June 1, 2012 at 3:05 pm
Thanks a lot, Neil, that’s the most depressing thing I’ve read this morning. In my mind, it’s up to smart, discerning readers–that critical community I keep seeking out on the web–to educate the proles and highlight the superb writing that is available should they wish to feed their minds something more substantial than eye candy and semi-literate drivel.
I also believe that we shouldn’t give bad writing a pass, merely because (in the case of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY) millions of people are reading it and virulently defending its merits. Personally, I never miss the opportunity to kick bad writers in the teeth and needle their half-witted, dough-brained fans. Embarrass ’em, remind them that they’re the reason we have reality TV, Michael Bay and the Kardassian sisters.
And, ooooo, how I love to hear them shriek in outrage…
June 1, 2012 at 3:24 pm
Sorry, Cliff. Trust me, I’m all for advocacy of good books. I always try and promote the stuff I enjoy as widely as possible. And if someone makes the jump and likes it, it makes me happy.
But…”proles”? C’mon, that lacks respect, and it smacks of superiority which is never classy. As a writer, I don’t think I have the right to disrespect any potential reader. I don’t agree with their choices, but they’re entitled to spend their dosh and their reading time as they see fit.
And to extend the commercial argument – these guys are loyal consumers. They find a flavour that they like and they stick with it, book after book, series after series. Which means they buy a lot of books. The income of which enables the publishers to put out commercially riskier prospects (that the likes of us read). So can you *really* complain about them?
June 1, 2012 at 3:48 pm
Okay, Neil, strike “proles” and substitute “half-bright fuckwits whose mental age roughly approximates their shoe size”.
I refuse to allot the slightest respect to people who read crap and then turn around and aggressively defend its artistic worthiness. I write for an informed, intelligent readership and make no effort to cater to a literary marketplace which is, if recent best seller lists are accurate, moronic and cringe-worthy. I’ve raised my sights just a tad higher than that.
I wish these “readers” publishers are currently falling all over themselves to satisfy, would go back to their cats and vibrators and using their books as coasters. Then, maybe, a few more good, sound, well-written offerings might sneak their way onto shelves…
June 1, 2012 at 4:06 pm
That’s your prerogative, Cliff. And, for the record, I have no intention of dumbing down my writing either. That’s not what I’m talking about here.
>Then, maybe, a few more good, sound, well-written offerings might sneak their way onto shelves…
Maybe… or maybe, with all those former readers now lavishing their fortunes on cats and vibrators, the publishing industry would shrink and even fewer books of any sort would be published. Although whether the ones that remained would be “good, sound, well-written, etc. could be debatable due to all the editors made redundant because the new, streamlined and ideologically improved industry cannot support their existence.
It’s a poser, isn’t it?
June 1, 2012 at 4:13 pm
Btw – if you’ve interpreted anything in what I’ve said so far as aggressive, then I apologise. There’s no aggression involved here (Ian will, I hope, vouch that I am among the least aggressive people he knows), just forthright placement of views.
June 1, 2012 at 4:17 pm
Your points are well made, plus you got “cred”. I’m enjoying the discussion.
June 1, 2012 at 4:15 pm
Neil, we’ve both been around a long time and, as authors, we’ve seen trends come and go, the superstars of six months ago pulped, remaindered and forgotten.
I reiterate my view that we, as smart readers and writers, have to do more to identify talented writers and ground-breaking works. At the same time we also have to speak out and with ruthless candor and rapier sharp wit attack prose that is sub-standard, excoriate and brutalize scribblers who diminish and depreciate the printed word.
If there is a way out of this downward spiral, it will be the bibliophiles, those who revere literature, who will help arrest the dizzying descent.
But first, we have to seize control…
June 1, 2012 at 3:04 pm
But aren’t they confusing “good” with “enjoy” or “like”? Bland prose is still bland prose, whether it’s seen as improving the reading experience or hindering it. It’s like saying a Big Mac is on a par with a souffle in terms of craft simply because what you wanted to eat at that exact moment was a burger.
On the other hand, decisions made on commercial grounds often don’t consider the literary quality of a book. And it’s chiefly commercial considerations which dictate whether a book is published.
June 1, 2012 at 3:15 pm
A lot of readers are entirely blind to prose quality, Ian. They read for entertainment. To extend your analogy, they’ll scarf down whatever you put in front of them as long as it gives them the hit they’re looking for. If it’s got a great story (and they’ll let you know if it doesn’t), then the book is a success.
The commercial case was the one I really wanted to make though.
June 1, 2012 at 3:19 pm
Certainly there are readers like that. And they are not qualified to comment on whether a book is good or not. If you don’t read critically, then your critical judgments on books are worthless. If a pig happily eats swill every day, it’s not going to make a very good restaurant critic (which is not meant as insulting as it sounds).
June 1, 2012 at 3:25 pm
It has to be said…it sounds pretty insulting! 😀
June 1, 2012 at 3:45 pm
“And they are not qualified to comment on whether a book is good or not.”
This is the “trigger phrase” litfic fans use in most debates, and then they ignore everything that opposes their point of view when that gets genre fans angry…
In Norwegian this is called “herskerteknikk” [literally: “ruler technique”]. It’s exactly the same thing WASP males do when they call feminists “angry lesbians who need dick” and then ignore everything they say after they have pissed them off.
I think it’s offensive however it’s intended. -I know you have read a lot, and that should be enough to validate your arguments, you should not have to resort to essentially calling people stupid/uneducated. Especially since you should know it will piss people off.
-Although there is a LOT of SFF fans out there after the success of Harry Potter/Twilight that have no clue of the history of the genre. I often remind myself they are unaware, and try to point them to things they might like, that will “educate” them, instead of expressing my “STFU, you have no clue” feelings.
-Hope you don’t find that offensive, but understand my meaning on the subject 🙂
June 1, 2012 at 4:00 pm
It’s not the same thing at all. If you are not knowledgeable on a subject, then your opinion on it is worth less than that of someone who is an expert. It has nothing to do with mansplaining or any other derailing technique. Just because a friend of mine can add up, I don’t ask him for advice on my tax. Just because a friend of mine has a driving licence, I wouldn’t ask him to fix the engine on my car when it breaks. Reading critically is how you become knowledgeable about how fiction works, and that gives your opinion validity and weight.
June 2, 2012 at 9:06 am
I remember an editor telling me her slush pile was not full of bad books it was full of books she did particularly like. The writing was apparently serviceable the plots hung together. How like a public Library I thought.
i am sure all of us have found ourselves in one of those and chosen something with little personal appeal just to justify the trip. Is it so hard then to accept that others feel just the same about the one we did like. that while I am thinking this book has all the vitality of Thunderbirds. my own preference is getting similar short shrift from a lover of Clive Cussler or Asimov.
Does the fact that I prefer Sara Paretsky or John Crowley ,mean my taste is better? or Worse? or merely different. What are these objective elements used to determining a piece of fiction’s position of worth and once I have found out will I want to throw out my Badger books? I suspect not/ I don’t think any objective listing of why an particular book is bad or good will make a huge difference to my enjoyment.. Its not just books that are being compared it is readers it is people, you are not deciding which book is better but rather judging as your inferior or superior by their attitude to E.C. Tubb.
June 1, 2012 at 2:59 pm
What is objective is technical quality, which is why people (usually, there are some people who don’tmind reading books in LOL-speak,) agree on what is bad.
However, a novel also contains story and characters. And wheteher those are any good can’t be objectively judged. Unless you argue that the OED is the best novel ever written, since that is technically flawless (or close to it).
That everyone who has learned to judge a book on “literary credentials”, or more precisely by “litfic standards”, agree on how a book should be judged, doesn’t make that judgement objective. Since choosing “litfic standards” as the base criteria for judging a book is in itself a subjective choice.
I don’t have a problem with people choosing “litfic standards” as their choice on how to judge a book, but it smacks of “brainwashing” and lack of independent thinking when they claim that is the ONLY valid way to judge a book.
I think best is absolutely meaningless unless you clearly state what criteria you use to come up with best. If that is “litfic standards”, that is fine. But it should also be fine if you use other criteria for coming up with best.
I do see what you are getting at Ian, and as we have discussed before, I agree up to a point. People do confuse “I like it” with good, and “favourite” with best. But a novel is a piece of art, and there is a point where you have to abandon the technical merits of a piece of art and move into the realm of the highly subjective experience it gives you. -I mean, Picasso couldn’t paint for shit, he couldn’t even get the eyes in the right place. Munch was a hack, the average 12 year old can paint “The Scream”. Michaelangelo on the other hand could paint human beings like they really are 😉
June 1, 2012 at 3:08 pm
There are only two stories. Or is it seven? Or thirty-six? I guess it depends who you believe. Either way, story may result in a subjective reaction; and liking or not liking characters may do the same. But it’s the presentation of the story and/or characters which determines good or bad. You can’t say one story is better than another, but you can say one is better-written than the other. You can’t say a character in one book is better than another, but you can say that character is better-drawn, more rounded, more believable, like a real person, three-dimensional, etc.
June 1, 2012 at 3:26 pm
“You can’t say a character in one book is better than another, but you can say that character is better-drawn, more rounded, more believable, like a real person, three-dimensional, etc”
Dangerous waters… I have met people in real life who wouldn’t be deemed beliaveable as fictional characters because they conform so much to a literary stereotype. (Just so I don’t say use H**ler,) Stalin is a pretty archetypical “dark lord” and would be considered unoriginal in Fantasy. But The Soviet Union under Stalin did exsist.
I do agree with you on presentation. I was pleased (, and a bit surprised to be honest,) to see you include Robinson’s “Mars Trilogy” in your Whippleshield submission guidelines. I love those books, but I don’t put them in the same “category” as say Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly”, that I also loved.
-So I wonder, where does the story trump the “literary” for you? Do you agree that “good” is subjective once the novel reaches a certain level of (technical) quality? I.e. the writer can handle the English language (, or any other language for that matter,) to a level that requires the reader be “Advanced”. (We used the “Advanced Oxford Dictionary” in English at High School,)
June 1, 2012 at 3:42 pm
I don’t think you can say a story is good – how can you say a quest story is better than a little tailor story? But you can certainly say whether those stories are presented with skill and/or talent. Does, for example, the quest plot rely on plot-coupons? Is the dénouement of the little tailor story properly set up?
As for “literary” stories, I think you’re confusing a style of fiction – which some people insist is a genre – with literary quality. If all literary fiction, as some people claim, is about the breakdown of marriages between middle-class white people, then obviously that has no bearing on a science fiction novel. And yet Paul Park’s Coelestis is plainly a more literary novel than Isaac Asimov’s Foundation – where “literary” refers to the quality of the prose rather than the genre of story.
June 1, 2012 at 4:17 pm
We can at leat agree on one thing, I think. That “literary” is not a genre.
“If all literary fiction, as some people claim, is about the breakdown of marriages between middle-class white people, then obviously that has no bearing on a science fiction novel.”
-That is the “literary is better because it is about the ‘human condition'” people. (I’m generalising here.)
Usually the same people who say “1984” is litfic not SF. Because the “literary qualities elevates it above genre”. Or as they say about contemporary SFF, “it transcends genre”…
I do disagree with you that “literary” necessarily equals quality, although it is mostly hailed as that. I see “literary” as a style of writing. That is technically more complex, i.e. demands a higher level of knowledge of the English language.
It is perhaps easier for me to see as a Norwegian. I have recommended novels to other Norwegians that I know they would love, but their English is not up to the standard where the “deciphering of the text” doesn’t stop it from becoming a barrier to enjoy the story.
I can see that prose that demands too much in the understanding of the text takes away from the enjoyment of it, and will give a feeling of it being pretentious. I have re-read English novels where I see flaws in prose now, that I did not see ten or twenty years ago. And I have equally enjoyed prose I couldn’t have gotten through then.
But I don’t see that “level” of prose as having anything to do with an objective quality. That would be a bit like saying only playing a video game on expert/master setting would be objectively challenging.
An author should write for his/her audience, whether that be people with a Master in English Literature, or Twilight fans who enjoy BDSM porn. A good author should be able to give a great experience to both someone who didn’t start high school and a professor.
June 1, 2012 at 4:23 pm
If literary prose is more complex than “storyteller” prose, then I see it as better because it requires more skill, craft and talent to write. As a general rule, the better at something you are, the better you do that thing.
I do disagree that writers should write for their audiences or market. If a mainstream author writes a science fiction novel, are they writing it for sf fans or mainstream fans? The Harry Potter books are read as much by adults as they are by kids – and yet they were published as YA. Besides, “the author is dead”. Their objectives and desires are irrelevant to the reader.
June 1, 2012 at 4:46 pm
The Harry Potter books where actually published as Children’s books. And I’d argue that there was no YA-Fantasy before their success.
At least not in F&SF or Realms of Fantasy, that I read at the time.
An author has to write for an audience, or leave the script on the harddisk. Whether that be Tolkien fans (Jordan), or litfic award juries (arguably most of litfic). -What is the point in putting the story out ther if they don’t?
I might say it better when I say that the author should let the story decide how it should be told. -I think Miéville failled in “Kraken” by trying to tell an Urban Fantasy story by writing with litfic rules, as an example.
And I think that is why most litfic authors fail when they turn to SFF, no matter how “groundbraking” the “literary establishment” hails it as.
June 1, 2012 at 4:57 pm
Not true. Diana Wynne Jones was writing YA fantasy in the late 1970s, as was Gwyneth Jones. Whether people realised there was big money to made in YA only after Harry Potter is certainly possible – cf Eddings’ books being republished as YA this century.
You know the worst thing you can do as a writer? Write to the market. Because there you are with your bitchin’ zombie novel… and two years later when it hits the bookshops, everyone has got zombie fatigue and it sells only a handful of copies.
OTOH, if you consider yourself a sf writer and intend for your novels to be marketed as category science fiction, then yes, there are conventions you might follow in order to appeal to sf readers. But that’s not writing to your audience, that’s writing within your genre.
June 1, 2012 at 5:27 pm
Ian, I have to disagree about YA. That age group may have been the intended audience, but I have yet to see anyone point to YA as a category existing prior to Harry Potter’s success.
In Norway we have had a “Ungdom” [Youth] category since I started reading over 30 years ago. But that was a 10-17 (approx.) category.
Judging by the internet (not necessarily reliable), I’d say the majority of the audience for today’s YA is women from 20-40. -Not that there is anything wrong with that, it’s just misleading. And explains why I’ve seen agents state categorically that YA has to be of interest to (as they say) girls to be published.
I actually seperate audience and market, and used audience on purpose. I agree with you that writers shouldn’t write to market.
They should however write to audience, even if that audience is men who like bdsm with mistresses who has lost their right leg and left tit and who weigh 400 lbs…although I don’t think that is a market.
Audience can be as simple as “people who like to read the same books I read/like the same things I like.”
June 1, 2012 at 5:32 pm
When Heinlein wrote them back in the 1950s, they were called “juveniles”. Same thing as YA. Only the name has changed.
June 1, 2012 at 8:04 pm
Yes, I am aware of the “juveniles”, but I always got the impression that they, like the Norwegian “youth” classification was geared towards kids ( aka pre-adults)..
Or to really clearify, I feel YA today is more of an “80s Fantasy/Women’s Fantasy” (,and sorry for using “Women’s Fantasy” -just don’t have any other word for what I see the fans say online), or “non-literary” Fantasy if you will. I have given up trying to explain to YA fans that YA is not a genre, but an age classification…
June 1, 2012 at 8:38 pm
Juveniles were for readers aged 12 to 16, which is pretty much the same age group for YA. Of course, individuals will vary, and a lot of adults will read the books too. I think I read the Heinlein juveniles before I was 16, though I was also reading sf considered adult at that time too. And I imagine there were adult fans reading Heinlein juveniles when they were published. In fact, there must have been – Have Spacesuit Will Travel was shortlisted for the Hugo in 1959.
June 1, 2012 at 9:00 pm
The age group seems to agree with the Norwegian “youth” classification. -Not sure it agrees with the intended audience of later Harry Potter books though. I’m thinking about the “adult” covers.
The biggest problem I have with YA (; apart from people calling it a genre,) is how they disagree more than Hard SF fans about what constitutes it. In Hard SF there is at least some overlap, rarely see that on YA. -May be a sign of a new (as I have defined it) “genre”.
June 1, 2012 at 4:35 pm
Couple of things to chip in on this discussion:
1/ For me if there’s a type of book that people keep going in to a bookshop and asking for, then it counts as a genre. People who like Literary Fiction know what they like and seek out more of the same, consuming both the good innovative examples and the bad generic ones. So, it’s a genre.
2/ I agree wholeheartedly that an author should write for their audience. If you do your market research before you begin a novel, and identify which books are like the one you’re planning and who their readerships are, then you’ll know how best to present the story, and have a better chance of selling the book to publishers who serve that market. (Note: this does not necessarily place restrictions on turning out an eye-poppingly original, devastatingly well written book).
If you don’t bother with the market research, then you’ll still be writing the book your audience wants to read but the only thing you can say with certainty is that your audience consists of at least one person: yourself. Others (including editors) may also love your book, but the chances are higher that your book’s future may hold a string of “it’s wonderfully well written but we don’t think we can sell it” style rejections.
June 2, 2012 at 9:42 am
I was reading Heinlein juveniles when i was 8, when I was 13 they were being marketed here in the UK as Adult.
A hundred years bearlier an eight year old would have been reading adult books, the younger categories had not been invented,
YA is not a genre it is a category, a marketing category.
June 1, 2012 at 3:07 pm
Someone from Sheffield once told me there was no objective morality. Tough to not make the same argument for literature. I think the problem is the way in which people value difference aspects of a novel. I enjoyed the puzzles and pace of The DaVinci Code, but Dan Brown is a hack. I can see by his sales that a lot of people muscled through the poor writing, for sake of the story. I can’t say it’s a ‘bad’ book. Nor could I call it ‘good’. One word is not enough.
June 1, 2012 at 3:16 pm
Again, that’s “enjoy” and “like” rather than the quality of a novel. The Da Vinci Code is quite a page-turner, but it is also appallingly written, with an idiot plot, paper-thin characters and poor research (despite Brown’s claims to the contrary). A lot of people have enjoyed it. Their cumulative enjoyment affects its quality not one jot.
June 1, 2012 at 4:28 pm
The originality of The Da Vinci Code is highly suspect. I enjoyed the adventure aspect of it. (I have also argued on my blog that Adventure is the fourth SFF subgenre.) What I found was that Brown rehashed a lot of the things I already had read. That his book was seen as somehow “mindblowing” in his claims, was to me ludicrous. I enjoy conspiracy theory, as entertainment, and had read it all before. -I did however read an unofficial Brown biography that claimed the subject matter was chosen to get attention, and by ecxtension sales. I don’t doubt that.
June 1, 2012 at 4:40 pm
“… tell people how much you enjoyed it, how much you liked it. That’s your own personal reaction to it.”
Ah, Ian, you always get people going with this subject.
I totally agree, there are objective standards re. ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and sometimes it’s very easy to shunt books into categories broad categories of ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
However, I think it’s more complicated when we’re separating out the very good from the very, very good; when we’re splitting hairs. In these instances, we’re not computers, not utterly objective – taste, how much we enjoyed it, come into the equation.
I don’t think I’d define ‘good’ quite as many critics do, or perhaps as you do, Ian. I’d say I’m less quick than many critics to think that cryptic is automatically good. If you’re engaging with a story, truly empathising with a character, surely it should feel natural? Why should you have to struggle, or read it twice, to get the payoff or figure it all out?
I’d also say a character can be ‘good’ because he/she is complex and engaging, but without having to be “realistic” (at least, not like any typical/conventional ‘real person’). Not if that’s not what the author intended. Were characters like Achilles or Hector realistic in the Iliad? Or, Iago in Othello?
Just to make you cringe (perhaps?) I recently read The Heroes. The characters aren’t realistic, they’re extremes, often parodies, and generally Joe Abercrombie’s approach to character is like a Hollywood director’s approach to CGI: there’s an overdose of subjective POV permeating everything. But then it’s fantasy, isn’t it, and the characters are sympathetic, engaging, and very, very funny. The Heroes can’t compete with Ursula Le Guin, but then it doesn’t try, and it works on its own terms.
June 1, 2012 at 5:01 pm
Agreed about characters, not sure I agree concessions should be made depending on authorial intent. You can’t know that intent, for a start – it’s an assumption. You can only take a book on its own terms, based on the words on the page. If you want to drag in extra-textual stuff to validate your judgement, then arguably you’re no longer making a judgement on the book.
June 1, 2012 at 4:45 pm
Whether I use ‘good’ or ‘enjoy’ is beside the point. One word – either word – isn’t enough. If I said Adrift on the Sea of Rains was good and left it at that, wouldn’t you be a little disappointed? Wonder exactly what I found ‘good’? It’s like saying her dress was blue. It’s not enough data. LIght blue, royal blue, navy or was it sad for some reason.
June 1, 2012 at 4:47 pm
(The thread-limit on these comments defeats us)
Cliff, good, I’m enjoying it too. It’s a discussion I’ve been having a few variations on lately.
>I reiterate my view that we, as smart readers and writers, have to do more to identify talented writers and ground-breaking works.
>At the same time we also have to speak out and with ruthless candor and rapier sharp wit attack prose that is sub-standard, excoriate and brutalize scribblers who diminish and depreciate the printed word.
Well, I’m not much of a brutalizer. I don’t say on the blog if I’ve just not enjoyed something, but will mention it if there’s something interesting about why I didn’t enjoy it. But I respect the right of those who can brutalize to do so.
>If there is a way out of this downward spiral, it will be the bibliophiles, those who revere literature, who will help arrest the dizzying descent.
But first, we have to seize control…
1/ Is it a descent? There’s always been poor stuff published, from the Penny Dreadfuls onwards. There’s a helluva lot *more* books being published now than there ever were, so it follows that the amount of bad fiction would rise too. The question is, are there commensurate numbers of good books too?
2/ Seize control? Well, I don’t think the big six publishing machines are going to listen the likes of us authors. The only way to do that is set up your own publishing firm, and test the principles of what you consider “good” against the market. Then, once you’ve established that there is a huge global market for great, original, brilliantly written SF, you can build your empire by buying out your struggling competitors. And ultimately, give those readers the fiction they’ve unknowingly been craving all this time!
I’m right behind you!
June 1, 2012 at 5:04 pm
If only it were so simple. If it was, Whippleshield Books would make me a billionaire by the end of the year. It won’t of course. Because there are more McDonald’s outlets than there are branches of Waitrose, because lowest common denominator means by definition appealing to the largest audience, because most people think entertainment is more important than art…
June 1, 2012 at 5:10 pm
Thanks to blogging, social networking, portable e-readers and tablets, smart phones, word of mouth has become increasingly important. Talk up a good book, plug the author whenever/wherever you can. Facebook and Tweet about them. If enough people join in, you might go viral. Suddenly a superb offering like ADRIFT ON THE SEA OF RAINS is #4 on the Amazon bestseller list and Random House calls John Jarrold, Ian’s agent, slapping down an offer for three books. Y’see what I mean?
Likewise, a clever, vicious review of the latest bestseller might be excerpted, cut and pasted, quoted back and forth for the next two weeks. Turning off enough readers to make it fun.
Book reviewing is a lost art–most critiques I read are pretty tepid, even when the reviewer in question clearly dislikes the tome under consideration. I know here in Canada there’s a kind of “gentleman’s agreement” not to publish really savage reviews. We’ll never see the likes of another Mark Twain, lambasting Stephen Crane, or H.L. Mencken taking down, well, just about everybody. Too bad.
Has there been a real drop in writing quality in the past decade? Yup. New technologies like print-on-demand have unleashed hordes of amateur writers and now, God help us, publishers have realized that most folks out there have a Grade 8 reading level (or less) and don’t require books that feature original characters, exotic plots or correct syntax. So they (publishers) just grab some popular title from the self-publishing pool and pound out massive copies of it, promoting it like the Second Coming. Three or four months later, do it again.
I’ve changed my mind. It’s not just a downward spiral, chum, more like a nosedive. The ground rushing toward us…
June 1, 2012 at 8:12 pm
I have been to too many selfpub, Amazon, and American politics comment threads… I almost miss the vitriol, namecalling, and bat-shit-craziness…
-Very interesting debate everyone. It’s actually good to not see any “rah-rah, I have the only right opinion” online for a change.
June 1, 2012 at 10:13 pm
# I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told “good is subjective” or “best is subjective”.
# Every time I hear it, it makes me howl with rage.
Then I hope you are in good singing voice, Ian 😉
One can roughly say that there are objective statements (or ‘truths’) and subjective ones. The mass of the thing we call ‘an electron’ is an objective truth, which is to say that it is a constant whether or not human beings are around. You will note that there is not a lot of argument going on about the mass of an electron, it is something that can be demonstrated. All statements that are dependant upon human beings to decide them are subjective. Thus the statement ‘Pluto is a planet’ is, and has recently been shown to be, subjective, in the sense that human beings define what planets are. Thus Pluto has gone from being a planet to being not-a-planet at the whim of a commitie, though no significant physical changes to Plutos physical character have been observed. Objective truths cannot be changed at the whim of a board or jury, though names and subjective values can. Hence, if ‘literary quality’ is objective, then it would have to be measurably true in a universe in which human beings never evolved. It isn’t.
# If there is no such thing as good – because if it’s entirely subjective and personal,
# then it’s completely useless as a descriptive term
This is akin to saying that there is no such thing as pain, or love, which are also subjective experiences. Subjective things have value, in fact some of the most subjective things are the things human beings value most highly. The claim that only objective terms have descriptive value is also false.
Imagine an intelligent species whose pleasure centers wire-up randomly at birth dividing them into a group that likes fiction with lots of metaphors, and others that only care for similies. Let’s call them ‘metaphorophiles’ and ‘similieophiles’ The judgement that a book is good because it has a lot of similies would be a subjective thing, as there is no inherent value to similies, but a similieophile could declare a work ‘good’, and she would be making the statement to other similie lovers that ‘I liked this, so you probably will too’ (I shall address ‘like’ in more detail later). As there are only two choices, there will be large groups of people who can agree on what is ‘good’, but the groups will never agree with each other. Hence a subjective term has descriptive value within the group who use it, and subjectively value what it describes. As subjective viewpoints spread like any other meme, and as there are not infinitely many attributes to be found in anything, even a work of literature, so there will inevitably be large bodies of people who value the same attributes in a work, but their valuing, as with all valuing, is subjective.
# then how do editors choose which books to publish,
# how do judges choose which books to give prizes to,
# And why don’t they all choose completely different books?
If it’s all objective, then how can they possibly chose different ones? But they ddo. If the matter were objectively demonstrable, everyone would chose the same books to present awards to, and arguments on the matter would be almost impossible. That’s why there’s little argument about the mass of an electron.
Equally it must be noted that editors, judges and academics are not taken to be the final word in the matter. When they make choices that certain people (e.g. Mr Priest) don’t approve of, they have suddenly chosen wrong. This year Ken Liu has been widely nominated for both his short story ‘The Paper Menagerie’ and his Novella ‘The man who ended history’. But I know you disapproved of that choice. How is it then that both the nebula jury and the hugo’s unwashed masses can choose the same thing, but you disagree with them? You probably would have chosen totally different stories (You would, of course, have chosen my ‘Rocket Science’ entry).
# They can do all this because the quality of a book can be determined
# objectively. It is not an exact science, and it is subject to changes
# in taste and/or re-evaluation in light of changes in attitudes and
These statements are contradictory. Objective facts are not subject to changes in attitude or sensibilities, that’s what ‘objective’ means. Anything subject to such changes is, by definition, subjective.
# If good is subjective, then awards are completely pointless.
No, the exact opposite is true. If ‘good’ is objective, then awards are pointless. We don’t give awards to the electron for having its mass, or diamond for being harder than soap. If good was objective, it would not need accolades or applause, it would just *be*. And it would *be* long after the human race had disappeared into the eternal night.
We have awards precisely because we wish to shape people’s opinion of what is good. In my above example the metaphorophiles and the similiophiles would presumably run awards rewarding anyone who produced what they liked. It’s one of the methods by which memes reproduce themselves.
# But there are certain key indicators in fiction which can be used
# to determine the quality of that piece of fiction.
There are certain *agreed* indicators, that are agreed within certain social circles. They are often the products of power relationships, where one class that values certain things, and holds power, imposes this view on others. Thus many things considered classics today were ignored, or even denounced as rubbish by the great-and-the-good in former years.
I know you are a fan of Death Metal music. Do you consider that there are any works in that genre that are of the quality of, say, ‘Daytripper’ or Beethovan’s ‘Moolight Sonata’? There are people who would laugh at you for making such a claim, and some of them are editors and academics. Are they right? If such things are objectively true, then you have to accept that they could be.
# After all, how can you be an expert in a topic in which one
# individual’s value judgment is worth exactly the same another person’s?
In one sense, you can’t. However, the metaphorophiles would have their own experts, as would the similiophiles. In the absolute sense the opinion of a metaphorophile has no greater value than that of a similieophile, but within their groups their opinion may accord strongly with that of the group, or with significant subsets within it, and is thus valued by those people. If I heard Mark Kermode express his liking for a movie, I generally know that I will like it to, as often (not always, ‘Inception’ being a case in point) he values those attributes of film that I value. However, my preference for, say, impressive acting over impressive special-effects, is entirely subjective. If someone values special-effects more than acting, perhaps because they have a deeper understanding than I do of what goes into special effects, then that’s just the way it is. Their opinion is no more or less valid than mine, but perhaps it is of less use to *me*, as my pleasure centers are not wired up in the same way as theirs.
# Perhaps it’s easier to describe what is bad – if good is subjective,
# then by definition bad must be too.
Indeed it is.
# Except, strangely, everyone seems to agree that the following do indeed
# indicate that a piece of fiction is bad: cardboard cutout characters,
# idiot plotting, clumsy prose, tin-earred dialogue, lack of rigour,
# graceless info-dumping, unoriginality, bad research…
Except, they don’t. I will find one character to be cardboard, when another person will declare them a classic character (Kirk, I’m looking at you!). I’ve never been able to read more than a few lines of Hemmingway, as I consider it some of the dullest, most leaden prose I’ve ever read, but others hold it up as the acme of quality! We all agree that these terms label bad things, but we don’t all agree about what counts as a graceless info-dump, and what counts as necessary scene-setting.
We can all agree that ‘murder’ is a bad thing. But the devil is in deciding what counts as murder, what counts as just execuation, what counts as merciful assisted suicide, and what counts as reasonable self-defence. Thus we can all agree that ‘cardboard-cutout characters’ are bad, but we cannot agree whether this right here is a cardboard cutout,
# So if we can determine with a reasonable degree of accuracy
# what constitutes a bad book,
But we cannot. I’ve not yet read ‘twilight’ but I know it has people who hate it, and people who love it.
# And since this is a scale of sorts, then there must be an
# objective element to determining a piece of fiction’s position
# on the scale. Which means it is not subjective.
No, this isn’t true. For something to be objective it has to be true in the same way that the laws of physics are true. It has to be true regardless of the foibles of human beings.
That fact that a group of people will be in agreement about something, doesn’t mean that thing is not subjective. People have been in widespread agreement about the craziest things, like the value of burning witches. If you are in a room with people who all agree about something, but there are vast legions of people outside the room who disagree, then you can only establish your agreement about what consitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ with the local group. Even if there are no people outside the room (because they’ve been killed in the zombie apocalypse) your ‘agreement’ is still subjective.
Imagine that centuries from now strange creatures dig up the remanants of our civilisation. They find a story written by a young child, full of gramatical errors and spelling mistakes, and god-knows-what, but they see something in it, it has a vibrancy that appeals to them. They also find a complete works of Shakespeare, but they don’t get the jokes, references, or politics, and discard it as boring and impenetrable. Should we judge them as philistines? Ah, but we are all dead, and they own the shop now, our opinions are less than irrelevant. And if they don’t get the jokes, well, if quality were objective, they wouldn’t need to have the jokes explained to them. In fact, if quality were objective I wonder if we’d need to study english literature. We don’t need to be taught that the sky is blue, we can see that (although the experience of ‘blue’ is subjective, so there you go).
# And “best”? It means “of the highest quality”, “most excellent”.
# It is the superlative form of “good”. Go and look it up in a dictionary.
# If good is not subjective, then best cannot be either.
‘Best’ is subjective too. ‘Quality’ is subjective. ‘Excellence’ is subjective. What meaning do these terms have without human beings to judge them? In an empty universe these terms would have no meaning, but the mass of a electron would remain the same, becuase the mass of an electron is objective.
I’m afraid you have it the wrong way around, Ian. Everything that’s of value and importance is subjective. Objective things are just brute facts of the universe we live in, without meaning or value. The charge of an electron is not ‘excellent’ or ‘good’, it just *is*, that is the nature of the objective.
As for ‘like’, yes, that’s subjective, and it’s the core of all judgements of value and quality. Soon we will be able (if we are not there already) to cut the link between the pleasure centers of the human brain, and the various inputs that trigger them. If this operation was done on you, you would suddenly not get that ‘hit’ that you get from ‘good’ fiction. You would cease to like it. Words that had moved you previously would become empty sequences of symbols. You’d know what they *said* but you’d feel nothing at all when you read them. I think you’d lose you ability to say what was ‘best’, or at least that your opinion of what was ‘best’ would seriously change. Without emotional responses, without ‘like’ or ‘not like’, all questions of quality and technical accomplishment are moot. Technical virtuosity only exists to produce an emotional reaction in a reader, cut off from its purpose it has no meaning whatsoever.
June 2, 2012 at 11:53 am
You seem to think that unless something can be quantified exactly using scientific instruments it’s subjective. Which is patently untrue. Pretty much everyone thinks ‘The Eye of Argon’ is a bad story. If this were purely subjective, then everyone must be sheep in that they’re reacting exactly the same way to the story. OTOH, if there were recognised standards of good vs bad, and ‘The Eye of Argon’ clearly failed to meet those deemed good… well, then it must be objective.
Further, you’re still confusing “like” and “hate” with the quality of a book. It has nothing to do with that. I can recognise that something I dislike was created with skill and talent, that it displays technical proficiency – in much the same way I can recognise that an aesthetically unappealing car provides a comfortable ride, has good built quality, and is economical to run. It’s still an ugly car, though.
If judges made entirely subjective decision on books, then how do they pick a winner? They must be holding the shortlisted books to some sort of agreed standard, otherwise the entire process is of no value whatsoever.
For you to claim that the quality of a piece of fiction can only be judged subjectively renders the entire field of study in literature null and void, makes all writers precisely as skilled and/or talented as each other, means experts in literature have no standing, and implies that you feel your own opinion is worth more than anybody else’s, never mind an expert’s. It’s the height of arrogance.
June 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm
# You seem to think that unless something can be quantified
# exactly using scientific instruments it’s subjective. Which is
# patently untrue.
No, we may not be able to determine a truth, but if it remains true regardless of human existence, then it is objective. All else is subjective. This is just what the words mean.
# Pretty much everyone thinks ‘The Eye of Argon’ is a bad story.
# If this were purely subjective, then everyone must be sheep
# in that they’re reacting exactly the same way to the story.
The fact that large numbers of people believe a thing does not make it objective. If everyone in the world believes in ghosts, that does not make their opinion, or ghosts themselves, in anyway objective. (If ghosts exist, then they are part of an objective reality, but this is independent of anyone’s opinion). If I and my legions of trained flying monkeys seek out and kill everyone who doesn’t think my fiction is great, it doesn’t mean that the opinion ‘Colum writes great fiction’ suddenly becomes objective when we push the last disbeliever off a cliff. If an opinion spreads and grows until everyone has it, it only means that it is a good meme, not that it’s in any way objective.
If we do equate ‘number of believers’ with an opinion’s objectivity, then we have to accept that works like Twilight and Harry Potter are objectively the best things written in recent times, as they would top any poll of ‘best books’. i.e. the opinion that they are the best would be the most widespread and therefore the most objective.
It doesn’t matter how many people think ‘Eye of Argon’ is bad, it’s an opinion, and opinions are not subjective.
If this were purely subjective, then everyone must be sheep in that they?re reacting exactly the same way to the story. OTOH, if there were recognised standards of good vs bad, and ?The Eye of Argon? clearly failed to meet those deemed good? well, then it must be objective.
# OTOH, if there were recognised standards of good vs bad,
# and ‘The Eye of Argon’ clearly failed to meet those deemed
# ‘good’ well, then it must be objective.
No, it’s subjective, and the recognized standards are subjective. This is just the same false argument over again. Standards are agreed at between people, built on their reactions. They are subjective. If they were not subjective, then they would pre-exist the human race.
‘Recognized standards of good’ are nothing but opinions either agreed by large numbers of people, or imposed upon them by those in power. Before you can have a recognized standard of good, you must decide what is good, and this is a subjective value judgement.
There are recognized standards of beauty too, especially as the western world imposes its idea of beauty on everyone else. These are not objective, and demonstrably are not because they’ve differed over time and over place.
(no flying monkeys or critics were harmed in the creation of this comment)
June 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm
The Da Vinci Code remains a bad book whether a person is reading it or not. The fact that unqualified people cannot see that fact does not change it. That’s what experts are for – they possess the tools to make these judgments.
All you’re doing to repeating the same fallacy, and dragging in everything from ghosts to morality as false equivalencies. The subject under discussion is writing. Some writers are better than others; some books are better than others. Opinion does not change this. One person may decide The Da Vinci Code is the best book ever written, but they would be wrong because that book does not meet the accepted criteria for good writing.
You cannot claim The Da Vinci Code is good because it is popular. you cannot claim it is good because it is successful. you cannot claim it is good because it meets the objectives of the author. Popularity is not quality. Success is not determined by quality. And the objectives of the author are irrelevant.
June 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm
Couldn’t agree more, Ian.
Art is not a popularity contest and posterity will soon commit Dan Brown’s work to a rubbish pile that currently contains old Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins novels and a whole host of others who successfully fleeced their reading public long enough to retire on the proceeds of their crimes against the printed word.
Never fear, however, a SPECIAL ring of Hell awaits them, red hot pincers and eternal, soul-rending agony. Dante handing out marshmallows and roasting sticks…
June 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm
# Further, you’re still confusing ‘like’ and ‘hate’ with the quality
# of a book. It has nothing to do with that.
Quality follows from ‘like’ or ‘like not’. Without these basic human reactions there is no quality, there is no ‘good’ or ‘best’. All these things are subjective value judgements. In a universe without people they simply do not exist, there is no good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or not-beautiful, there are only dead atoms smacking together and feeling nothing.
# I can recognise that something I dislike was created with
# skill and talent, that it displays technical proficiency
# in much the same way I can recognise that an aesthetically
# unappealing car provides a comfortable ride, has good built
# quality, and is economical to run. It’s still an ugly car, though.
But you are still using ‘like’ to judge the car. You like its comfort, its build quality and its economy. Thus it gets an overall positive vote from you. However, even the judgment that ‘economy is good’ is a subjective one.
Imagine I give you an alien foodstuff. It tastes disgusting to you, looks like a miniature, baroque cow-pat, smells awful, and comes apart in your hands, staining them. I tell you that it’s alien creator spent weeks working on it.
Is it good, or bad? How would you tell? Alien-chef may have spent weeks because he was exercising a complex skill, or because he was just very inept. It may be coming apart in your hands because it’s designed to crush easily in the mandibles of an alien gourmet, or because it’s not very well made. You’d be unable to make a decision without reference to the question ‘do the aliens like this, and why?’
In the end, at the basis of any value judgement comes down to a pleasurable or not pleasurable reaction in the recipient of the thing being judged. It all comes down to ‘like’ in the end. It’s subjective.
Now, in the case of our alien cake, you may be able after a time to judge the cakes on the alien standard. Thus you would start to have a standard of ‘good’ that was independent of your personal like or dislike. It still wouldn’t be objective, it would simply be someone else’s subjective standard. Thus you’d be able to say “That’s a good alien-cake, though I do not like it”. But this doesn’t take ‘like’ out of the equation, it just shows that there’s more than one type of ‘like’ out there.
If the aliens came to Earth and declared that our cuisine did not meet up to their ‘recognized standards’ of quality (which must be objective because they all agree about them, and there are gazillions of them spread across a thousand star-systems) and thus they were going to impose their food upon us, it would, quite rightly, be war.
Something like this has, of course, happened, where legions of educated white folk have gone to other countries and imposed their standards of value upon other nations. Were they right because they were numerous and powerful? If someone judges art as of a lower standard because it comes from a community that doesn’t use perspective in art, but instead uses comparative size to denote the importance of people in the scene, are they right? If there are objective standards then it must be either right, or wrong, that perspective-based western art is ‘better’ than art that doesn’t use perspective. On that basis we should either force our art upon them, or accept theirs as superior and burn our museums.
(Colum would like to make it clear that he, for one, welcomes our new cow-pat eating alien overlords)
June 2, 2012 at 4:41 pm
Your entire argument seems to be based on the premise that a person cannot judge the skill with which something was created. This is patently nonsense and the entire field of education demonstrates as much.
Unless, of course, you consider your untrained opinion to be worth more than that of people who have studied and trained for decades in the subject.
June 2, 2012 at 5:20 pm
But how do you judge skill?
Can you really say it takes less skill to write for “commercial success” than for “literary recognition”?
I’d say that is a value judgement, and it’s certainly not objective. An author can use his knowledge of writing to try to write a bestseller, if the book actually sells well, he has succeeded in using his skills to achieve his goals.
I’d even argue that litfic is way more formulaic than SFF, and as such it is easier to learn how to write litfic. Learning to follow rules isn’t necessarily a skill, it’s just a matter of doing what you are told is right. You can complete a video game with a perfect score by following a walkthrough, that doesn’t make you an expert player it just makes you good at following a set of rules.
We are talking about novels here, and while you can judge technical quality to some degree, that is just a part of the whole of the novel. Do I think “The City & The City” is well written? Yes. But it contains worldbuilding that doesn’t make any sense at all. It even contradicts itself several times as to how the unseeing works. It’s still considered a great book and has been lavished with awards by people who apparently ignore anything else than the litfic “qualities” of a book. If you look past the “”litfic rules” that say TC&TC is “good” it is actually a piece of crap. Internal consistency is objective and that book doesn’t have it. Since internal consistency is acually objective, you can judge that without making any value judgement, it is objectively bad. That it is judged good by litfic standards shows that litfic standards are a highly subjective way of judging a book. And in the case of TC&TC is actually not a fit way to judge a book.
June 2, 2012 at 5:24 pm
# Your entire argument seems to be based on the premise
# that a person cannot judge the skill with which something
# was created.
Here is a ‘thing’. It’s something you’ve never seen before. You do not know the purpose for which it was made. I’m telling you it was made by a craftsman, but I might be lying, it might be a natural product, or it might be mass-produced. How do you judge the skill with which it was made? You must admit that you cannot.
# This is patently nonsense and the entire field
# of education demonstrates as much.
It is patently the truth, and no amount of education is going to help anyone pass the test outlined above (unless they are educated in what the object is, how it is produced, and what it is for).
# Unless, of course, you consider your untrained opinion
# to be worth more than that of people who have studied
# and trained for decades in the subject.
If I consider my (putative) wife beautiful, but legions of highly trained beauticians tell me she is not, should I listen to them? No, their opinion is not relevant. At best they are trying to impose a single standard of beauty upon me, a standard of beauty that they have been trained in and studied for ages, but which is still at the end of the day a subjective standard. I am the final arbiter in the question of whether I consider my wife beautiful, as I am the final arbiter in the question of whether I find a work of fiction good. YMMV, but that’s your subjective opinion.
You are claiming that there is only one standard of quality in the arts. This is a falsehood. We use different standards to judge, say, ancient Egyptian art as compared to western renaissance art. To say that Egyptian art is inferior because it doesn’t employ perspective would be to misunderstand the ‘games’ that Egyptian art is playing.
Further you’re saying that ‘like’ doesn’t matter, that quality results from meeting some ‘objective’ artificial standard defined without reference to human enjoyment. This makes no sense. Skill is only skill in the pursuit of some purpose, and in the arts that purpose is to produce an experience of approval or pleasure in the reader/viewer. If ‘like’ does not matter, then it would be possible to have a work that met this ‘objective’ standard even though no-one was moved by it, or liked it at all. A work that the entire human race hated, that no-one liked, could be declared ‘good’ because it met this ‘objective’ standard.
People who have studied the arts are studying the techniques that were used to produce effects that one group of people declare ‘good’. In that regard they are experts at pleasing that group of people. If I want to sell to that group of people, then I’d be very interested to hear what those experts have to say. However, another group of people may value other effects, and in that case the opinions of the first group are worthless to them, and to me.
If I don’t like apples, and prefer oranges, then the pronouncements of trained apple-breeders telling me that I *should* like apples, because this, right here, is the ultimate apple, the product of generations of study and hard work, is irrelevant. I’m not wired to like apples. Their claim that my opinion is ignorant is exactly as valid as my claim that they’re ignorant for not liking my oranges. If there are more of them than of me, it means nothing. The majority has been wrong often enough in the past, and anyways, we are discussing something subjective, they cannot tell me what I should or shouldn’t appreciate.
June 2, 2012 at 5:27 pm
Here is a ‘thing’. It’s something you’ve never seen before. You do not know the purpose for which it was made. I’m telling you it was made by a craftsman, but I might be lying, it might be a natural product, or it might be mass-produced. How do you judge the skill with which it was made? You must admit that you cannot.
Then I am not qualified to comment on the thing’s quality.
June 1, 2012 at 10:41 pm
# I totally agree, there are objective standards re. “good” and “bad”
Really? Because for this to be true the standards of ‘good literature’ or ‘good music’ would have to be true even in the absence of human observers. Furthermore if they changed, the changing attitudes of human beings would have no bearing upon them. If, for instance, an objective value like the charge on an electron over time were to change, we would not accept an explanation that popular tastes about what charge an electron should have had changed. However, we know that in the future tastes and standards of literary, music, and artistic quality, will be different, and will have changed because the attitudes of human beings have changed. These are subjective values.
To say that there are objective values of literary quality is the same as to claim there are objective values of musical quality, or human beauty. All these things have been remarkably different over time, and from culture to culture. Within a culture, within a time, there is often strong agreement about the standards for all these things, but that does not make them objective. Standards change over time with fashion, and always will.
If I love someone I can sing paens to their beauty, and point out to you the curve of their lips, the arch of their backs, the sparkle of their wit. But if you do not value those attributes you may not find them beautiful or wonderful and I have no grounds on which to declare that my opinion is superior. Thus it is with all issues of quality.
An attempt is often made to claim that standards of grammar and spelling are in some way objective. This too is nonsense. There was a time before Dr Johnson’s dictionary won out against its competitors when there was no authority on these matters. Furthermore Johnson’s spelling regime didn’t win because it was measured against some everlasting cosmic standard of good spelling and found to match. Other spellings could have been chosen than the ones it contained. Our rules of spelling and grammar are merely arrived at by agreement, and thus are not at all objective.
If, perish the thought, a new wave arises in literature that demands that characters settings and plots must be selected from a pre-agreed book of such things, a kind of dictionary of story elements, and this attitude comes to dominate, then people will be able to check quality of a work simply by asking ‘do the characters in this work match to the agreed tropes?’ This new standard of value would be no more objective than any other, but once enough people have accepted it, and it’s being taught in schools, any work that doesn’t fit the model will be thrown out as inferior. However, it will just be the imposition of a subjective standard as with anything else.
June 1, 2012 at 11:06 pm
# It’s like saying a Big Mac is on
# a par with a souffle in terms of
# craft simply because what you
# wanted to eat at that exact moment
# was a burger.
It is perfectly clear to anyone that the Big Mac is the superior product. It is successfully mass-produced and delivered almost instantly on demand throughout the world. If souffles were so good, they would have come to dominate. Survival of the fittest. The nearest thing we actually have to an ‘objective’ standard is the market, and the market has pronounced with utter decisiveness against the non-standardised, frequently collapsing and all-round inconvinient souffle.
Of course, I hate Big Macs myself. I’d rather have a souffle. But I cannot really say that a souffle is better than a Big Mac without asking what it’s better FOR.
To say something is ‘better in craft’ is presumably to extend praise because more work and skill goes into the production of each individual unit. But this is not a virtue. One can claim that a hand-crafted katana is ‘better in craft’ than an AK-47. More work and effort has to go into the production of each hand-crafted sword, but for just this reason they are inferior in craft. AK-47s have been engineered to be mass-producable from easily sourced materials, to be effective weapons. Similiarly the Big Mac has been designed to be mass produced and sold the world over in order to make the biggest profits for its company. By these standards it is clear what the superior products are.
If we chose standards that value the work of a skilled indivdual over a modern production system, even though that latter can produce vast quantities of a product more quickly at less cost, and the product will be more effective and sell more successfully, we are making a subjective value judgement. It may well be a subjective value judgement that I subjectively agree with, because I value certain attributes more than others. But at the end of the day an AK-47 is the better killing machine, and a Big Mac is the better fast-food for busy modern people (as I don’t believe souffles have yet been perfected to be as quickly and easily and cheaply delivered).
All we are doing when making statements like this is valuing skilled craftsmanship over engineered mass-production. This is because we see some subjective value in the exercise of skill. From the hard, objective viewpoint of shareholders looking to make a profit, or soliders about to raid a beach, or standards of value are idiotic.
Things have value depending on what we wish to use them for. Things are not objectively and absolutely ‘the best’, but rather they are the best for a particular task, or a particular use. Thus, before we can say ‘this book is better than that book’ we have to decide what books are for.
Also, the introduction of ‘in craft’ be
June 2, 2012 at 11:57 am
Popularity is not quality. The commercial success of something is not an indicator of its quality. If you design something to be cheap and nasty and it precisely meets those needs, it doesn’t magically become good.
Yes, skill is good. The skill with which an item is made is what adds value to it. That’s why a Rolls Royce costs more than a Lada. That’s why a Rembrandt costs more than something I might paint. That’s why some people win Olympic gold medals and others sit and watch the Games at home.
June 2, 2012 at 4:29 pm
# Popularity is not quality.
But elsewhere you’ve said ‘Most people agree eye of Argon is a bad book’. Either majority opinion is relevant, or it isn’t, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that a majority verdict works for deciding what is bad, but not for what is good.
# The commercial success of something is not an indicator
# of its quality.
Then why do you mention that some books are still being read two-hundred years after they were written? This is commercial success.
I agree though that commercial success is not an absolute standard. If, for instance, large numbers of people went to see a movie, it would be commercially successful, even if everyone hated it.
# If you design something to be cheap and nasty and it precisely
# meets those needs, it does magically become good.
It’s good at being cheap and nasty. There’s no such thing as ‘good’ there is only ‘good for a purpose’. You must first define the aims of a thing, and then we can judge if it’s good for that purpose. But someone else may define a different aim for the same thing (this is not only death-of-the-author but death-of-the-craftsman).
For instance, imagine that someone creates a miniature statue with sharp edges that everyone of his time agrees is aesthetically pleasing and ‘good art’. Thousands of years later it’s dug up by a huntress who discovers the sharp edges cut well. She considers it a ‘good knife’, because it cuts better than anything else she’s ever seen.
Which standard of ‘good’ is the right one? What if after another thousand years alien archaeologists find it and have no idea what the artifact is for at all? Is it ‘good’ now? Who would decide, and how?
June 2, 2012 at 4:38 pm
There’s no such thing as ‘good’ there is only ‘good for a purpose’.
This is why your argument is fallacious. You’re trying to argue that good is subjective because it meets the purpose of the individual. This sidesteps the entire concept of quality. Your argument is built on the misuse of a word.
June 2, 2012 at 4:51 pm
# You’re trying to argue that good is subjective because
# it meets the purpose of the individual.
I am arguing that ‘good’ must meet a purpose. Different people may find things ‘good’ because they meet different purposes. The idea that a ‘purposeless good’ can exist is just crazy. Is the number ‘2’ good? Is it bad? If it’s neither (which I would maintain) then why is it neither?
# This sidesteps the entire concept of quality.
There is no concept of quality devoid from human judgements. It seems increasingly to me that your argument is built on metaphysics!
June 1, 2012 at 11:27 pm
# I’m with Kafka on this one, bro:
# “One should only read books which bite
# and sting one. If the book we are
# reading does not wake us up with a
# blow to the head, what’s the point
# in reading? A book must be the axe
# which smashes the frozen sea
# within us.”
Good point well made, which is why I stopped reading Kafka. I had a book of his short stories. They didn’t bite or sting me or hit me like an axe. They bored me. I struggled through ‘metamophosis’, but was very disappointed by the end. I tried other stories in the compendium, I think including ‘The trial’ and ‘The castle’. I didn’t finish them. They didn’t shock me, they didn’t startle me, the didn’t speak to me.
Add to this Joseph Conrad’s “The secret agent” Maupassant’s “Bel Ami” and other ‘classic’ works that I found so turgidly boring and empty that I couldn’t finish reading them.
On the flipside, “Wuthering Heights” (which I always mention because my reaction to it was so powerful) bit and stung and left me feeling shattered for days. So much so that I wouldn’t read it again, but I’d recommend anyone to read it once. However, my reaction to it was entirely an emotional one.
‘Neuromancer’, when I read it back in the 80’s, did more than any of these. It changed my world-view. It made me see a new reality that was coming, was breathing down our necks, eager to be born. It made me realise the world was about to change, and would never be the same again. I remember staring at my ZX spectrum and feeling ideas moving around in my head, realising that it was the vanguard of a revolution.
But a person reading ‘Neuromancer’ for the first time today would experience no such revelation. The shocking, almost impossible world that it portrayed has largely arrived, and is now a commonplace, tame and easily understood. Thus context is important, one must be the right person, in the right place, at the right time to get the maximum effect from a work of literature, or anything. This would not be the case if any of this was ‘objective’.
June 2, 2012 at 10:33 pm
But Neuromancer’s first sentence, “The sky was the colour of television tuned to a dead channel,” is meaningless.
(Television – as opposed to a television – is an industry; a dead channel shows white noise – and I’ve never seen a sky like that, nor ever will.)
I’m reminded of Chomsky’s, “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.”
June 1, 2012 at 11:30 pm
# Okay, Neil, strike “proles” and
# substitute “half-bright fuckwits
# whose mental age roughly approximates
# their shoe size”.
Sorry, this is the guy who was criticising people for their outrage because they didn’t like his favorite books?
This guy’s nothing but a troll.
June 2, 2012 at 12:06 am
June 1, 2012 at 11:35 pm
# >Then, maybe, a few more good, sound,
# >well-written offerings might sneak
# >their way onto shelves…
# Maybe… or maybe, with all those
# former readers now lavishing their
# fortunes on cats and vibrators, the
# publishing industry would shrink and
# even fewer books of any sort would
# be published. Although whether the
# ones that remained would be “good,
# sound, well-written, etc. could be
# debatable due to all the editors made
# redundant because the new, streamlined
# and ideologically improved industry
# cannot support their existence.
Hmm… so what we seem to be saying here is that we have a product that doesn’t sell, and keeps not selling, and the more of it we do the less it sells, but it’s not the product that’s at fault, it’s the damn stupid customers?
Only in publishing.
June 1, 2012 at 11:45 pm
# Certainly there are readers like
# that. And they are not qualified to
# comment on whether a book is good or
# not. If you don’t read critically,
# then your critical judgments on books
# are worthless.
# If a pig happily eats swill every
# day, it’s not going to make a very
# good restaurant critic
No, but it would be an excellent critic of swill. If, given the choice, it choses swill over restaurant food, then we’ve discovered that pigs don’t like human food. That’s not surprising because they’re probably not wired like we are.
If the pigs were to become hyper-intelligent and dangerous, like a cross between ‘Animal farm’ and ‘terminator’, they might force swill upon us, rather than that awfull rubbish we eat because we don’t know any better. They would then have made the mistake of assuming that our reactions to inputs are the same as theirs, even though we are a different species.
This is very much the core argument here. People are not wired the same. Some people do not respond to certain aspects of fiction and writing as strongly as to other aspects. Each individual rates the various elements of fiction differently on the value scale, just the same as they rate music or physical beauty differently. For some people eyes or perhaps a smile, counts higher than other attributes of physical beauty, whereas other people might rate muscle-tone or the sound of the voice as more important . Thus in fiction some people rate ‘voice’ as the most important attribute, whereas others rate characters, or sense-of-place, or cool ideas, or the message that the work conveys. Depending on how they weight these various factors they will come to different conclusions about the quality of a piece.
# (which is not meant as insulting
# as it sounds).
Too late Ian, if the pigs ever do ever become hyper-intelligent and rise up, then you’re toast!
June 2, 2012 at 11:59 am
How people react to something has nothing to do with any discussion on its quality. You’re still confusing “like” with “good”. And no, just because someone likes something and that something was made so that people would like it, that does not make it good. It means only that it achieved what it was designed to achieve. And that has nothing to do with quality.
Besides which, authorial intent is completely irrelevant. The author is dead.
June 2, 2012 at 3:01 pm
# How people react to something has nothing to do
# with any discussion on its quality.
Ian, that’s just crazy talk! There’s no such thing as quality without someone to judge it. A sandwich or a movie is only a work of quality in the eyes (or mouth) of those who experience it.
# It means only that it achieved what it was designed to achieve.
The ‘good’ is that which achieves its purpose to the highest regard. There is no trans-substantial, Platonic form of the ‘good’.
If we find an alien artifact, and we have no idea what it is, how can we judge its quality? Form follows function.
June 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm
Rubbish. Quality is the expression or presentation of great skill and/or talent. A failure to recognise that does not mean that declarations that the work is good by others are invalid.
June 2, 2012 at 4:46 pm
Form follows function. You cannot even judge great skill, or talent, without reference to function. If someone does something that has no observable effect on anything (perhaps they recite seemingly unconnected numbers constantly) and I tell you they are doing it with great skill or talent, do you believe me? How do you judge?
June 2, 2012 at 5:31 pm
# How people react to something has nothing to do
# with any discussion on its quality.
So, a book could exist that everyone, universally, hated, and it could still be good? Or a book could exist that bored everyone to tears, or that people couldn’t remember reading after having finished it, or that made people think and feel nothing at all, and it could still be ‘of quality’ by some objective standard despite having failed to win the appreciation of a single person?
If reactions have no bearing on quality, then it must be possible for such a book to exist.
June 1, 2012 at 11:47 pm
# A lot of readers are entirely
# blind to prose quality, Ian.
Prose quality is not the be-all and end-all. It is but one component in a weighted network.
June 1, 2012 at 11:48 pm
## then your critical judgments on books
## are worthless.
Sorry, I meant to say more than just ‘nonsense’ there, but something went wrong, and a load of my typing was lost.
June 2, 2012 at 3:02 pm
Damn, I typed loads of comments on this last night, but they got lost in the ethernets.
June 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm
# If all literary fiction, as some people claim, is about the
# breakdown of marriages between middle-class white people,
# then obviously that has no bearing on a science fiction novel.
What if it’s the breakdown of the marriages between middle-class white people IN SPAAAAAAAAACE?
June 2, 2012 at 11:12 pm
Have to say, having been largely away from the computer for the last day, I was looking forward to getting back into this discussion, but there’s just way too much of it now. WAY too much.
Next subject please!
June 3, 2012 at 8:39 am
I have the perfect topic. Stay tuned. 🙂
June 2, 2012 at 11:48 pm
“… but there’s just way too much of it now. WAY too much.”
Agreed, I’m lost.
“Prose quality is not the be-all and end-all. It is but one component in a weighted network.”
Returning to Joe Abercrombie, the prose isn’t ‘literary’ partly because he writes his 3rd person narrative as if it’s the POV character writing it. So, it’s verging on 1st person, often very colloquial, often slipping into the present tense. Damn, though, it’s entertaining and the characters come alive more vividly when they’re “there” in the prose.
Some (of course not all) smooth, silky prose is lifeless, missing an opportunity to embody how the characters truly think/feel.
For me personally, in my own writing, prose quality is partly sentence construction, partly grammar, but more important is character voice, trying to take emotion and capture it in text.
June 3, 2012 at 8:22 am
To chime with what James says here, and to reply to something Ian said a while back up stream (I’d quote it if I could be arsed looking for it on all that verbiage)…
It’s ridiculous to suggest that if the prose is artful, clever and complex it indicates that you have a “better” book in your hands. The prose style, like any other element of the book, should be chosen to best convey the story you’re trying to tell. Some stories suit a layered and nuanced style, but for others that kind of writing would present an obstruction to the reader. Abercrombie is a good example, so is Pratchett, They choose exactly the right styles to make their stories work.
To suggest they’re poorer books because the prose isn’t clever is nuts.
June 3, 2012 at 8:37 am
But why would anyone want to write bad prose? Which is not to say that bad prose is not prose that’s “artful, clever and complex”.
Not sure I agree that writers deliberately pick prose styles which suit the stories they tell. That implies a level of control I suspect few writers can manage – even the best ones. Durrell’s style changed little whether he was writing fiction like the Alexandria Quartet, or travel-writing like Bitter Lemons. The same is true of Burgess, whose tricksy prose was independent of subject matter or story type. It’s more likely that writers find styles that suit themselves, and stick to that. And it evolves and improves the more they write.
June 3, 2012 at 9:15 am
But we’re not talking about deliberately writing bad prose. We’re talking about choosing simple prose when it’s the right choice to make.
June 3, 2012 at 9:29 am
But I never said simple prose was bad. Clumsy prose is bad.
June 3, 2012 at 12:42 pm
Ha! I distinctly remember you – somewhere up there, but there’s no way I’m looking it up – equating prose complexity with good, thereby implying that simplicity = not good! Anyway, this subject really is dead now.
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