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.