Sunday, June 3, 2012

Not As Subjective As We'd All Like To Think

[Disclaimer: This is not, as it may appear, a post in reaction to the review and comments from last week. I started writing this post and making notes for it back at the beginning of March. However, due to the review last week, I feel this is a good place for this post.]

As artists, we like to tell each other "it's all subjective." Some people like one thing, some people like another thing. There is a part of this that's true. But, mostly, it's not true. There are objective qualities to what's good and what's not good, and these qualities are more powerful than the subjective ones, because the subjective ones have to do with preference, not quality. We can tell this is true because such things as "classics" exist. They exist not because there were no other writers or painters or musicians during their time but because they were better than those other people. Not subjectively better. Just better.

And, mostly, those things are still better.

Wait! How can I even say such a thing? Well... because of science. Sort of.

Let's talk about physical human beauty. Science has, of course, studied this. Why do some women become super models? What is it about them? Why are we attracted to them, and why do they stand out? Why are some men held up as swoon-worthy gods and not others? What do they have that the rest of us don't?

I'm not going to go into all of the studies on this, but there are specific, objective qualities that have been identified that people are attracted to. Like symmetrical-ness of the face, the distance between the eyes, the clearness of the skin. Sure, there are subjective qualities beyond those things like hair and eye color, height (being that height preference is determined by the height of the person judging), and fitness of body along with other cultural preferences, but the basics are biological in nature, and the rest are variations of those basic qualities of attractiveness.

How does this stuff extend into the art world? It seems that so much of art changes so quickly all of the time. What's popular? What's not? One way to tell what's good is how long it lasts. There are pieces of music that people will always go back to, because they were better than other pieces of music from that time period. That's why they last. In the 60s, folk musicians were a dime a dozen, and you don't know who most of them are. Why? Because they weren't really any good. But Dylan? He had a horrible voice, but he wrote great music. He's become a classic. Paul Simon. Peter, Paul, and Mary. Names that people remember because they wrote great music and great songs. They inspired other people.

You look back at Rock, and you get names like Elvis, Rolling Stones, and U2. The Beatles.

And, sure, you may look at the names listed and say, "But I don't like The Beatles." Because, well, I don't. Much. But I can not deny the objective impact that they made, and their influence is not something that's just going to fade away because they've fallen out of popularity. They don't fall out of popularity. People will always be listening to The Beatles (just like people will always be reading Shakespeare).

Think back to the 80s and the plethora of bands; how many are memorable? Is it subjective? No, not really. We don't remember the bad ones, even if they were popular for a while or had a hit song or two. We do remember the good ones like The Police and U2. They've become memorable because they were objectively better than the masses that we don't remember.

The same kind of thing is true for painters. We know who some of them are, because their art was better. Why do we even care about Picasso? Is it because he painted weird stuff? No, it's because he was a great artist that decided to paint weird stuff. People look at it and think, "I can do that." But, no, really, they can't, because they didn't start out with the objective background in art that made Picasso great. They're trying to short cut their way to greatness by painting weird stuff that, then, no one really likes because that's all it ends up being. Weird. Not art.

Which brings us to writing. There are some very well-defined ways of judging whether something is good writing, primarily grammar. "Is it well written?" is not the same as "is it a good story?" And, honestly, it doesn't matter how good the story is if it's poorly written, and, even a not good story can be great if it is well written. So this objective criteria of writing becomes even more important than the one of whether an artist can paint something that's not weird.

I'm going to go to something that was said in a comment to the review I did last week comparing a book to a child. [First, I want to say, a book is not a child no matter how over-used that comparison is. It doesn't have feelings, and it doesn't care if anyone likes it no matter how much it may feel that way to the author. However, I'm going to go with the comparison anyway.] If a book is like a child, we have to look at it as if it is a child in school.

There are objective criteria applied to children in school, and, sometimes, the teacher has to say this child or that child is not ready to go on. Of course, this is a difficult thing to do, and many teachers don't like saying that so allow the children to pass through the grades even though they don't have basic skills (I'm from the south, specifically Louisiana (like 48th or something out of 50 in education(at least, that's what it was when I was growing up, and I don't think it's changed any), so I know what I'm talking about). If a student does need to be held back, does it hurt the child's feelings? Sometimes. Probably less than we think, though, unless we make a huge deal about it and remind the child on a regular basis. [My brother got held back in 1st grade, and he barely noticed. It was never an issue for anyone... other than my mother.] Mostly, it hurts the feeling of the parents. The parents feel like they've failed, and, maybe, they have, but, even if they haven't, they project those feelings at the child and worry about how the child will take it. And here's the conflict: do what's right for the child (hold him back so he can learn the skills he needs) or avoid making the child "feel bad" (pass him on anyway and hope he picks up what he's lacking on his own (almost never happens)).

This is how we need to look at books. Especially books on the outside of traditional publishing. See, within traditional publishing, we do have people that are capable of saying "this child (book) is ready to graduate." This doesn't mean the book is qualitatively good, but it does usually mean  that the book is quantitatively good. Or, at least, it meets some minimum standards (like my oldest son just passed (by a lot) the CA minimum knowledge requirement test for high school, so, technically, he's proficient enough to go on (even though he has two years to go)) of what a book needs to be. Someone that knows how has gone over the grammar and made sure it's pretty close to correct. These are people that know how to use spell check and can generally insert commas at the appropriate places. Outside of traditional publishing, though, we have people deciding for themselves whether they're ready or not, and this leads to a lot of people who are not ready deciding that they are.

Like a 3rd grader deciding he knows enough to quit school and get a real job.

No, really, it's the same kind of thing.

We have classics in literature, because those authors knew how to write. They were at the top of their game. The writing stars of their age. Babe Ruths and Muhammad Alis. Sure, maybe not everyone likes those stories, but they could write and write well. Is Dickens long? Sure, but he wrote so well that people don't care. But you don't like Dickens? "A Christmas Carol" is the most adapted story in history. Sherlock Holmes too dry for you? He's had more film adaptations than any other character ever. These things last because, objectively, they are better.

But we get so caught up in what is now. What's popular right now. 10 years from now, most of it won't be remembered. No one will care. Why? Because it's not good. I'm gonna pick on Twilight (come on, you know it makes an easy target). I can't get into the whole sparkly vampire thing. To me, it's just wrong. However, if I was into cheesy high school romances, and plenty of people are, then I probably wouldn't mind sparkly vampires. Does the fact that it's so popular at this moment mean it's something that will last? I remember when I was in high school and everything was about Flowers in the Attic. Everything. But without the social media involvement. They were the only books the girls talked about. But who remembers them now? No one. Because there was nothing there to make them standout other than that they were popular for a few years. Like Twilight.

And, really, like G R R Martin. Two decades ago it was Robert Jordan. The Wheel of Time was the biggest thing in fantasy since, well, Tolkien, and Jordan was talked about the exact same way as Martin is now. But who remembers Jordan? No one. Why? Because he wasn't Tolkien. His work didn't cross the bar Tolkien left behind. An objective, qualitative bar. And, sure, I know a lot of you don't like Tolkien. It doesn't change the fact that he left an objective standard behind that people need to live up to.

So... literature, writing, is not as subjective as we'd all like to think it is. There is an objective standard to what's good and what's not good. Within that objectivity, there is subjectivity. I'll use my own book as an example (because I know it better, and I'm not gonna hurt anyone else's feelings with this).

Well, wait... the problem is that most people have no ability to look at things objectively. They can tell you if they liked it, but they can't tell you why they liked it. Try to pin a random person down as to why they liked something, and you'll find it's like pulling teeth. Ask people why they like The Avengers, and I'll bet, in most cases, you'll get nothing more concrete than "it's exciting," "it has lots of action," or, maybe, "it's the story." Ask someone what they liked about the story, and you get "I don't know. It was just good." At any rate, people have a difficult enough time with being objective about other things, trying to get them to be objective about their own thing? It's just trouble.

But being as objective as I can about my own book, The House on the Corner, I can say it's good. I do have a leg up on a lot of people self-publishing, though. I have a degree in English, for one thing, plus I've studied a lot of classic, objectively good, literature. I've learned how to write, and I know how to tell a story. My book is good (and I'm not going beyond saying "good." That, I don't know).

That, however, doesn't mean that everyone will like it. Just like I don't like Twilight, because I'm not into freaky, stalkerish romances. But, then, not everyone likes Tolkien, but, man, could he write!

And, even within something you like, there may be issues. Sometimes these are subjective. For instance, PT Dilloway pointed out that I use the word "suddenly" too much. But what quantifies too much of that one word? It really doesn't matter, because, to him, it was too much, because that's his preference, and that's where the subjectivity comes in. Does that change that, overall, the work is good? No, but he may not like it for that reason. And it made me go back and look at my use of the word, which is a good thing. Out of 120,000 words, I used it about two dozen times. Quantitatively, I don't think this is too much; however, there were a couple of places where I used it too closely together, and I don't like that. At some point, some of those will get revised out. Recently, I've decided that I use the word "though" way too much. Some of those are going to go, too. But those are just little things that don't really affect the overall book, because my grammar, my objective measures, are pretty much in place.

And this is where we get into problems: the objective values have to be in place before we can get on to the subjective ones. How do you know if you'll like a story if it's just too poorly written to find the story? Is it fair for me to come in and say to someone, "Hey, your project needs work"? It's totally fair if I'm basing it off of objective measurements. No, it's not fair for me to come in and say, "Hey, your work sucks," just because I didn't happen to like it. I can say I don't like it, but that's really all I'm entitled to say if it's about my personal preference. However, it's totally fair to tell someone that they need editing assistance, especially if they need editing assistance.

In fact, I think it's more than fair; I think it's necessary. At least, in the non-traditional publishing world it is. In self-publishing, often, it's all up to the skill of the author, and, often, that means that you have the equivalent of 3rd graders deciding that their work is good enough to graduate. Even in small, independent publishing, you frequently don't get anything better than that. Low paid editors that really don't know what they're doing. There needs to be someone there saying, "Hey, this needs more work."

Michael Offutt, though, brought up a point that did give me pause. Basically, he said, that a bad review for someone's work is directly affecting someone's livelihood. I had to think about that, but, eventually, I came to the following conclusions:
1. Generally speaking, people that are self-publishing are not depending upon  the book revenue for their livelihood. If  they are, if they are successful enough that they make their living through writing, my one review isn't going to affect that.
2. Their "bad" books (speaking from an objective standpoint) make it more difficult for me to succeed; therefore, they are affecting my (future) livelihood by making it more difficult for my work to get out there.

Look, people already have the view that self-published works are sub par. And they have good reason. Most of them are. Most of them have been put out there by 3rd graders, figuratively speaking, who decided they were ready. No, that there isn't good stuff out there, but most of them are not.

I mean, I don't even bother with self-published works unless it's by someone I know or has some good recommendations from people I know. Why? Because I don't have time to sift through all the crap that's covering up the stuff that's worth reading. It kind of sucks, but that's the way it is. And, what this means to me is that if I see something that objectively doesn't make the grade, I'm gonna say so. Especially, most especially, if I'm asked to do it. Because, honestly, I'm not gonna go out looking for things to give bad reviews to; I don't have the time to waste on reading crap.

However, if someone asks me to give a review, I'm going to weigh it to the best of my objective ability, which, as it happens, is pretty good.

Of course, as I said earlier, most people don't ever bother to look at, well, anything objectively, so what we get is a lot of "that sucks!" or "what a piece of garbage!" or, even, "wow! that was the awesomest thing ever!" And none of those statements mean anything, because none of those statements differentiate between what is objective and what is subjective. Which is what I try to do when I give a review, and it's why I separate the technicals from my reaction to whatever it is I'm reading.

For the sake of saying it (because I thought about this a lot this weekend), here are my four basic possible reactions to the things I read:
1. That was bad, and I didn't like it.
2. That was bad, but I liked it anyway.
3. That was good, but I didn't like it.
4. That was good, and I did like it.
Those are, of course, starting places, but what's important to see is that they all start with an objective valuation of the material, and that objective judgement affects my subjective response. And that's true for everyone even if they can't see what's going on in their own heads. They are making some sort value judgement of the piece that, then, colors their subjective response to it and tells them whether they like it or not. Unfortunately, often, it's other 3rd graders doing this, so they don't have much in the way of objective skill to work with, so they can look at two things and see that one is better, but they can't tell you why, and  the why is what is so very important.

Why is this book that this person worked on for so long not good enough?

And do you want to know the truth? Most people don't want you to know why. They want you to leave it at "I didn't like it," because, that way, they can fall back on the whole "well, it's all subjective" crap heap and continue to pat themselves on the back and pretend that that piece of crap they just self-published is really a golden egg. And, you know, continue to have all their friends pat them on the back, too, because no one wants to risk telling anyone in the circle that that book is a piece of crap, because, then, someone might tell them the same thing.

And you know what? I kind of hate that. I hate finding those circles of friends that go on and on about how good each others' books are, because I have no way of telling, at that point, if any of it's good, so I have to stay away from all of it. And that, above all else, sucks.

However, when you approach a book objectively, when you give real, actual, solid reasons why something isn't ready, why it's not good enough, why the author needs to go back and work on it some more, that's when people get upset and freak out at you and yell at you. And, you know, accuse you of being >gasp< honest! And mean.

But I wasn't mean in my review of Matthew Irvine's book. You want to know how I know? I asked my wife. Seriously. Here's how it went:

There was a request for reviews and such for The Last of the Venitars. Everyone else that saw the request and went and looked at the preview said no because the book needing editing.

I looked at the preview and said the same thing. Mr. Irvine (and his best friend February Grace) felt that if I would just read the book that I would fall in love with the story, and I wouldn't care about the rest.

I told Mr. Irvine that it would be better if he pulled the book and got some help with the editing. That, based on the preview, if I reviewed it, I would not be able to give it a positive review.

His response was that he wanted me to read and review the book anyway and that I should be as honest as I could be.

So I read the book, and it took me a lot longer than I would have liked, because the objective parts were so bad that it was a huge barrier to any story that might have been there.

When I finished, I gave my wife my objective evaluation of the book and my subjective response to it (which I did not actually include in my review). She told me that I should probably not review the book if my review was going to be that bad, because people would get upset. There was discussion, and she suggested that I, at least, contact the author again and see if he had changed his mind. I was resistant to that, because I had spent the time reading the thing and felt that the review was owed at that point. But I thought about it and decided to do what she said and emailed the guy again before I wrote the review.

He repeated that I should write the review even though I told him that I would have nothing positive to say about the book.

So I wrote the review. And I felt bad about it. But before I posted the review, I let my wife read it, and she said, "it's harsh, but it's not unkind." And, remember, she heard the things I really said about  the book. So, yeah, I was harsh, but I wasn't mean.

I posted the review. And I felt bad about it.

But I don't think I do anymore. Like I said, someone needs to be able to give honest, objective reviews on material, especially when they are asked for. It's not easy, and it more than kind of sucks, but all of this affects me, too. It affects all of us that aren't with a big time publishing company, because, somewhere, someone has to start setting some standards and being willing to be honest and tell people, "hey, that's not quite ready, yet. Go back and work on it some more." It's really not all as subjective as we'd like to think it is.

26 comments:

  1. I missed the review from last week and it sounds like I should go check it out.

    But I agree with you. I think what you say makes sense.

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  2. He asked for an honest review and you gave it to him, even checking with him several times. That was fair.
    Everyone gets bad reviews. For a book that is good, a few bad reviews won't kill the author's career. I have several on CassaStar, but it doesn't matter because the good ones outweigh the bad. And it's still selling like crazy. And even more important, I learned from both the reviews and the experience.
    I like your four basic reactions - need to remember those!

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  3. Actually we do remember the bad ones for a lot of things like music and movies and books. Some of it is nostalgia. Some of it is because of that old expression, "So bad it's good." I mean there are a lot of 3 or 4 star books that were good but I've all but forgotten them while there are 1 star books I remember vividly because they were just so freaking terrible.

    An example of this would be "Plan 9 From Outer Space" consistently rated as the worst movie ever. I didn't think it was THAT bad but it's pretty bad. It's lived on as a cult classic for over 50 years now because it's so bad it's good.

    And yes you do use "suddenly" too much. It's an unnecessary and most often a meaningless word. Go ahead and read the sentence without that word and it will probably read just as well.

    It's like how my editor told me I use "that" too much. When I was reading over my manuscript, I flagged over 160 unnecessary "that"s in it. I could leave them in and no one would probably notice but why give people another excuse to rip on me?

    As for being subjective, every editor will tell you not to use too many adverbs. Even President Obama said that in a critique he wrote to someone when he was in college. So it's not just MY opinion.

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  4. *raises hand sheepishly* I remember Robert Jordan. People really don't remember Robert Jordan?

    Interesting thoughts on the difference between objectively and subjectively good/bad. I think I agree with you, but quite a bit of it feels somewhat over my head at the moment. I'm not always particularly good at explaining why I liked or didn't like it with any real substance. It's harder than it look on first glance! (That's one reason I enjoy reading critiques more than reviews, which just tell about the storyline and not the quality of the book.)

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  5. I agree with you 100%. I even just think of our post today about Fifty Shades of Grey. I don't think there's a single person on the planet that can tell you it's a "good" book. But masses of women still love it.

    Also, I never understand how people can get their panties in a wad about a review. Seriously, if a book needs editing, it needs editing. Saying "well it's a great story that you're gonna fall in love with, so that doesn't matter" is irrelevant. Try saying that to a major publishing house. You'd get laughed right out the door.

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  6. M.J.: Well, I hope so. I don't think I've put more thought into a post before, and I've had a few very thoughtful posts in there.

    Alex: I'll expand on those later; I just figured that this post was already long enough. heh

    Grumpy: Being so bad it's good is a completely different category, and it generally doesn't happen with books. I can think of several movies that are worse than Plan 9.

    I don't want to get into a discussion about adverbs at the moment, but the prohibition against them is most often misunderstood.

    Callie: Yeah, people really don't remember him. It often surprises me, because he was -such- a big deal in the mid-90s, but I most often get blank stares when I mention his name.
    You're right, it is harder than it looks. People are comfortable with an "I liked it" or an "I didn't" but they don't like to have their stuff picked apart and examined. Reviews, actually, should cover some of those basics.

    ABftS: It's because people -want- to believe that the story escapes the confines of the writing. It rises above it and all that romantical crap. But, no, a story full of bad grammar and punctuation is like a bird in an oil slick. Yes, I'm thinking right now about the gulf oil disaster and the effort to rescue the birds and how few of them could be saved.

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  7. For my two cents, there is a difference between the types of "objectivity" you're outlining here.

    One type is basic writing mechanics: using grammar, spelling, sentence organization. It is good to not write sentences that turn out to be weird puns; it is good to avoid passive constructions. (It is good also to avoid starting sentences with "it is," but whatever.)

    You can easily evaluate good and bad objectively here. I accept that some people successfully break these rules, but those who do break them consciously and strategically, not accidentally and out of ignorance.

    That's one.

    The other type of objectivity (e.g., Shakespeare and Dickens are good, and even superior) is a little dodgier, I think. I've been a Shakespeare scholar, so bear with me. There are conventions laid out in Western culture, and partially informed by writers like Shakespeare, that tell us what "good" literature is. These conventions are not necessarily objective measures of good writing. They are ideologically useful structures that help people harmonize with their culture. (E.g., Western narrative tends to follow a linear pattern - beginning, middle, end - rather than a cyclical pattern. This three-part structure, it could be argued, aided such movements as Manifest Destiny, Eugenics, and the founding of the Federal Reserve. People will do anything if they believe they are moving toward a "better end" or "resolution" to their difficulties.)

    Anyway, all of this is to say that there is a difference between objective good / bad writing and tasteful writing - i.e., writing that harmonizes with certain cultural notions in a convenient way. Shakespeare has been ideologically useful in virtually every era since his own. Other writers of his time - Marlowe, Ford, Middleton - were, in my opinion, just as good or better, but not as useful to the powers that be.

    All of this is to say I think you're smooshing some ideas together here that should maybe not be smooshed quite so tightly.

    None of this is to say that the idea that "it's all subjective" is useful. I don't think it is all that useful.

    BUT this is a great conversation. Hats off to you for leading it.

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  8. Crap, that was a long post!

    I do agree with you though. I think there are measurable, objective qualities that make art "good." After that I suppose it does come down to taste. And that's why it irked me so much that the author wasn't willing to improve the things that could be improved. Those things aren't part of the subjective. They are concrete things that can be improved to make a project better. Grrr.

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  9. Elizabeth: Well, actually, I agree with you except...
    But before the except, after a nearly 4000 word post, I figured adding a discussion differentiating types of objectivity was probably going a bit too far.
    Anyway, I agree with you except that I believe cultural norms of what qualify as "good" being an objective measure is okay. It sets a cultural standard that gives us a way to measure things. Sure, it's somewhat arbitrary, but, then, so is the length of an inch or the volume of a gallon. They still provide useful objective measurements within our culture even if most of the rest of the world uses the metric system. So something that is subjective on a global scale becomes culturally objective data.

    And I used to agree about Shakespeare. For many years felt he was overrated and that Marlowe, especially, should occupy his place in history. But once I got past Macbeth and Romeo, I changed my mind.

    L.G.: Yeah, it was a long post. I fought with myself over condensing it, and, actually, took several sections out that will be other posts, but this is all the stuff that was left that I figured really needed to be in this post.

    And, yeah, I just can't understand why anyone would just say, "no, I'm leaving it like this, I don't care how bad the grammar is." I mean, if -I'm- willing to look at my use of the word "suddenly," well, then... I don't know.

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  10. I'm going to have to try to read this later, or tomorrow, to comment. I'm all tied up today even though a trial settled and ordinarily I wouldn't be in the office today at all. Such is life. I'm going to read it, though...

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  11. I use the word "just" too much. It stems from the fact that my students constantly use it in every day speech. Rubs off.

    I think--and this is just my opinion, so take it with a grain of salt--it's very important to explain the reasons for liking/not liking something. Anything. Books, movies, dogs, potato bugs, etc. I also think it's perfectly fine for you to place such opinions on your blog. It's your blog. No one else can claim ownership.

    I guess what made me feel uncomfortable is placing the entire review on Amazon. Suffice it to say you could have wrapped up your feelings on the need for editorial work, cited a couple examples, and then linked readers to your blog post if they wished to see an in-depth study. Just a thought. See? You knew the word "just" would be making an appearance.

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  12. Nice breakdown about the meaning of good and bad. Sometimes breaking something down and writing it out helps me to clarify things a bit for myself. I have no idea if you had that in mind when you started on that post, but whatever the reason, I've thought about it a bit today. Good stuff.

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  13. There are so many aspects to this whole topic (was it one topic or many?). For one thing I somewhat agree on objectivity, however even that becomes somewhat subjective in a sense depending on culture, schools of thought, historical perspective, and other viewpoints. It depends on how you're judging something and from what vantage point.

    Someone from one culture may deem the Beatles or Beethoven or some other music westerners think is great as atrocious and not conforming to their standards of what good music is and they would probably have all the "scientific" proof to back it up.

    Visual art? Tons of differing viewpoints and I'm sure many of them have valid criteria to back them up.

    I'm with you on writing tech and yet I've heard said that some of the so called classics could never pass the muster of modern publishers because of some atrocious writing that was formerly considered good.

    This whole topic reminds me of "The Eye of the Beholder" episode on Twilight Zone where there is a topsy-turvy world in which what we consider beautiful is seen as horrible and what scared the crap out of me when I was a kid is seen as beautiful.

    Then I think of some ghastly women I've seen in Walmart for example and wonder what guy would ever want to be with her and then there he is and he's not all that bad looking.

    There's something for everyone and their subjective opinions can sometimes be "proven" objectively to the point that I'm almost convinced. And no matter what anyone tries to tell me, nearly all rap music is garbage and Moulin Rouge (the more recent version) is still a horrible film (to me).

    Upbringing, culture, exposure, preference---that's what's important. Damn, and this all relates to my Wednesday Tossing It Out topic in a way.

    But I hear you and know what you're saying. I just don't know that this can be universally applied and throughout all the ages.

    And no matter what anyone thinks, I still like Thomas Kinkaide paintings.


    Lee
    Wrote By Rote

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  14. Briane: Sure thing.

    Alleged: Well, that's true. My way of posting reviews is to write one review and apply it everywhere. I can see your point, but I'm sort of uncomfortable with making an exception, I suppose, -just- because it was a negative review rather than a positive one. I'll think about it, though.

    Rusty: Well, yeah, writing things down often helps me clarify my thoughts. Well, the process of writing it requires me to clarify. That's part of why my reviews always have to do with my reasons for liking/not liking things. If I'm going to write about it, I have to think about it.

    Lee: I agree with the differing cultural views of objectivity. As I said in my response to Elizabeth, I didn't feel like I should try and deal with that in this post, too, considering the length it already was, so I just bulked it for ease. I may do a post on that at some point. However, for my discussion, approaching it from my own cultural norm works since I'm talking about things within my own cultural norm.

    And although I agree that a lot of the classics would never get published today if they were submitted, I also think that 100 years from now those books will still be around and will still be being studied while the bulk of what is being published today will have long been forgotten.

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  15. I finally got a chance to read this. There's a LOT to think about here and so much to comment on that I don't know where to begin.

    So I'll begin with: BRAVO for avoiding {TS/DR}. Complicated ideas deserve lengthy discussions, and you've got a lot at work here.

    I'll tell you why I liked "The Avengers" as a way of breaking in to my thoughts: On a gut level, getting to see Thor fight the Hulk, and Thor fight Iron Man and Thor fight.. man, what is up with Thor?... seeing all those fights and how they were staged was just FUN. I like to think about who would beat who in a fight, because I am useless to society, and I finally got to see some of those played out in live action.

    The storyline was nothing to write home about, but most movies aren't. It was a basic superhero storyline. But the many moving parts of the story and the glimpses into the psyches of the various characters added to the emotional depth of the story and gave it a little more heft than many superhero movies.

    So how's that?

    Anyway: Are things objectively good?

    I say no.

    I said yesterday to someone that asking whether something (in this case, a court ruling) was "good" or "bad" was like asking whether a hammer was "good" or "bad."

    If a hammer is putting a nail into a board to hold it to a wall, it's "good," I said. If it's dropping onto your toe, it's "bad."

    Ezra Pound, legend has it, wrote a sonnet a day for a year and then burned them before he went to free verse. He did that because one must know the rules before throwing them out. Was Pound's decision to ignore much of poetic structure and rhythm "bad"? I say not.

    Typos, poor editing, sloppy stories -- these things are mistakes that detract from the story. Objectively speaking, they are bad, but I think we're talking about a different level of "good" or "bad" here; comparing Venitars to Shakespeare is like comparing my videos of Mr F and Mr Bunches to "The Avengers": fair only if I invite you to make such a comparison. If I put my upcoming film opus "Children At The Bottom Of Slides" into an Imax theater and ask you to pay $14.50 for it, you can rate it compared to James Cameron's stuff. If I put it on Youtube, it deserves a different ranking.

    (I should point out: I'm not defending sloppiness, which I am frequently accused of and am attempting to be more vigilant against. Venitars sounded like it needed work; I'm more interested in whether something is objectively good or bad.)

    Is Elvis still remembered because he was "objectively" good? Is Shakespeare? Why does U2 stand out from the 80s crowd when Hipsway does not?

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  16. PART TWO:

    I posed a theory, once, that said you can tell objectively how good something is by how many people have heard of it:

    http://www.troublewithroy.com/2009/01/best-way-to-tell-if-something-is-truly.html

    And that theory is somewhat like what you're saying here: that if something lasts a long time, it is proof that it was genuinely good. On the other hand, couldn't it be that the things that last a long time are the things we hear about? When I walk through the library, I see thousands of books that passed muster -- an editor said "go ahead, put it out there" -- and which were not famous. Were they no good? Is it impossible that buried in the stacks of a library is a book that outshines every single book Kurt Vonnegut wrote, COMBINED? It's not. Unlikely, but not impossible.

    Put another way: Was every writer in Shakespeare's time so far below Shakespeare's skill that they deserve to be forgotten? I find it unlikely.

    In some cases, being first is good enough to be great: Elvis wasn't the first rocker by any means. But he was the first white guy who could sing like a black guy, and that may have been enough to have people equate him with "greatness."

    In the end, there's some kind of mix between subjective and objective. It's hard to say something is "great" if I really don't care for the subject matter. I saw "The Notebook" with Sweetie and thought it was okay; not really my kind of movie but well done for all that. Would people say "The Notebook" is great? Maybe if you liked that kind of thing.

    Likewise modern art, or any art: I may not care for portraits, and so may not think the "Mona Lisa" deserves all the acclaim. Why IS that painting famous, anyway? Does it demonstrate some kind of professional skill that is hard to match? Is it mysterious? Who knows: but it's famous and like Paris Hilton may be famous simply for being famous now, rather than being famous for being great.

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  17. PART THREE:

    (I confess: I have no idea why the Mona Lisa is famous. I may have to look it up later.)

    It's easy to see how technical deficiencies keep something from being great; if the Mona Lisa had one hand larger than the other, it probably wouldn't be considered great (but might be just as famous, as fame is not equal to greatness.) But those same technical deficiencies sometimes make people SAY something is great: have you ever tried to read "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace? People consider that great writing: I consider him badly in need of an editor because whatever story was hidden in the glop of his prose was beyond my capabilities of discerning.

    So I have to differ with you: Great is subjective, and far more subjective than objective.

    As for the ephemeral nature of current trends, that's what separates "Pop" culture from culture: everything is pop culture when it first appears. Those things that stick become culture. As was pointed out by Dinosaur Comics one day (I get my learnin' from some strange sources), "classical" music was once pop music: we now think it's classy because (in part) it's old, and someday Elvis will be 200 year-old music and will sound quaint to people.

    Not every composer lasted: Mozart made it, Salieri didn't, not really. The differences are in part subjective and in part objective and in part the result of luck and hype and the fickle nature of public attention, and in part the result of the fact that we live in a four-dimensional world where time continues to decay our past into entropy...

    ...by which I mean, as time goes on, we can only remember so many things. Another ongoing theme of mine is the idea that with each passing year, we compress the past a little more. Right now, the entire period of time from 0 A.D. to 1100 A.D. is boiled down, in our minds, to "The Magna Carta."

    1100 years of history: one event. Do you suppose the people who lived in year 700 thought that NOTHING they did would survive?

    From 1100-1500, it's pretty much just "Columbus" and "Shakespeare." Human culture of 400 years: two things.

    As we get closer to our time, we know more and more about what has been happening and so we know all the top 10 movies of the past weekend, but a year from now, probably 1-2 of those movies will stick in our heads. A decade from now, one movie from this YEAR may be remembered

    (What movies can you recall being released from 2000-2009? There's 100 from that decade on Rotten Tomatoes' Worst-Of list alone).

    50 years from now, will we remember "The Avengers?" What movies from 1962 do you know about? Probably you don't recall Girls Girls Girls, starring Elvis Presley, even though Elvis is almost certainly going to be the Mozart of the 20th Century, with Bono being the Beethoven.

    So being "great" requires the ability to fight with Magna Carta and Christopher Columbus and the Civil War and all the other things that go on around us to stick in our mind, and some of THAT is based on what else was happening at the time: why bother remembering the big hit songs of the 1860s when there was something REALLY important to remember about them?

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  18. PART IV: Seriously, Blogger?

    One big problem, to tie this up, with people trying to be "great" is that people do not learn how things are done before doing them a different way. People who try to out-Picasso that artist need to understand why Picasso was groundbreaking and why he did what he did; anyone can paint like Picasso -- but they are doing it just to be like him.

    Free verse and unrhyming poetry is the last refuge of the scoundrel, which is why I've decided to exclusively focus on rhyming poems in my writing; if anyone can do it, nobody can do it well, is part of my thinking. Rhymes and technical skill are a door keeping out the masses.

    So to that end, learning the technical details -- whether you're using too many adverbs or "that" too much -- can help, but it doesn't separate good from great, it separates bad from acceptable. Who's to say how many suddenlys are too many? You liked how many you had, and then PT says he didn't, and now you don't: It's the red car syndrome.

    The real problem is not too many suddenlys or not enough suddenlys: it's suddenlys-for-no-reason. When you see in my book "Eclipse" (to mention this again because it bugs me) that most nouns are capitalized in parts 2, 5, and 8, but not elsewhere, you can think "poor editing," but they're there for a REASON, just as I repeat words or break sentence structure or footnote something for a reason.

    If you used your suddenlys consciously, it's not an error on YOUR part, it's a flaw in the reader, and you can never prevent that.

    Greatness is therefore almost always in the eye of the beholder; it can be dragged down by viewers and their prejudices-- but only as to those viewers-- and it can be held back by technical details-- but it can't be created or defined beyond that, and is a mixture of luck and skill that can't be controlled.

    And now I've spent too much time on this. You made me THINK! Sorry, also that this is disjointed; I got interrupted 7 separate times posting this comment.

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  19. Briane: Well, I have to be back at my kids' school in 30 min, so I can't respond as fully as I'd like; however...

    Part of me agrees with you, except...

    I think arbitrary objective standards are acceptable, even preferable, to give society a way to communicate things. It's necessary.

    Let's look at math (because I know how much you (and Rusty) love getting into the whole math thing, especially math as a language):

    Much of math, especially arithmetic, is arbitrary. Why is "2" two? Because we decided it is, just like we decided 2+2=4. But we have to decide those things are those things so that we have some standard.

    So let's pretend that that we can write stories in math.

    Some people would only be able to write stories in basic arithmetic. There's nothing wrong with writing stories in arithmetic; it's just that they are rather simple. Some people go one and write stories in algebra, some add in geometry, and, some, calculus. And some beyond that. Basically, the more complex your story grows, the better. Up to a point, because, at some point, you begin to lose readers, because you are writing at such a level above them that they can't understand it. But the people that -can- understand calculus think those stories are incredible. The point, though, is that part of a standard for judging the story written is the level that it's written at. So, for the sake of argument, I'm going to say that stories written in the algebra with a bit of geometry thrown in are what we've come to agree on as a society are objectively "good."

    Except for one thing, your equations have to work. You can't write your story and get the math all wrong and have it be considered good, because that is, just, bad math. Writing stuff with lots of grammar and structure issues is like doing bad math, or wrong math, and we wouldn't call that good on any level except, maybe, other people that can't tell that those things are wrong, because they can't read algebra.

    So, whereas I do agree with about the subjectivity of, well, everything, I think, within that, we have to have objective standards that we measure by so that we have a way to communicate with each other about these things.

    It's sort of like adopting common currency.

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    1. Well, i do agree with you on that.

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  20. I can't add anything to what anyone else has already said. People will think what they think and life goes on.

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  21. A lot of what I would have responded with has already been said, so I'll just skip over that. There is one thing I wanted to say about your post. I agree with you about classic literature (fellow English major here), but I will say I sometimes think just because something isn't well remembered doesn't necessarily mean it's not amazing. For example, everyone remembers Jane Austen's works, but few people remember North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. She's Austen's contemporary (almost) and the novel deals with a lot of the same issues, and yet few people have read it (to my utter sadness). It's sometimes hard to judge whether something is wonderful and worth remembering based on whether people actually do remember it.

    Anyway, obviously that wasn't your argument - nor, I assume, your beliefs on the matter. I just wanted to throw my two cents in. As someone who CAN tell you - in detail - why I love every book or movie I ever seen/read (from Avengers and Harry Potter to Macbeth and The Sound and the Fury), I had to chime in :)

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  22. Michael: Well, yes, people will think what they will think. Unfortunately, psychology tells us that they will go on thinking those things even when they are wrong, even when presented with superior evidence that they are wrong, because it's almost impossible to change anyone's mind.

    Not that that I'm implying that about anyone; you're comment just made me think of it.

    S. L.: I totally agree that some worthy things get passed by and some unworthy things get ahead (because who, other than me, knows who George MacDonald is and why he's so important?), especially in our time, but, overall, I think it tends to even out.

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  23. The Princess and the Goblin, right? He's a childhood favorite of mine.

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  24. Interesting. You totally didn't make the point about Michael's "but it affects his livelihood" argument that I expected. Which is: seriously? We're not allowed to give honest reviews because it might take money away from the author? Listen, if someone writes a bad review maliciously, specifically in order to discredit somebody, that's one thing. But saying "oh noes we can't say bad things because it takes dollars away from poor writers" is nonsense.

    If you want to make writing into a business that provides a livelihood (which is, as Andrew pointed out, very unlikely anyway), then you'd better be providing a quality product. As with any product, you make money off of it if it is judged to be worthwhile by your customers. If it is not judged to be worthwhile, it's not the fault of the customers that you're not making money: it's your fault for making something shoddy that people don't want. Yup, a bad review might affect someone's livelihood. But actually, that's how the market WORKS. Authors don't have an inherent right to profit just because they've written something. That's exactly the problem with self-publishing from where I'm standing: "oh, I made a book! I can haz money now?"

    Sorry, that came out nastier than I meant. But it does kind of rankle with me. Even the best of writers get honestly bad reviews, and sometimes intentionally malicious ones. If it's good enough, a bad review won't do much. If it's not, the review is irrelevant anyway.

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  25. Briane: Now I want to write a story in math!

    S.L.: Yeah, and that's one I haven't read, but I do have The Light Princess sitting by my bed that I intend to read to my kids soon. I also have Phantastes and Lilith sitting right there with it.

    Jericha: Well, see, I'm glad I didn't make that point, because you just made it better than I probably would have. And that is one of the things that bothers me about so much of the self-published stuff out there; it's crap that's been thrown together because the author thinks s/he's going to get rich just because s/he put it out there.

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