Thursday, September 27, 2012

Taking Out the Trash ( a further reflection on objectivity)

The ability to separate the subjective from the objective is something that most people cannot do. Okay, maybe "cannot" is the wrong word, but "do not" is certainly accurate. Actually, I think "cannot" is accurate, but I think it's only accurate in that most people have never learned to do it. Studies tend to indicate that many people simply cannot learn the skill, though, but I'm not sure if I'm willing to go that far. At any rate, for our purposes here (or my purposes, at any rate) "cannot" is the applicable word.

When doing reviews and making suggestions, I think this is something that's invaluable and something that needs to be distinguished. There is a difference between "I like this" and "this is good." Good, in this sense, being a qualitative, objective measure.

Most people don't see it that way, though. For most people, if they arrive at "I like this" it also means "this is good" and, likewise, "I don't like this" means "this is bad." This is why "everything is subjective" has become such an important mantra for writers and, well, all the arts. It's just not that easy, though, and people really do need to learn how to tell the difference between what is good and what they like.

Michael Offutt often talks about all the trashy TV he likes to watch. He kind of even glories in it sometimes. One of the things I really appreciate about him is his ability to say, "Hey, this is trash, but I like it anyway." That's an amazing thing that you just don't see a lot of people doing. You don't see people doing it, because, if they like it, they, for whatever reason, need to defend it and elevate it above trash. As my wife says, "It's okay to like trash as long as you acknowledge that it's trash."

Sir Peter Stothard, the chair for this year's Man Booker Prize, says, "It is wonderful that there are so many blogs and websites devoted to books, but to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste... Not everyone's opinion is worth the same." He adds, "As much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others, it just ain't so." As snobby and elitist as it may sound, I agree with him.

After all, there is a reason we go to a doctor when we're sick and not the grandmother down the street.

There is a reason we talk to astrophysicists about the origin of the universe and not the backyard astronomer next door.

Not everyone's opinion is worth the same.

Sure, only you can decide what you like, but you liking it doesn't somehow make it better than it is. A turd is still a turd even if you paint it gold.

No, all of this doesn't take away a degree of subjectivity that hangs around any artistic endeavor, but it's not all subjective, and people kind of need to own up to that.

For instance, even if you don't like The Lord of the Rings, you can't actually deny that it is a great work. Well, you can try, but that's sort of like trying to deny that 2+2=4. This is not a subjective view. Tolkien did something in creating Middle Earth that has never been equaled. The scope of his creation is staggering, the writing is intricate and wonderfully descriptive, the tale is timeless. I get that it might bore some of you, but your personal reaction to it doesn't make it "bad" as much as you might like or want to think so.

Also, as much as you might like The Hunger Games or Fifty Shades of Grey, it doesn't make it "good." It's kind of like eating candy or smoking; just because you like it doesn't mean you should try to fool yourself into thinking that it's good for you. Just own it. "This is bad, and I like it."

All of this brings me to the point, which is something I've said before, but I want to make clear again: my basic way of evaluating books. I say basic because it is a little more complex than this, because not everything breaks easily into good or bad or like or dislike, but I'm sure you can get the idea. So here is how I look at a book as I'm reading it and, then, reviewing it:

  1. This is good, and I like it.
  2. This is good, but I don't like it.
  3. This is bad, and I don't like it.
  4. This is bad, but I do like it.
This is important because, as I said back at the beginning, most people can't differentiate like this. Most people see "like=good" and "dislike=bad," and those things are not necessarily the truth. Yes, it is true that most often, if something is good, I will like it, and, if something is bad, I won't like it. BUT
As my wife says, I like the Dresden books, and it's debatable as to whether those fall into the "good" category. They are decidedly pulp fiction, that's how they're written, and many people consider that a lower art form, which goes back to subjectivity, but they're well written pulp fiction, and Butcher does deal with important issues. His problem is that he can get preachy about them and go on for pages, and, then, it falls into the category of bad, because he's stepped outside of his story so that he, the author, can lecture us. But, see, I like them anyway. My wife does not. They are my junk food books when I just need something fun to read. But, see, I know that, and I'm not trying to make them into more than they are.

The complication of all of this is that good and bad are opposite ends of a spectrum as are like and dislike, so it can all get kind of muddled. However, it is important to at least make the attempt to separate your subjectivity of an experience from the objective reality of it. Like being scared of a roller coaster. Subjectively, you may be so scared you're peeing your pants, but, objectively, you can look at the thousands and thousands of people riding and not dying and know that the chance of you dying is actually pretty small.


  1. I think it's important to keep in mind the genre and the audience of the book. When reviewing "The Hunger Games" I know it's not up there with "Ulysses" in the writing department, but it was an exciting read which I think was the point of it and it did a good job to cater to its audience. When I panned the latest Amanda Hocking book it was mostly because it wasn't as good as others of that genre, including self-published ones I'd read. Apples to apples as they say.

  2. Subjectivity is such a difficult thing to nail down. There are so many variables in why we like or don't like something. It isn't always about an ideal in quality. Sometimes it's an emotional thing we feel for something. And I think that's okay. Writers are basically entertainers in my mind, and if someone finds a book entertaining, whether it's deemed to have prize-worthy writing or not, is a win.

  3. Kristine Kathryn Rusch once talked on her blog about how at the writing workshops she and her husband runs they only allow two valid responses when attendees read each other's work.

    1. I liked it and I would buy it.
    2. I didn't like it and I wouldn't buy it.

    As far as I'm concerned any so called criticism that goes beyond that is entirely useless. And as I've said elsewhere, literary criticism has been harming literature for far too long now.

  4. This is absolutely perfect. I'm the same way when it comes to reviewing. Even if something doesn't work, I look for the things that do. Bookmarking this post, yo! :)

  5. PT: Yeah, I agree with that to a certain extent, but I also think it's important to be explicit about whether it's a book you enjoyed or a book you thought was a good.

    L.G.: Well, yeah, it is okay to like whatever for whatever reason. What I'm saying is that we shouldn't try to make something into more than it is just because we like it. It's a great thing to like a book, but it's a better thing to know -why- we like a book.

    Sarah: Um... I don't agree with that at all. I like a lot of things I don't buy, so that wouldn't work for me. Also, I decide to not buy things that I know I might like but are also not worthwhile. Like buying candy. Sure, I'll like it, but there are better things.

    And you may be confusing literary criticism with paid reviewers? I don't know. Literary criticism is necessary and valid. We need people with the skills to look at the parts of what's written and explain why they work and what the author was doing. This is not the same as the "critics" who actually don't do criticism but are just being paid to give their opinions. Generally speaking, those people are no better at being objective about what they read than anyone else.

    What I'm saying is that we need more people that can approach books objectively, not that we need more "critics."

    David: I'm glad you liked it! Bookmark away!