In the comments to last Monday's post, Good Story, Bad Writing,
I wound up crossing foils with longtime sparring partner Mr. Pond
and new-come blademaster Masha
. And as we danced the forms, moving fluidly through Cat Crosses the Courtyard to Dragon Swings its Tail to Snow Mingles with a Waterfall... okay, I have definitely been reading too much Wheel of Time
. And I'm going to kill that awful mix of warsport metaphors right there. Suffice it to say that the three of us found enough to talk about that we've decided to hold another blogalectic.
A blogalectic, for those who don't remember, is a debate hosted on two or more blogs. Mr. Pond coined the term when he and I went back and forth for several weeks over the rules of good writing.
As Mr. Pond pointed out in preparatory talks, matters of artistic criticism and what should be considered art are material for PhD theses. Unfortunately, I am not a PhD. Nor am I an MA, or a BA, or even an AA. I am a GED. A homeschooled one, who reads a lot and gave up college plans mainly for love of a job, but a GED nonetheless. I may ask more questions than I can answer.
Our discussion in last Monday's combox began and ended with the potential for confusion between taste and critical judgment, and that's where the three of us plan to start. From Masha:
The definitions of bad writing and bad story are not as subjective as we sometimes are led to believe, though you're right in that our tastes and prejudices do color our responses to stories. Bad writing is writing that fails to convey the intentions of the author in a clear and beautiful (in the objective sense) manner.
From Mr. Pond:
We flatter ourselves that because we can speak, therefore we're competent judges of story and narrative. Actually, as John McIntyre argues, written English is a distinct dialect that has its own rules and conventions; it takes years to master it. These rules and the mastery thereof is—have to say it—objective.
On the outside, this looks like a simple issue. Taste says "I like the Backstreet Boys better than N'Sync" and critical judgment says "But neither of them come anywhere near Mozart." Discussion ended.
Well, maybe that
discussion. But there are reviewers for pop music magazines, and reviewers who talk of symphony in important newspapers. Likewise, there are reviewers for the latest young adult fiction and reviewers for the stuff that might win the Man Booker Prize. The objective standards for paranormal romance differ from those for potential Nobel laureates, but they exist. At least, they're supposed to. Hmm. The latter two might be bad examples.
Regardless of level, critics face the problem of trying to separate their subjective taste from their objective knowledge, and whether—and how—to mingle the two in the final review. This is, for the most part, possible. I liked Matched
better than The Hunger Games,
but that doesn't stop me from appreciating the latter's (greater) merit.
At last, we get to the point. I think it's possible to distinguish taste and critical objectivity for the most part, but not entirely.
The first reason is that trends in education and philosophy may reflect elite blinders and even instill prejudices against what doesn't fit with l'esprit du temps
. (Yes, the girl with the GED is talking about trends in education. I'll admit I'm getting over my head.) Practically, it seems trends work out to an overall distaste for—in the spirit of our
times, at least—traditional ideas of morality (all morality, not just sexual), religious narratives, existential hope, and quite possibly genre. I wonder how much positive-themed literary work even gets written nowadays, let alone makes it to publication, review, and consideration for literary honors. I don't follow the right publications enough to know.
But perhaps a better argument for the subjectivity practiced by even intelligent and educated critics is simply this list of the 50 Best Author vs. Author Takedowns of All Time
(here's Part 2
), compiled by Michelle Kerns
. As it turns out, Hemingway hated Faulkner, who didn't think much of Twain, who wanted to dig Jane Austen out of her grave and brain her with her own shinbone. Austen was thought unworthy not only by Twain but was disliked by Charlotte Brontë and thought "without genius, wit or knowledge of the world" by Emerson. Then there's George Bernard Shaw, who "measured his mind against Shakespeare's" and despised the latter.
Which begs me to respond to one of Masha's points. If "Bad writing is writing that fails to convey the intentions of the author in a clear and beautiful (in the objective sense) manner," we must at least qualify that no matter how clear and beautiful the conveyance, some intelligent people will still not "get it." And no matter how objectively beautiful it appears to us, someone else may think it lackluster and uninspiring.
Some of the above authors seem to understand the influence of taste in their opinion; others, less so. Still others seem playful in their hyperbole. None of the comments, of course, are given any context in the above article, so there may be more to each story. But after all, we humans—especially some of us writers—enjoy the sound of our own thoughts, particularly if we can express them cleverly.
Also, our taste can affect the very way we read, opening or closing our thoughts to various weaknesses and strengths in the text. Further, we're infinitely complex, and our ability to "know our own minds" comes only with much study and effort. Even then, that knowledge is open to change and areas of confusion or uncertainty.
Fortunately for us, the lone critic is known to be at risk of subjective influences, and therefore the canon of literature is defined by time and general (but not universal) consensus. It also stays vague around the edges.
I believe that objective criticism is loosely possible—but loosely, and on the plainest levels. If Austen can be called out for lack of wit, we can suspect our taste of affecting even the simplest and most obvious critique. I'd say it's important to understand that for humility if nothing else. No matter how educated, no matter how well-read, any of us can put forward wrong criticism.
Of course, the very idea that we can be wrong implies that there is
right and wrong in the art of critique. But that's another blog post.