The Effects of Taste upon Objective Criticism

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.


  1. I couldn't fit it into my response, but Michelle Kerns' list not correct if its meant to imply that certain authors disliked the work of others simply because of one comment. Hemingway Loved Faulkner's writing, he writes of him as having "the most talent of anyone" and only laments Faulkner's lack of discipline, and tendency to "whore" out his writing. Charlotte Bronte did dislike Austen's writing, but primarily because Austen mocked the Bronte's writing, and the entire gothic genre that they loved, so often and so well..I get the impression Kerns is taking her quotes out of context merely to "make drama" that doesn't really exist. :)

  2. Thanks, Masha. It's good to hear more from someone who knows more of the details. Your comment is why I included the line stating that "None of the comments, of course, are given any context in the above article, so there may be more to each story." Out of fifty, I'm sure there's a mix of comments that were taken entirely out of context of the author's full opinion, and comments that expressed much of the author's thoughts.

    I think Michelle Kerns was just having fun collecting the snide jibes of the literate. But it's helpful to know the whole truth. :)

  3. Jenna, I'm with you on this. A beautifully crafted bore is still a bore, gorgeous bleakness is an unedifying, oxymoronic irony, and a page turner told in somewhat mediocre prose is still gripping. I know which one I'd rather read, critics be hanged. Which is why I have no Oprah picks on my bookshelf, but lots of good books. I like beautiful writing, but I want good story too. I'll take the second over the first, given what literary fiction has become in "the spirit of our times."

  4. Shoot, forgot to sign again. It was I, Arabella, who made the rebellious statement above, refusing to drink the subjective kool-aid of contemporary literary critics. I shall go pick my teeth now. ;-)


  5. Arabella, well spoken. I love my penny dreadfuls, too, with all my simple heart.

  6. The nature of beauty forbids the possibility of unedifying beauty. The ability to appreciate or at least See and Value Beauty in all its aspects is essential to a well formed soul. The crucifixtion is as beautiful as the resurrection, and as essential to salvation history. The dark night of the soul often accomplishes more than all the days of consolation..if we run from darkness in Literature, we will run from the darkness in life and we will become "neither one of the living nor one of the dead," buried in the comforting softness of our own distractions.

    A mediocre story that has nothing but a gripping plot to recommend it only has value if you see reading as essentially equal to watching t.v. - namely pure entertainment. It is a purely subjective evaluation, as "entertaining" or "gripping" are purely subjective reactions. In choosing what's "gripping" over whats good, you are drinking "the subjective kool-aid" because you are making your own tastes and feelings about a book the deciding factor instead of developing those tastes in pursuit of what is Objectively Good, which is exactly what many of the critics do.

    All that said, Oprah's picks are generally bad. She generally just likes books that make her cry. :)

  7. Jenna,
    I did notice and appreciate the disclaimer on the link to author-take-downs, I just had to defend my man, Hemingway..:)

  8. "The nature of beauty forbids the possibility of unedifying beauty."

    So, Masha, if there's a well-written book that focuses its perfect prose on describing the Church as evil, or hope as insane and plebeian, or vice as virtue, is it objectively ugly?

    There might be some talking past each other going on again here... let me see if I can clarify. I wholeheartedly agree with you that the crucifixion, in all its horror, is as beautiful and necessary to our salvation as the resurrection. Though I'm not sure it would have been if not for the resurrection.

    I agree with you, too, that "A mediocre story that has nothing but a gripping plot to recommend it only has value if you see reading as essentially equal to watching t.v. - namely pure entertainment." But I know Arabella well, and that's not what she's talking about. I can't answer for her exact experience, but for me, Harry Potter was nothing less than facing the darkness and coming into the light. Those are the kind of books she and I have learned almost side-by-side to love despite their simpler, weaker prose. It's not distraction. It's rescue, redemption and hope.

    As for Hemingway, defend away. :) I've got half a book in the comments on this site defending Twilight, and I sometimes defend Harry Potter despite knowing I'll never manage to convince, just because I think the books are worth it. Yes. Defend away. :)

  9. Masha, who said anything about mediocre stories or reading junk? Or that I haven't challenged and developed my preferences over time? Ultimately, as it's I who will be hunkered down on my sofa alone with a book, whose better tastes and feelings should I consider, given that I have high standards for what I read?

    I feel you've made a rather hasty judgment, but recognize that you're not familiar with my opionions and humor, as Jenna and others have been over time.

    I wrote a newspaper column last fall on the current state of what constitutes "literature" these days, and the growing enthusiasm of adults for young adult lit. Perhaps this excerpt will give you a better idea where I'm coming from:

    "How did reading for pleasure become a test of endurance?

    "Adult fiction has been hijacked by what I call the Jodi Picoult Syndrome, after the critically praised bestselling author. With plot subservient to psychological examination, the Syndrome defines a bleak dysfunctional tale full of ruinous tragedy, alcoholism, family secrets, abuse, forbidden love, psychopathic minds, wretched marriages, and damaged children. The whopping freight of human misery simply guarantees an unsatisfying ending.

    "Just what I want to read for pleasure!

    "As a devoted reader, I once felt I should read some of these depressives because they were “important.” The last one I tried was Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge for a book club and the unpleasant narrator immediately drove me away. Such literary darlings were detrimental to my life and outlook, so I dumped them.

    It’s hilarious that publishers and critics think I’m lured with reviews like “heartbreaking” and “bleak and searing” on gloomy bricks festooned with Oprah’s Book Club stickers.

    "When I confessed these feelings to my friend Liz , she agreed. “A while back I saw an article on the state of modern fiction, in which all sorts of dark and terrible things happen to children, spotlighting Picoult,” she wrote. “Olive Kitteridge was so depressing that I’m not sure the value of reading it outweighed the tragic exploration of the human condition.
    Ditto with Revolutionary Road; yes, it’s a masterpiece and extremely well-crafted, but it took me weeks to shake the existential pall. With all the suffering in the world right now, and the awful economy, only a masochist would willingly read such books and endure even more dark nights of the soul.”


    "Misery beautifully crafted is still misery. You can’t give me enough joy at the end to justify my journey through these downers. I deserve better—an engaging tale I want to live in, that, without sunshine and lollipops, offers a meaningful transcendent experience, goodness, humor, and hope. Make me cry, laugh, or spit nails, but reward me. Don’t bore me silly with melancholy."

    Oh, and I join Jenna in loving Twilight, writing warts and all, because the Saga is a wonderful story of transcendence. But I shall develop that on the Twilight thread I haven't had time to get to yet. Tempus always fugits away.

    No kool-aid here. ;-)


    P.S. Speaking of tv, without Lost, there ain't nuthin' on.

  10. Shoot... Masha, when I go back and re-read my question to you about beauty, it sounds harsh. It didn't sound harsh in my head. I hope it doesn't come off that way.

    Also, in case it wasn't clear--you have a better chance of convincing me to give Hemingway another chance than I have of selling Harry Potter to those who aren't buying. I do plan on looking up A Moveable Feast one of these days.

    Arabella, I love that article of yours. :)

  11. Jenna, I didn't think you sounded harsh, just passionate :) Though I'm thinking that, based on both your and Arabella's comments, mine might have come off as harsher than I intended. Sorry if thats the case. :)

    As for "a well-writen book that focuses its perfect prose" on anything false and evil, or wrong, it fails in beauty by failing in Truth. Beauty, Truth, and Goodness all revolve together, like the Trinity in a way, and "beauty will not be seperated from her sisters" (Von Balthasar). Blatant untruths either fail to convey beauty, despite technical perfection, or fail to convey the untruth, and instead present both beauty and truth unintentially. The latter is generally only possible when the artist is allowing his art to be primary and his message a far second.

    Sorry to give offense. I'm not saying that you personally aren't developing your tastes, only that the decision to read a page-turner in mediocre prose (which would be the mediocre stories I refered to), rather than objectively good writing is a hindering one. Its like only tilling a garden to the same depth each year, and allowing the layer below to become as hard-packed as rock.

    But if you're looking at Picoult and Oprah's other choices as the "well-written meloncholy" to reject, I've no issue with your rejection, "there's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher" (Flannery O Connor) and most of Oprah's books fit that bill, they tend to sacrifice beauty for some obnoxious message about suffering and "impowerment". :)

    But I think your article gives an impression, at least to me, that its a decision between depressing, Oprah-fiction, and badly-written but sometimes entertaining teen fiction, which is not true, there are a good many books, even recently written that are both Good, in an objective sense, and enjoyable in the entertaining sense, and these books should really be sought out and preferred to their less ideal cousins.

    (I hope that this response hasn't just contributed to your thinking I'm making hasty judgements, I promise, I'm not. If it does though, put at least some of it down to the internets inability to convey emotions well, and to a hasty, in the cafe response on a bad keyboard. :)..In other words, not against me. :) I'm looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts.


  12. Masha, you didn't offend me. I just felt you had some sweeping generalizations there.

    "Page turner," doesn't equate with junk food or caliber of writing, either. I've read page-turners on all quality of writing levels, fiction and nonfiction. Page turners don't consign me to the booboisie.

    I didn't include the full column I wrote, but I continued on by telling about publishers and literary critics, including Time's Lev Grossman, being not only YA afficiondos, but have their own YA/children's lit book groups.

    What I'm observing is that adult fiction of even 20 years ago is now categorzied as YA (with character ages reduced), because contemporary adult lit is more focused on psychological, eschewing good plot. There is outstanding YA lit available--Lois Lowry's The Giver trilogy, Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt, the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Matched by Ally Condie,Sarah Dessen's books, Carrie Pilby by Caren Lissner, and some very inventive fairy tale reimaginings I've been reading the last year, just to scratch the surface.

    When it comes to artistic prose, I think of Dickens' "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Now that is one of the most famous literary quotes of all time. But if Stephenie Meyer had written it, would it be criticized? What about Shakespeare's "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." These are quite plebian sentiments.

    I know there are good books well beyond the Oprah paramaters; I have some on my bookshelf. But as regards "preference," why shouldn't I prefer what I think are good books, not the books others think are good for me? Reading as "medicine" isn't attractive, and that notion has turned young readers from books more than any other. I do periodically assign myself a classic, though, just to keep my hand in.

    As for beautiful prose, this is my definition. It doesn't luxuriate in being precious, and doesn't intrude upon the story by making me constantly notice it by practically screaming, "I'm so gorgeous! Admire me! Hold me up as the yardstick for literature!" Beautiful prose serves the story by helping me disappear into it.

    With either too ornate or too spare language, prose can underserve the vehicle it rolls to my inner door. That said, mediocre prose can underserve, but not necessarily diminish a powerful story.


  13. Arabella~

    Glad to know you're not offended, and I hope you're having a fantastic Memorial Day weekend. I agree with you completely that a "page-turner isn't necessarily "junk" writing, in part because "page-turner" is a completely subjective description - my page-turner may be another readers bore..and often is, I've recommended Kierkegaard unsuccessfully too many times to have any illusions about that. :) But being "gripping" doesn't insure a good book either, as there are a number of emotional manipulations and fakeries a writer can use to grab the reader while still having nothing of substance to offer, e.g. Dan Brown in all his books. And I have to disagree comletely and insist that bad writing does damage a good story: telling a story badly, whether oral or written deminishes the power of that story to affect its audience. All the goodness that might be is hidden by the failure of the author to convey it well. A mediocre writer simply can't treat a good story with anything like the sensitivity and attentions he ought to - and very often, a mediocre writer, through lack of understanding reduces the goodness in the story by failing to recognize and discern the true good from the weak and unnecessary.

    I'm assuming the comments on the Dickens and Shakespeare lines being plebien was part of your humor, but as for whether or not they would be as good if Meyer wrote them, They would, only they would be out of place within the context of everything else she's written. They would imply that there is some hope for her writing, but they wouldn't change the quality of what she's already put out. Both Shakespeare and Dickens are great, not for two great lines, but for overall accoplishment.

    The main point though is not that I'm encouraging reading what others Think is good for you, or what you Think is good, but reading what is objectively good and allowing that to form and direct our attractions.

    Hope that clarifies.



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