Tag Archives: quality

It’s what we point to when we say “good”

OK, philosophy-of-literature time. Good buddy and shiny-domed death metal maven Ian Sales has an irate post reiterating his belief that the quality of any piece of literature can be assessed objectively. Go read it, it’s pretty brief. (Unlike this thing.)

So, my instinctive response to this statement is always “NO WAI!!”, but I figured it’s high time I figured out why. Postmodernism – which I’ve always viewed as a lens for examining the mechanics of culture, rather than as an ideological standpoint on how things should work – is a big part of it. Also, reading Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance at a formative age left me with an awestruck fear of the utter hollowness of the word “quality”: like “love”, we say it all the time, but we don’t know what we mean when we say it. Or rather, we know what we mean when we say it, but the assumption that everyone – or indeed anyone – else understands it to mean the same thing is demonstrated to be false countless times every single day. I’m not going to reiterate Pirsig’s assaults on quality here, because that would be counterproductive; suffice to say that if you can’t furnish a universally acceptable definition of a property, then you can’t even begin to defend an objective measure of that property. First principles, innit?

But I’m going to continue anyway, because it seems to me that the text of Ian’s complaint reveals that he’s not actually claiming what he thinks he’s claiming. So, let’s go piece by piece.

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?

Now, Ian undermines his own argument here by including the counterargument as a throw-away: yes, “good” is completely useless as a descriptive term. It’s an emotional term, a relational term. Goodness is not an intrinsic property. Goodness is bestowed by the speaker. To argue otherwise is to make a case for a higher being, some deity or demiurge, capricious and inscrutable, that bestows the phlogiston of goodness upon some objects or phenomena, but not upon others; and to make the further case that you can somehow divine the presence of this mystical property, despite lacking a testable methodology for the process.

So how do editors, prize juries and academics choose good books? I submit that they make choices based on their own tastes, and apply – after the fact, and largely subconsciously – retroactive reasoning to justify that taste. That reasoning is informed by unending projects of canon-building and reconstruction; it’s informed by the opinions of others interested in the same field (those opinions being modified by existing biases toward their holders in the assessor), and a variable degree of willingness (or, in some cases, puckish intent) to hold a contrary opinion for its own sake.

And why don’t they all choose different books? Why, but they do – look at the different sorts of fiction published by, for example, Gollancz and Baen, two popular and respected genre publishing houses. If there was an objective measure for quality, then every publishing house in the business would be in a bidding war over the single current best-book-on-the-market. If there were an objective good, an objective best, then we would not observe the spectacular diversity of form and style that pertains to almost every field of the arts, fiction writing included.

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.

The second sentence here completely undermines the first. If assessing a book’s quality is not an exact science, then it is by definition not objective. If the definition of quality “is subject to changes… or re-evaluation”, then it is by definition not objective. From good ol’ Wikipedia (which, for the sake of gratuitous po-mo snark, I should point out is not a truly objective source, but – or so I’d argue – good enough for purpose here):

A proposition is generally considered to be objectively true when its truth conditions are met and are “mind-independent”—that is, not met by the judgment of a conscious entity or subject.

So, if we could develop a computer program or some sort of manual checklist by which the goodness or quality of a book might be assessed, and have that test agree faultlessly with the opinion of every single person who had ever read the book in question, then we’d have a good case for an objective measure of goodness.

But that’s a project doomed to fail, and not for any reason related to the difficulty of the programming. On the contrary: it falls over because it relies on a unanimous agreement among readers. If quality is truly objective, then it should be self-evident to anyone with the capacity to perceive it. Compare to an objective property, like, I dunno, blueness*: a thing that is blue, that possesses an intrinsic blueness, will be perceived as blue by all who behold it. By way of contrast, I defy you to find a book that would be rated as “good” by every single person who read it, over a realistically-sized sample of readers. Never going to happen. Subjective, you see.

Now, if you want to make an argument that not every reader is qualified to assess the goodness of a book, well, I have some sympathies with that… but it completely undermines this whole “goodness can be measured objectively” thing. So I put it to Ian that he’s not making the argument that he thinks he is.

If good is subjective, then awards are completely pointless.

Well, I’m glad to see we agree on something! (Though I’d make the statement more precise by saying “Best [X]” awards are completely pointless as generators of answers to the question they pose, whereas they have a wider set of implicit subcultural and social functions which they evidently achieve quite well.) As measures of quality, awards are only as reliable as their voters… and the above is a very strange defence statement from someone whose regular carping about award shortlists I greatly enjoy. You can’t have your cake and eat it; if awards sometimes – heck, ever – fail to recognise this objective property of goodness and laud a bad book (or even an indifferent or flawed book), then not all voters or jury members are recognising goodness when they see it… which means goodness is being determined subjectively within the system in question.

This is, of course, a microcosm of the actual book marketplace, which frequently sees bestsellers made of books which have been scorched with the universal opprobrium of almost every critic capable of typing a coherent sentence. If there’s an objective goodness to a book, how come some many people not only loved The Da Vinci Code, but adamantly defend their love of it from those who would (quite rightly) point out that its prose is dreadful, its tropes hackneyed, its appeal based largely on seductively specious conspiracy theories?

The defence could be made that those readers – or the voters in our imaginary award – simply don’t have the right checklist or program with which to detect goodness. And I’d agree – to a greater or lesser extent – with that defence, too… while pointing out that it reframes goodness not as an objective property, but as a property that can only be properly assessed by those with access to a specific set of knowledge. This is intrinsically an elitist argument.

And that’s fine: people who work with literature are surely more knowledgeable about it than those who do not; the reader who reads fifty books a year has a more informed opinion than does the person who reads just one. I give greater weight to the opinion of a working mechanic on what car to buy than I do to the opinion of a florist on the same matter. But if you then argue that only the expert opinions have any value at all, you’re silencing a huge swathe of voices, rebuilding the ivory tower. And that’s one of my core arguments in favour of subjective quality: it means I can have my opinion – and argue passionately in defence of it, with all the knowledge I’ve picked up along the way, if the desire takes me to do so – without denying anyone else that same right, and without anyone else being able to deny it to me. Which brings us to:

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.

Well, no. There is a canon of literature considered to be great, but that canon, as Ian himself pointed out earlier, is in a state of continual (if at times glacially slow) flux, as critics and academics return to obscure oddities from the past to place them on fresh pedestals, toppling a few dusty statues of last year’s heroes in the process. This is subjective consensus generation in action! (The final interview in Delany’s About Writing goes into glorious and intimate detail on the mechanics of canon formation, and it’s his cogent arguments there that I’m making a rough hash of here.)

And while I can’t speak for everyone, for me the value of studying literature is not so much to seek for an objective truth (which is arguably the demesne of science), but to develop a theory and defend it against attack, or modify it in light of new discoveries. Literature, and the study of literature, is a perpetual discourse, a rambling debate upon which no one (hopefully) will ever call time. It’s not the winning, in other words, not the being the rightest, but the taking part. (Yes, I’m being thoroughly idealistic here. After having been warned about the travails of academia over the long term, I’m trying to enjoy my naivete while it lasts.)

OK, then: having, I believe, successfully demonstrated that the objectively-assessed goodness Ian makes claims for cannot actually exist, I want to see if I can tease out what I think he’s really chasing after – because it’s something I, as a fellow writer, am also chasing.

… 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.

[...]

… 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…

There’s an implicit bias in these statements which, when made explicit, turns them into perfectly reasonable and logical statements. That bias is Ian’s perspective as a writer – and not just a writer, but a writer embedded in a community of other writers, critics and literary demagogues.

If “everybody” agreed that clumsy prose and tone-deaf dialogue made for bad fiction, I submit that Ian wouldn’t get much mileage out of his (agreeably entertaining) trolling of Asimov fanpersons! Furthermore, Asimov has his defenders inside the circle as well as outside of it, and their positions might be paraphrased by saying that the value of Asimov’s works are as an important nexus of development in the history of a particular genre. Asimov’s work would likely be bounced by publishers nowadays for being hackneyed and poorly-written, but there was demonstrably a time when that was not so.

So goodness must be a moving target; quality evolves, iterating through countless new attempts by writers and critics to pin down and define “good” writing. Every book written is an attempt to contribute to this evolution, and critical discourse combines with commercial success (or lack thereof) to act as the evolutionary pressures acting upon it.

Ian tweeted to me earlier that “it’s important to me to know how to improve my craft”, and that’s a goal I fully sympathise with; I am trying to do the same. But here again is that schism between the way a writer perceives a book and the way someone who reads for pure pleasure perceives it.

The reader is interested in the affect of the writing as an end unto itself; it matters to them that it succeeds in entertaining (or scaring or enlightening or sensawundering) them, but they are indifferent to how or why that affect is produced. The writer, however, wants to know how that affect is produced, in order that they might replicate the technique (or perhaps avoid it).

By way of analogy: a PC owner doesn’t care about how the code of a program is put together, so long as the software does what they want it to do. But a programmer cares very much about how the results were achieved: could it have been done more elegantly, using less CPU cycles, more function objects, less loops, so on and so forth? The craftsperson’s attitude will always be different to the consumer’s. That’s what makes them a craftsperson – what makes them an artist.

So, to wrap up something that’s already waaaaaay lobger than I meant it to be, here’s a declaration of my own for everyone to kick around:

“Quality or goodness in art is inherently subjective; furthermore, any art for which there can be defined a demonstrable objective measure of quality immediately ceases to become art, and becomes mere engineering. Corollary: much engineering is not actually pure engineering, because its praxis incorporates the subjective value-judgements of its practitioners, predominantly in terms of aesthetics but sometimes also in philosophy or methodology; as such, many if not most good engineers are also, in some respects, artists.”

Discuss. :)

[ * - I'm pretty sure there are arguments to be made that blueness isn't a truly objective property, being a function of our senses and hence fallible. But when you start going in that direction, you can end up saying that even the existence or being of a thing is not objective, and that way lies madness, solipsism or a career in high finance. Philosophy is fun! ]

Paul Kincaid’s book reviewing credo gets my vote

Well, the Readercon panel on book reviews seems to have generated a lot of dicussion around the issue … kind of the inverse of the Eastercon panel, which took place after the worst of the smoke had cleared from that particular salvo.

But here’s the inestimable Paul Kincaid, hitting the nail on the head and describing my own standpoint on how and why I review books almost exactly:

“My own credo is simple. A review should be honest (any reviewer who allows her opinion to be swayed by friendship, bribery, peer pressure or whatever, is not worth reading), defensible (I don’t mind if people disagree with my judgement, I am quite used to being the only critic to hold a certain position, pro or con, on any particular book, but I want to be sure the readers can see why I reached that particular judgement), and, so far as I am able, well written (a review is also an entertainment, the reader should be rewarded for taking the time to read the piece). This credo, it should be noted, is an aspiration; I have no idea how close I ever get to achieving it.

Notice I say nothing about reviews being good or bad, positive or negative. It is part of the honesty of a review that if you don’t think a book is any good you have to say so. It is also part of the honesty of a review to recognise that very very few books are entirely wonderful or entirely terrible, and the job of a reviewer is to identify and note that balance. Because of that I do not believe I write positive reviews, or negative reviews – but I hope I write honest reviews.”

Result. Paul Kincaid is one of my newly-inherited reviews team at Interzone, which – given his pedigree and experience – is quite bizarre, because by rights he should be the person editing me. Though I doubt he wants the administrative headaches that come with the post – another indicator of his native common sense!

He and I (and others) are keen to see what comes from Jonathan’s plans for Son of Scalpel, too. This debate – for better or for worse – probably has a good few years mileage in it yet.

Is Harry Potter hype bad for the book industry?

I’m allergic to hype of all kinds, but experience seems to show that it’s a fairly rare condition. Most people seem to enjoy the crescendo of excitement as a much-anticipated event approaches (Christmas, the HP7 launch, &c), and lap up the associated press coverage. Personally, the more I hear about something the more put off the entire idea I become.

But my curmudgeonly attitude is not the focus here. I instead want to argue that intense hyping of any book to this degree is quite possibly damaging to the long term health of the industry as a whole. But first …

An example of peripherary Potter bandwagonning

There’s just no escape, you see. Because of the way the media works, a hot topic gets leaped upon by all and sundry, no matter how tenuous the connection. Witness, for example, a social work researcher using the opportunity to plug the idea of discussing death with young kids. OK, it’s a laudable aim, I guess, but talk about blatant opportunism.

Of course, this is exacerbated by the way internet search engine optimisation works – everyone with a website wants a slice of the inevitable barrage of Harry Potter search traffic. Of course, there is no such cynical motivation behind this post. *cough* ;)

Signal and noise – items of genuine interest amongst the cruft

Along with the bandwagonners, there’s some pretty interesting articles riding on the coat-tails (or should that be cloak-tails?) of the Harry Potter hype-wave:

The spoilers issue

A great deal of the concern about the leaked copies and early reviews comes from readers concerned about ‘spoilers’. As I think I’ve said before, I agree with a number of other reviewers of my acquaintance in that, if a book can be ‘spoiled’ by a plot denouement ahead of reading it, it’s probably not much worth reading anyway.

That said, people do seem to have worked themselves up into paroxysms of angst over the possibility of finding out which character (or characters) die within the course of the story, regardless of how ambivalent and vague the alleged spoilers are.

But even this is baffling – if your enjoyment of a book is going to be spoiled by reading a review of it, then why the hell did you read a review of it? Maybe its just me, but that’s just bloody daft.

The perils of consistant overhyping

But I promised you a proclamation, and here it is – this degree of global frenzy over the release of a single book is really not a good sign for the health of the publishing industry.

“Oh, come on,” I hear you cry. “It’s getting kids into books!”

Well, it’s getting kids into Harry Potter books, certainly; but there’s little evidence to suggest that items outside the franchise (which probably come with a lot less hype and merchandising attached) have the same ability to capture the interest of kids who weren’t interested in reading beforehand.

“Well, it’s selling a lot of volumes, so Bloomsbury and Rowling are getting some good dollar. Surely you don’t begrudge them that?”

I begrudge them nothing. I think it’s great, in fact – I’d say that Rowling herself, a single mum who worked damn hard while on a benefits-level income to fulfill her dreams and write her books, is a far better role model than Harry himself, to be honest.

As for Bloomsbury – well, good for them, too. But they’ve gone and raised investor expectations. They’d better be able to keep on bringing out books that shift as well as the Potter saga, though – business is all about momentum, after all, and last year’s balance sheet only means anything when held up to this year’s.

Which brings us finally to …

“Well, what does the hype matter? If the books weren’t good, they wouldn’t sell, surely?”

Well, that’s a hard one to defy with facts and figures (though I suspect that’s more because I don’t have tham rather than that they don’t exist), so I’ll draw a comparison to another industry that fell into the hype cycle and bargained its future on relentless promotion of sequels of declining quality – hello, Hollywood.

The Hollywood Syndrome

Hollywood cinema is (literally) a text-book example of Chris Anderson’s ‘Long Tail’ economic hypothesis, and he’s got plenty of facts and figures to show that Hollywood movie viewing is in a steady decline. I think all but the least critical movie-goer might agree that the increasing desperation and shoddy quality of Hollywood product may have soimething to do with it.

[Personal anecdotal aside - walked past Blockbusters last night, and saw the cardboard promo-plinth thingy for some movie whose title now escapes me. Which isn't surprising - the best blurb they could find to put on the thing was "dazzling special effects". Wow.]

Of course, technological factors are at play with the Hollywood model – but as I’ve discussed here at length before, the publishing industry is approaching its very own technological singularity. It would be hoped that the industry will look at what’s happening to Hollywood, and realise that relentless hype is self-defeating, unless you can guarantee that the product will meet the expectations you generate for it.

Furthermore, publishing is already deep into the “play it safe with known successes” business model, which has been a Hollywood watchword for far too long.

Big hype is bad news

And therein lies my hypothesis – nothing flags up concern about product quality worse than relentless hype. If the book’s really that good, it’s going to sell just fine anyway, though maybe not at such a rapid rate on the week of release.

The content of the new Harry Potter bothers me not in the slightest – I have no interest in reading it (the first three were not my slice of pavlova, darling), and don’t really care whether it’s any good or not. But I do worry that the industry is far too desperate to make hay while the sun shines to think about tilling the land for future harvests.

Science fiction is a floating point variable

Ah, the wranglings of the genre; the coincident arrival of a report from a con panel and a new column from esteemed critic Paul Kincaid seems to have revived the perennial ‘what is science fiction’ debate.

In which case, I can’t see any reason that I shouldn’t add my little dose of noise to the signal, and reiterate my belief that science fiction is a floating point variable, not a binary.

A programming metaphor

OK, so that may not make a lot of sense to someone who has never been foolish enough to teach themselves computer programming, so I’ll unpack it a bit.

When you write a computer program, you create variables – little discreet data points which can be assigned a value by the programmer or by various external stimuli. But all variables are not created equal.

A binary variable can have one of two different values: a ‘1’, or a ‘0’, an ‘on’ or an ‘off’. No other options are available. A binary variable is either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. That’s it.

A floating point variable, however, can be assigned any numerical value that can be made to fit inside the amount of memory allocated to it. Positive, negative, large or small – any number whatsoever, even decimal subdivisions thereof.

Can you see where this is going?

The rock music metaphor (again)

OK, so maybe you can’t. Despite the assumptions of outsiders, not all science fiction readers are computer geeks. So, I’ll deploy a metaphor that long-term readers will find familiar (maybe even distressingly so)*.

Long ago, it may have been possible to say that a particular song was a piece of ‘rock music’. It either partook of what were considered to be the tropes of rock music (the then fairly new and strange phenomena of distorted guitars, for example, or the wearing of tight trousers) or it did not.

Nowadays, that simply isn’t the case. The canon has fragmented, and the definition depends on the perspective of the listener and their conception of what the term actually means – a term whose definition has been mangled and stretched by fans, critics, marketing departments and the mass media alike.

Throw in some cliched stereotyping, and the inherently tribal nature of subcultures, and you’ve got a whole raft of cultural schisms on your hands. ‘Rock’ is in the ear of the beholder, you might say – it’s what I point to when I say it, to paraphrase Damon Knight.

Can you see where this is going now? ‘Rock’ was once a binary variable. Something either was rock, or was not rock. Now, it’s a floating point variable – each piece of music partakes of the idea of rock to a certain dgree, be it tiny or huge.

Science fiction is a quality, not an object

For me at least, it’s that simple. A book is not, in and of itself, science fiction. But it may well partake of science-fictionality (science-fiction-ness?) to a lesser or greater extent – and that extent is, at least partly, determined by my perception of the book inquestion, as well as my perception of the canon of works that inform the term ‘science fiction’.

You see? Floating point variable.

And I think the same applies to subdivisions of the genre concept – as, it appears, do several other persons considerably more learned and qualified to pontificate on such matters than me, if the discussion at Torque Control is anything to go by.

The plurality of subcultures

It’s almost like Zeno’s dichotomy paradox – no matter how much you keep dividing the set into two, you’ll never reach the final destination of a concrete definition that puts the item under discussion clearly within the set or beyond it. You can’t make a floating point number into a binary. The genie will not go back into the bottle.

This is just the way culture works. We humans develop an idea, or a concept or label, and we apply it to things. Then, humans being humans, we decide that some of the others don’t have quite the same idea of what the label really means.

And so, back in the sixties, ‘rock’ music split into ‘hard rock’ and ‘heavy metal,’ and so on; bi- and tri-furcating in endless iterations, up to the current point where there are almost as many different genres as there are bands – none of whom are ever happy with the labels that get slapped on them.

If you can’t see the resonance between science fiction literature and that preceding paragraph, then either I’ve failed to explain myself properly, or I’m utterly unhinged in command of a keyboard …

… but, that said, one of the things that appeals to me about science fiction fandom is that I can actually take part in a conversation as abstract and ultimately irrelevant to the fate of the universe as this one, and in all probability have someone take me seriously enough to argue back. And that, as far as I’m concerned, rocks. ;)


[* In the process of fetching that link, I realised that I started that particular rant almost a year ago. Probably time for a rewrite ... or at least a reassessment.]

Two tests of writing quality

Personally, I have no problems with being objective about the quality of my fiction writing – it’s plain to see, even to its creator, that it’s bloody dreadful.

However, it’s a little more difficult for people further down the path of storywriting craftspersonship to assess their own work. A. R. Yngve suggests that you:

“1. Open one of your unpublished manuscripts on your computer.

2. Using the Search function, search and count the number of times the following phrases and words appear in your writing prose:

- “that will/would change your/his/her/their life/lives forever”
- “He/She loves me. He/She really loves me.”
- “heart will never heal”
- “as you know” (followed by exposition)
- “was all he/she had to live for”
- “love him/her forever”

If ANY of the above clichés appear in your prose, it ain’t good enough to be published.”

Brutal, but pretty fair.

Meanwhile, Jim van Pelt is working toward a more positive assessment method:

“My thoughts on this aren’t fully formulated, but I think there must be something right going on in a story that establishes a context for a line that would make no sense in any other context. What I mean is that a fully functioning story creates an environment for sentences that could only make sense within that story.”

He uses examples from movies, but that strikes me as a great way of drawing a line between works of science fiction that have truly absorbed the novums into the narrative and those that have merely used them as window-dressing.