Tag Archives: subjectivity

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! ]

Science fiction and pornography, the myth of critical objectivity and anonymised reviewing

Three things make a post, as the old gag goes. So, try this for size:

Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep?

That’s the title of an intriguing book I reviewed recently for SF Site; the subtitle reads “Critical Perspectives on Sexuality and Pornography in Science and Social Fiction”, and I just couldn’t pass it up. Funnily enough, I don’t think anyone else expressed an interest… I guess I’ve finally found my niche in the genre criticism ecosystem, eh?

It’s an interesting book, albeit something of a mixed bag. Skip to the money-shot:

Like good science fiction, the material collected in Do Androids Sleep With Electric Sheep? leaves us with more questions than we arrived with; if you can stomach the subject matter (which shouldn’t really appall anyone but the most prudish and conservative, to be honest, though my perceptions may be somewhat skewed), this is prime fuel for your imaginatory engines. The focal character of James Tiptree, Jr.’s story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” suggests that, as humans, “we’re built to dream outwards” [pp 239], to project our desire onto “the other”, whoever or whatever it may happen to be. It’s an insight that makes more sense each time you read it, and serves to underline the basic commonality between sex and science fiction, or indeed art in general — they are both ways in which we try to subsume ourselves into (or control and dominate over) that which we are not.

Love makes us do strange things, after all.

It really, really does. :)

The (Schis)matrix reloaded; criticism and subjectivity

I can’t remember where I saw the first link to There Is No Genre, but I do remember Casey Samulski’s opening post made me think [he/she]‘d have interesting things to say in future, and subbing to the RSS feed. Today, that trust was rewarded with a repost review of Chairman Bruce’s Schismatrix (which I fully intended to review after re-reading it late last year… and so it goes) with a coda born of hindsight:

… this really is the tricky part of good criticism. Ultimately, it is subjective. An author can do their best to ensure that a particular effect resonates with his or her readership but it’s no guarantee of that outcome. No two people read something identically. We each take to a work our own experiences, including previous works read, our own sense of beauty, and our own preconceptions about the novel at hand. This is not to say that you cannot have some objectivity in this process — I have read things that I haven’t enjoyed but that I have appreciated for their craftsmanship. Instead, I would argue that objectivity is something of a distant shore to be paddled towards but never landed upon.

Preference. Mood. Taste. These are all culprits at various times and they are inevitable, responsible for sabotaging even the most sober of inspections. In order to criticize well, you must remember that these reign over your judgment, tirelessly skewing your sense of direction. Most importantly, I think you can never pretend that you understand a work completely — there must always be the admission that you are only witness to what you were able to discern and that, like all art, this does not define what is actually there.

Yes, yes, and thrice yes; I always thought that subjectivity was implicit in any and every review ever written, but the peridic cycles of angst und wagling about negative reviews and uppity critics serves to demonstrate that’s surely not the case. And now for the resonant chime in a passing pair of sentences from Jeff VanderMeer in a Booklife post:

… there’s also the uncomfortable truth that no one is ever going to perceive your book exactly the way that you intended for it to be perceived. In coming into contact with the world the text changes, given an additional dimension by readers.

temple bell, Korea

[image courtesy nurpax]

Reviewing while blindfolded

But what if, to stymie future complaints about reviewer bias and preconceptional baggage, you inverted the normal anonymity curve of the reviewing process, namely naming the reviewer (generally uncredited in a lot of non-genre venues, or so I’m led to believe) but concealing the author’s identity (and, presumably, publishing details) from said reviewer?

… the editors of this magazine asked if I would be interested in being part of an experiment in criticism. They were curious what would happen if we inverted the standard “anonymous review†formula—if instead of the reviewer having the cloak of anonymity, we were to keep the book under review anonymous from its critic, and thereby shield it from any and all prejudice—whether positive or negative, whether directed at the author, the publishing house, the blurbers, the cover art, etc. I swore several oaths to stay true to the project (Eds.: “No googlingâ€), and soon enough a book arrived at my house. Its covers, front matter, and endpages had all been stripped, and the spine blacked out with a Sharpie. I didn’t know what it was called or who wrote it or who was publishing it or when. I didn’t know if it was the author’s first or twenty-first publication. Fiction? Nonfiction? Genre? Self-published? I didn’t know anything (and at this writing, I still don’t) except that it wasn’t poetry. What could I do? I began to read.

Rose Fox of Publisher’s Weekly (thanks to whom I found that post) mentions that it mirrors periodic calls for genre venues to anonymise the slushpile – a suggestion plainly motivated by the “good stories lose out to established names” theory of short fiction publication.

The ones most readily identifiable–written by writers with very distinctive voices, or making use of familiar and copyright-protected characters or settings–would presumably be routed directly to the editors anyway, so generally anonymizing the slushpile seems like a reasonable way of reducing possible bias against authors with certain types of names. It wouldn’t do a thing to reduce unconscious bias against certain types of stories, but it would probably make it more obvious, which is not a bad thing.

Moving back to book reviewing, though, the point is made in the comments that with genre fiction, some sort of filtering is required (so that a romance reviewer doesn’t end up with a Greg Egan collection, f’rinstance)… but as I see it, that truism actually weakens the original thesis, which seems to be predicated on the ongoing fiction that there is some sort of objective measurement of quality that can be applied to all writing in the same way. With reference to the above links and quotes, I suggest that the myth of critical objectivity is long overdue for burial; there seems to be an evolving collective consensus on such matters when viewed en masse and at a distance, but once you zoom in close it’s subjectivity and personal opinion all the way down.

That this is unclear to so many people is a source of perpetual bafflement to me, but then so is Dan Brown’s status as a bestseller. So there you go. :)