Separating the Chaff from the Grain: Part Two - Who judges?

>> Thursday, January 21, 2010

Somehow, some people, who shall remain nameless, seem to be confused as to what I think "crap" is and what is the "good stuff" when it comes to writing (and, theoretically, other forms of creativity like movies and music and art, etc. But, for this exercise, we'll focus on writing). According to this unnamed person, "If you wrote it clearly, I won't be able to read anything into it that isn't there."

*Pardon me while I laugh a bit. After all in the history of creativity no one has ever read into something what wasn't intended or thought or directly said. Have they?

Moving on. So, as the Rocket Scientist and the learned head researcher on Ask Me Anything, can you tell us definitively, how to tell "crap" from the "good stuff?"

Um, no.

Why not?

Because I have no idea.

[I hope that was clear enough for those who may have been confused with my earlier lack of clarity]

What do you mean? You think everything you read is good (or bad)?

No, I know what I like, but I am not the harbinger of taste and long term success. I can't decide for anyone else what they will and won't like.

I mentioned, in my last post, that the audiences out there are often consumed and fascinated with celebrity foibles and the sensational. I feel confident that that is true, if only based on the traffic and circulation of those sites/periodicals that focus on such subjects. I remember distinctly seeing a cover for the Weekly World News screaming "HUMAN HEAD TRANSPLANT! Medical world astonished!" I was a teenager at the time, but I laughed and laughed and laughed. The person in line in front of us bought this issue of WWN with nary a chuckle.

However, just because a subject doesn't suit me, doesn't interest me, bores me or, I feel, insults my intelligence, doesn't make it crap. It doesn't even preclude it becoming a classic. The staying power of something may depend more on the staying power of the celebrities involved (will Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie be remembered as actors who were pivotal to today's cinema? Who knows? I don't, but, if they do, books that address their relationship might be important even decades from now). Or a sensational assertion could turn out to be true. I'm skeptical that blatantly false accusation (and works that expound them) will become classics, but stranger things have happened.

And my skepticism really has no bearing on the issue at all.

However, the fact I have no interest in these things does not, in any way, confer judgment. I also have no interest in sports, most mysteries, most horror, vampires, pioneer stories, pederasty, rape-heavy novels (especially where both involved are "protagonists"), tragic stuff, religious literature, self-help anything, most politics, financial reports, or automotive manuals. That does not mean these things are bad. That means they don't interest me in general. There are and have been exceptions and this list is not exhaustive.

Wait, wait, shouldn't there be some criteria? Surely...

Well, one could say how well something is written. That's all well and good, but writing styles and syntax have changed radically over the centuries. If it was just how "well" something was written, we wouldn't likely still be reading "Beowulf" - but it has to be evaluated on the basis of its contemporary works. Ditto for Chaucer (who I rather like) and Shakespeare (who I like even more). However, skillfully the language was used for the time, it often fails to accomplish the same with a modern audience who is often left confused, unable to decipher the intent of the phrases, or, even if they can, appreciate the often contemporary references.

Even exceptional literature written in language and syntax many can read easily today, like Austen or Poe or Irving, use vocabulary that requires frequent trips to the dictionary or POV and sentence structure constructs that would get a manuscript today tossed by most editors. Whole paragraphs (often running half a page) might contain no periods, just semi-colons. Language and verb usage are often obscure or obsolete. Sentence structure is often convoluted.

However, writing something with perfect syntax and grammar is no assurance of greatness. Many a lofty English professor writes work that is dry as dust and so complex it obfuscates the meaning rather than elucidates. It is not across the board - I know two people who teach at the university level who write quite intelligently and cogently, often fascinating and thought-provoking stuff (Hi, flit and Shakespeare!).

"Poor" grammar and syntax doesn't preclude greatness either. Catcher in the Rye was never a favorite of mine, but it's held in high esteem by many. It's written in a very informal style that's compelling because it's not formal. It feels real. e e cummings broke all the rules, yet is often revered.

Or, for example, I don't care, as a general rule, for teenage protagonists. They often think and act like teenagers, which makes me roll my eyes or they come across as fake, which is worse. It's actually because some works are so good at capturing the teenage mindset that I find them unappealing. Why should I sneer at someone who finds it compelling? Who can recapture that sense from reading it? Isn't that what novels are for?

Someone might write "thesaurus-speak" - a pet peeve of mine, where they use many advanced words that are somewhat out of context with the sentences they're writing. This argues, for me, a tendency to use the thesaurus and the words found there without understanding the nuances of the word. But that's my reaction and I'm not an etymologist. I've been wrong once or twice before. And, this tendency, "thesaurus-speak", does not preclude being able to evoke emotion, describe a scene stirringly, build personable characters, develop an exciting plot or conjure realistic dialog. Who's to say that's just as laudable, if not more so, than someone who writes lifeless fiction but with a perfect understanding of vocabulary? Not I.

In the end, "great literature" has more to do with how it affects people, both at the time and after time has passed. The audience today and in the future, decides what the "good stuff" is, even if many an aspiring writer, like myself, doesn't necessarily understand their reasoning.

That's OK. I like many things that aren't critically acclaimed myself and dislike many a classic. I know what I like. I know why I like it (and THAT's yet another subject I could write a whole post on). No one has to agree with me. I also feel no drive to change the world to see things my way (unless I think it's harmful, like rape literature), though I will do my small part to support the literature I like by purchasing copies of it. Call it my vote.

Sometimes, I have called work that I detested "crap", though usually because they offended my sense of decency. But what I mean by crap in that context is something I personally despise. I have no control over the world at large and am no one's censor.

I just know what I like and that, whether it sells or not, it's what I aim to write. More on that later.

Now, all of that applies to fiction (also movies, music, and art, ironically enough). It's hard to argue something is meaningless and a waste if it affects a sizable portion of the populace, even if I don't personally get it.

When it comes to nonfiction, my criteria are different. Readability takes second stage, for me, to content. I'd rather read something dry and factual, but chock full of good stuff, than something approachable and weak on content. And, if they fudge a few things to make it more interesting, I usually disgusted. Again, that doesn't preclude literary brilliance.

However, though I won't judge such stuff on literary terms, I might very well judge the content and might readily describe it as "crap," "garbage" and "nonsense." And I might very well defend my opinions on content that isn't actually black or white.

Hope that was clear to all. I'll be writing more on this.


  • Jeff King

    I find it easy to say what crap is and what isn't. And that is what ever doesn't hold my attention or makes me throw the book down not just set it down.

    The sad thing is I can't make that determination for everyone else, sense it is a judgment call.

    In so many words whatever floats your boat.

    For instance, I hate Terry Goodkind’s books, I think he writes horribly. Yet I have meet people who think his books rock (go figure)

    All in all I hope I get published even if most people think my work is crap, because without a doubt some will like it… that’s just the way it is.

  • Roy

    Yup! I take a lot of flak for being a Stephen King fan. But then every now and then I'll quote a passage from something of his (without attributing, just to see; I know, that's entrapment, but we ain't in court) to somebody who claims to hate his stuff, and they'll say "God, that is brilliant! What's that from?", and I'll pull out The Stand or one of the Dark Tower books, and they get all sheepish.

    I will admit to being tough on people who haven't learned the basics of their craft, and I'll label bad craftsmanship as "crap" without hesitation. I've known aspiring painters who looked at Klee or Jackson Pollock paintings and said "Okay, I see what they're getting at - throw out the rules." They think they don't have to actually study first because the rules aren't important any more, and turn out incoherent, confused garbage with no internal logic or style. What they can't, or more often won't, understand is that Klee, or Pollock, or Mark Tobey, or even Andy Warhol, arrived at their works by learning the rules and pushing them on to their logical conclusion rather than actually breaking them. If you look at a Jackson Pollock painting there is an unbreakable internal logic, a stylistic flow to the work that you can't achieve unless you've worked to that point from a firm grounding in the basics of the craft of painting. There are no shortcuts to good art, no matter what medium.

    So yeah, I guess in a way I'm a snob; I demand hard work and craftsmanship and will lay the "crap" card on something lacking those with no apology. Oh well...

  • Stephanie B

    I'm not going to judge you guys either. I have characteristics that can turn me off a book, even if it might otherwise be great. I just don't have the time to give everything a long test.

    But I've also seen some amateur pieces that blew my socks off. Even though flawed, it had greatness in there that I could see. I can't discount the possibility that others might have greatness I missed. I'm not omniscient. But I can only speak for myself.

    But I don't have to read what I don't like.

  • The Mother

    Long sentences = Faulkner. Gheezsh.

    I think it's interesting to run through a list of agents and see the ones who espouse interest in "literary fiction" over "commercial fiction."

    Like anyone actually knows the difference.

  • Relax Max

    Although I have no way of knowing who your nameless person is, he or she would have to be pretty blind not to be able to discern from your earlier post that you were doing a bit more than simply telling us what you like and don’t like. You were hardly saying that everyone has the right to choose for themself, as you so generously do in today’s post. No, you were also came pretty close to denigrated people who read things you think are frivolous and unworthy of being read, by your personal standards.

    When you arrogantly scoffed at Brad Pitt et all, because YOU consider celebrity gossip to be beneath you, you at the same time announced loud and clear (by your demeaning treatment of it) that ANYONE who had any literary sense of class whatsoever should ALSO consider that nonsense unworthy of perusal.

    Just to make sure, I went back and reread it and I could hear you sniffing smugly between the lines - there was not room to read anything between the lines for the elitist sniffing residing there.

    Yesterday’s wasn’t even the post that started this, though. The post that originally inflamed my own delicate sensibilities (and perhaps your nameless critic’s, as well) was the earlier one where you were saying how unfair it was that “inferior” writing often gets published when “good” writing doesn’t.

    Today you say that such things are only your own personal opinion as to what YOU like and don’t like, and you had no intention of presuming to set the standard for other people’s tastes. Really.

    Well, you deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt, since only you know what you really meant in those other posts. The rest of us are handicapped by being forced to simply read the plain English in your post. So I give you that benefit of the doubt. Sincerely, too.

    I back off so easily because I really think we are on the wrong track here. It isn’t so important that we all agree on what is good writing and what is “crap” writing. Like Jeff, above, we all know what we don’t like, and we stop reading it as soon as we make that judgement. Someone else might simply LOVE what we didn’t like.

    Also, it isn’t so important that we talk about what is “fair” in the publishing world or what isn’t, since we can’t really do anything about it.

    Before I forget about it, I want to say that I do personally believe in valid literary criticism by experts, just as I believe in art criticism or music appreciation through greater knowledge of the discipline. I use the word “criticism” here in the acedemic sense of expert analysis of the merits and faults of a work, rather than the sense of simply expressing disapproval. There are people who can judge a painting, using their training and experience, and such peoples expert opinion should be taken seriously, in my opinion. So should literary criticsim on a professional level like that. So, when we say there is really no “standard” to what is good writing, that isn’t quite true.

    It doesn’t stop me from buying a technically bad painting if I like it. Even the experts say that is the best reason for buying art. I say finding a book interesting and enjoyable is the best reason for owning it too, even if it is about Brad Pitt or Adam Sandler.

    So we come full circle: do we want to continue to argue about that which we cannot change? Do we want to continue to argue about that which is, ultimately, subjective opinion? Not I. And probably not your nameless nemesis, either.

    When your future posts happen to be about writing, I would rather talk about ways to make our writing better, technically at least, and about ways we can market (horrors!) our work to our profit.

    I’m finished now. I feel strangely calm.

  • Relax Max

    Incidentally, (and I don’t know if you did it on purpose) but I find it somewhat ironic and more than a little telling that you used a picture of Ed Poe at the top of this post. I’m sure you know he wasn’t really able to support himself with his poem and novel writing - any more than most of us here are able to - but rather by being a sometime editor and literary critic. I wonder what it would have been like to have one’s writing criticized by Poe; he had quite an imagination. On the other hand, his vocabulary was so extensive that I probably wouldn’t have figured out if he liked my stuff or not.

  • Stephanie B

    I did know that. I did my research paper my senior year on him (comparing his life and his style of work to Emile Jane Bronte).

    I thought it fitting, however, as magazines he edited often had circulation increased 10-100X with him at the helm, yet they paid him a pittance for his work while often paying through the nose for other writers.

    Just goes to show even publishers don't always know...

  • Stephanie B

    As for criticism, I'm less convinced there is a real arbiter today who can identify a "classic" vs. something soon to be forgotten. I'm not convinced that a novel sneered at by critics but adored by the public couldn't have something special the critics didn't discern.

    I got into this debate recently when a movie critic told me a movie I admired, though I could admire it, could not be seen as "great." Really? Who decides? What really qualifies someone to judge that?

    Why do I think so? Because being able to identify what's "great" and what isn't assumes we're all looking for the same thing in a book or a movie. I think there's a belief that if "everyone" likes something it can't really be good. I had a creative writing teacher in college who couldn't figure out why I was in his class. I already had a "populist" style. He said, "You write stuff anyone could read." He didn't mean it as a compliment, but I took it that way anyway. I think any member of the audience is entitled to decide for themselves who's great. In the end, those great minds who judged and decided will be rotting in the graves and only time will tell if they're predictions were anything more than egoism.

    My favorite romance author of all time is Georgette Heyer. She died in 1974. No one's made any of her books into movies (though I would love to see it - she did great dialog), but her books have been in print since she died and all the years before, many in hardback. I have hooked several male friends of mine on her, including my husband. I have read the bulk of her romance novels upward of a dozen times a piece and I still can't pick one up today without laughing out loud and feeling better in general.

    They had no sex, no profanity, no nudity, minimal violence (except for the few that directly addressed the Napoleanic battles; her description of the Battle of Waterloo was masterful), generally strong female characters and many an atypical hero or heroine. And I love them. So do many others, 36 years after her death. Does that make them great?

    They are to me.

  • soubriquet

    Very good example. I myself like Georgette Heyer, though, had it not been for circumstance of illness and running out of anything to read, I'd probably never have opened a book written by Georgette.
    Great literature? as you say, who defines it?
    Anna Karenina bored me, I had to read it at college, which may have had a predisposing negative influence. However, after visiting Leningrad, and Tsarskoye Selo, I read it again, with a view to the Russia I had glimpsed, the people I had met, the train through the forests, and you know? It was a much better book the second time.
    Dickens wrote what in his time were known as "potboilers", it took quite a while for him to be regarded with reverence.
    Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle he who wrote "The Lost World", and was more famous for Sherlock Holmes, is regarded as a competent adventure story writer, but not a classic author. I particularly enjoy the books of Nevil Shute, but literary circles probably think of him as noon-literary.

    Shakespeare, of course, is a classic. But in fact we have little contemporary evidence to support him. Most of what we have has been re-written and edited, and lumps of his plays are clearly and provenly plagiarised.
    In his day, he was probably regarded as a competent playwright, much as a good TV writer is regarded now, it's posterity which awards, or declines the mantle of greatness.
    How can we know what future generations will consider the greats of our times?

  • soubriquet

    Roy's comments re:Jackson Pollock, I don't get it, I really don't, what Mr Pollock is getting at. I think it's a mess.
    But then, I used to think that of Picasso. All those silly women with eyes pointing in different directions. Until the trip I earlier referred to, I saw a lot of Picasso's pencil, pen, and charcoal drawings in The Hermitage, in Leningrad.
    I was spellbound. Pablo could draw like Albrecht Dürer, which forced me to re-evaluate his abstract works. If, as I had seen, he was capable of a high level of draughtsmanship, then any distortions in his later works must be seen as deliberate choices, not an inability to do better.
    So I now ask myself on looking at all manner of artworks, does that person have the skills to do it the conventional way? And do they choose to abandon that route?

    A case in point might be the graffiti artist known as "Banksy".
    I think, in times to come he might be seen as the 2000's Man-Ray, or Dali.

    As for Mr Pollock. Um. well, whatever he's getting at, and no matter how good he may be at it, I wouldn't want it on my wall, Nor would I want any of Picasso's blue period pieces.
    Just give me the money, and I'll find a thousand pieces I'll like better, by unknowns.

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