Are there such things as objectively bad books?
This was a question I was recently asked. Why anyone would think I am an authority on this subject I don’t know. Perhaps they didn’t, and were just goading me into an argument. I suspect it is the latter as the person who asked held some fairly definitive opinions on a large range of books insisting they are objectively bad. The list included:
· Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga
· J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
· J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series
· And most anything by Stephen King
I’ve never read Twilight (I’m hardly the demographic), but the other three authors are some of my favorites and I say that without any qualifiers or fine print.
I don’t like people attempting to use objectivity (judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices) to insult or bully others. Saying you don’t like a book, or movie, or song is fine—everyone is entitled to an opinion—but saying it is not your opinion but rather that the artwork is universally and verifiably bad—I have a problem with that. And when the same person stated that the Lord of The Rings was objectively bad (because it lacked world building, no less) well…it was time for a blog post.
Two people look at a rock. Is it bigger than my fist? Harder? These are objective values—conclusions that can be verified separately by anyone and return the same answer.
Do you like the rock? This is a subjective value and is totally opinion based and non-verifiable by anyone other than the person holding the opinion, and at the time the opinion is given, for sometimes opinions can change.
Non-fiction can be objectively bad if the information contained in the book is wrong, as the information can be objectively verified (granted there is still some interpretation involved.) But novels are a form of art, and all art is subjective.
Don’t believe me? Go to any museum I’ll bet you’ll see stuff you like and stuff you don’t like hanging on the walls. If art was objective then we could all tell the difference between the good art and the crap, just as we could tell if a rock was bigger than our fists. So how do we get this notion that there is good and bad art?
If enough people’s opinions agree on a piece of art—either by personal preference or political persuasion (in other words, propaganda: “you’re stupid if you don’t appreciate this” or consequently: “you’re crazy if you like that!”)—then art is elevated and considered good, but this is still opinion as verification of an objective value cannot be based on mass appeal (unless the topic is mass appeal itself.)
So if the majority of people dislike a book then it is likely a bad book, but again this is still mere opinion and history has shown that often great works are ahead of their time and not immediately accepted. Vincent Van Gogh, for example, was considered a joke in his day, and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was ignored for two-and-a-half centuries. This shift of value over time is further evidence that the value of art is subjective, even when originally endorsed by large numbers of people. Consider the nineteenth century novel The Lamplighter by Maria Cummins—hugely popular in its day—but now mostly forgotten; and Johann Nepomuk Hummel considered as good as Mozart in 1820, but who believes that now?
Consider for yourself if there is anything you like now that you didn’t like before, or vice versa? Did the subject change or just your perception of it?
Given this, I don’t think you can intelligently state that a novel that sells millions is objectively bad, when the value of books/art is wholly opinion based, and there are huge numbers of people on this planet who love those stories. To me, the fact that these books have garnered such a following is an indication that they resonate with people and self-evident that the books are considered good, even though your opinion may differ.
You can’t even argue that the popularity was just hype; that people bought the novels just to see what all the hubbub was about. In each case the examples cited had sequels or other works all of which are widely read. If they were objectively bad, who would bother reading the second much less the third and fourth and then go see the movies?
I strongly suspect that the concept of objectivity is often misused by people who merely wish to impose their views on others by insisting their opinions are more legitimate than others. A favorite tactic is to suggest research will prove their point, and then offer up still more opinions. This is often the position of bullies who rather than engage in an honest debate of opinion with an open mind, seeking as much to be enlightened as to enlighten, prefer to declare they are always right.
Of course…this is only my opinion.