Thursday, May 10, 2012

Objectively Speaking

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.


  1. So, while I don't think one can argue that a novel is objectively bad, I do believe there are pieces of a book that could be looked at objectively (ergo: misspellings, inconsistencies, etc.)

    Here's an example: My least favorite HP novel is #4. Now, artistically, most people I know seem to favor that one. I don't see it, but they do.

    My biggest problem with the novel is a major storyline point with an inconsistency. That being the Portkey. What is a portkey? An item that moves you from one location to another at a pre-charmed point in time. That is how it is described at the beginning.

    Now, Rowling never states that if you let go of the object, it will return you to where it took you from (that I can recall). Nor does it say you can just say "first person who touches it gets transported." Without these two ideas, the end of the book with HP and Edward...ahem...Cedric being transported to Voldemort makes no sense.

    This is not the only reason why I did not like the book. But it is something that makes me say "how does that work?"

    Objective piece that others ignore in their favoring of this work, but I use it as furthering why I did not like it.

  2. I used to think the way your friend did, but that was when I was in my very early twenties and still trying to find my world view. It was arrogance on my part but at the time, that's all I had to stand on. I had no knowledge to speak of. I'm not saying your friend's the same way, just saying where that came from in me. Now that I've grown up a little, I can see past my own limited concepts of enjoyment and acknowledge that my opinion does not set the standard of good and bad art. I'm no Twilight fan but if it floats your boat then enjoy! The world would be a boring place if we all agreed on "good" art. Art is subjective. That's why it's awesome.

  3. TJ
    Making an argument as to why you like or dislike something is great, that's often what good books seek to do. But I trust you would never declare that the 4th book is awful and anyone who thinks differently is just ignorant.

    Certain people seem to be more sensitive to one sort of short-coming--bad grammar, or plot holes for instance--while others never even notice those, but might focus on something else entirely. I'm pretty sure there has never been a book universally accepted as perfect.

    I just can't picture you as so judgmental--oh, and I wouldn't call the question's originator a friend exactly. I don't even know their name. The question was posed to me on Reddit.

  4. Who were you talking to? Harold Bloom?

  5. Using "objectivity" to judge art is a futile act. Especially considering that every reader will have a unique interaction with any given book, how can anyone say what works for them necessarily works (or doesn't) for everyone else. Yes, books can be objectively _flawed_ in some ways, such as a having a typo. But if Michelangelo's David got a nick in it, would it lose all value and become "bad"?

  6. On the subject of grammatical errors and typos. I'm not certain that I've ever read a book that didn't have them. From Charles Dickens to the Pulitzer Prize winning The Road (which is an English teacher's nightmare.) "Technical mistakes" are often done intentionally, or simply ignored for effect (laziness might be a factor as well.) I personally feel the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities is a glaring example of bad writing in style as well as grammar, but I suspect I would be in a minority in that opinion, as that book is critically acclaimed and is presently the highest selling novel of all time.

  7. A "bad" book would include bad prose, disorganized/absent storytelling, and flat characters. I don't doubt bad books exist. But when someone calls one "bad" just because they didn't like it or didn't understand it--that's just arrogance.

  8. Very interesting piece once again, thank you.

    It is usually the way with those leading questions, often from complete strangers, that they as you indicated already have a fairly definitive opinion, and are therefore itching to impart the opinion on you. Some of your interesting analogies immediately reminded me of 'The Emporer's New Clothes.'

    Not sure if you are aware, but the current UK bullies are those agents and publishers who are directing authors to classify under YA, because that is what may be easier to sell. My question back to you is what is YA. Is or would 'Oliver Twist,' 'Copperfield,' 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' 'Treasure Island,' come under YA today? - The Emporer's retinue bully us into saying - 'yes!'

  9. But what is bad prose? Someone fond of Steinbeck would likely believe Hemingway's prose to be bad. Everyone knows of bad books, (because we all know what we like), the problem is people can't agree which ones they are.

    And thanks for stopping by Mazarkis, still reading and enjoying "Emperor's Knife." Clearly a book filled with beautiful prose.

  10. Apologies for using the wrong fingers on Emperor.

    1. Off subject again sorry. But have you ever wondered how cruel it was for whoever coined the word 'dyslexia?' How would one be able to admit it.

      One thing that irks in art or writing, or comments on writing is when a critic assumes wondrous interpretations on the subjects merits and invents metaphors and images for its conception or hidden meaning. Are they the writer or artist how do they know what was the motivator? The same book or canvas can have wildly differing connections with the viewer, with as many divergent interpretations.

      The bottom line for me is always; did this piece touch my soul, or reward my time with it. Will this experience effect my perspective on life, better my outlook, and ultimately, going back to another of your comments Michael; will it last, will my encounter with it stay with me.

      There are so many other facets between good or bad, I doubt any one creative work can fit either extreme.

      Sorry if I come across pontificating - Love this Blogg.

  11. You didn't see that...these aren't the droids you're looking for.

  12. I agree that there are some objective things to look at when reading novels. Grammar and spelling. But what makes a character flat? There can be many different answers to that question. I have friends that are bothered to no end by books that I love. I don't think that makes them bad books.

  13. I am with you 100% on this post. I have often argued the same things on my blog. I have gone so far as to say that what constitutes art itself is a matter of subjectivity, and that often people use the term "art" based entirely on their own biased assumptions. Every time some "expert" tries to make a list of what constitutes "good" writing, someone else comes up with examples that contradict it. Some of my favorite authors break all the rules. H.P. Lovecraft's works, for example, though loved by many, has been criticized for its lack of character and overabundance of adjectives and adverbs. One critic even went so far as to claim Lovecraft was America's greatest bad author (whatever that means); at the same time, Barnes & Nobles features a Lovecraft Collection in their Classics section, right next to Homer, Shakespeare, Asimov and all the other "greats".

    1. "Lovecraft... bad..." in the same sentence? Does not compute.

    2. When I was in the tenth grade, H.P. Lovecraft changed my life. Never has one set of stories (mostly the Cthulu mythos but some others) so completely altered my world. They opened up doors in my imagination that are still swinging wide open in eldritch winds.

      Cool, weird stuff. And tangentially related, if you ever want real world weird, look up the "The Big Bloop".

  14. I've had this same argument countless times over the years. There's a big difference between "XXXX sucks" and "I don't like XXXX." It baffles me that people who consider themselves to be scholarly don't recognize that fact.

  15. On the subject of prose:

    I would echo Michael's thoughts on prose. I am constantly confounded, when reading through Amazon reviews, by comments on prose, good and bad. And I almost never agree. I couldn't think of a less objective standard to judge a book. If you like it you like it. If you don't you don't. Damn anyone else's opinion.

    To go back to the example of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings", there are some reviewers today complaining about Tolkien and his prose. But I love it. I've read through the books ten times now. And I always love them.

    And Grammar and spelling are as much an editor's issue as an author's. Just look at some well known, prolific author (pick one with more than fifteen books published) and check the spelling and grammar of later books. Authors seem to get to a point in their career where their editors just say, "The hell with it...get it on the shelves." Stephen King and Robert Jordan
    are good examples, I think.

    Almost nobody spells everything correctly or uses the language correctly, in every case, the first or even second time around (and an argument could be made that even if they did, would you want to read it?). Everyone needs an editor.

    P.S. - It was interesting to see Mazarkis Williams here. I just got his book out of the library yesterday. I can't wait to start it.

  16. Speaking about about grammar...

    While I'll admit I'm not a scholar on the subject, (but I'm working on improving) a lot of others aren't experts either, but think they are. I've had people write me, highlighting mistakes (nice people to be sure--they aren't being creeps, just helpful.) The problem is that they are often wrong. Some just learned the rules incorrectly, others don't realize that a lot of grammar is subject to style, and for still others, well, it's been a while since they last took a class in it. English is an evolving language and the rules keep changing. "Roofs" used to be "rooves" after all, and people are still fist-fighting over the Oxford comma.

    A painter once taught me to forget about dragging the brush back and forth over a canvas. "You're not painting a bedroom wall, you're an artist. Push the brush, stab the canvas, use your palette knife to smear or scrape...whatever you need to do to get the effect you're after. Painting properly is for house painters."

    I think he was right about more than painting.

    1. "English is an evolving language and the rules keep changing."

      Indeed. Isn't the word "ain't" in the dictionary now?

  17. I've noticed a number of articles written about the so-called craft of writing that seem to me to be merely rehashed material from creative writing courses. I saw one that aimed to edit a famous book to their idea of what writing should be.I laughed rather a lot at the presumption.
    Writing has fashions. Stuff that is currently frowned on (certain POV, headhopping etc) will be the big thing one day. What is considered "right writing" will one day be considered awful.
    All a writer can really do is try and stay true to their developing voice.

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