Thursday, September 15, 2016

Hmm …

… Are literary judgments subjective? | Prospect Magazine. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

… admitting that there may be a subjective element to literary critical judgments does not entail that all such judgments are subjective, or entirely subjective. Literary judgments may be objective up to a point, but not beyond that point. The precise point where objectivity runs out would depend on the work in question. Accepting that there may be subjective patches in the field of literary criticism does not entail an acceptance that the whole endeavour is subjective and (therefore) pointless.
Obviously, if only science or mathematics can arrive at the truth, then there's no reason for putting anyone on trial for a crime, since guilt or innocence cannot really be determined scientifically in any strict sense. Regarding literature,  there is certainly objectively bad writing. A plot can be demonstrably nonsensical (I give you The Da Vinci Code). It is in fact easy to demonstrate why a bad book is bad. But in some cases, not everyone will agree. I think Cormac McCarthy's The Road is objectively bad. Lots of people do not share my view. I think they are wrong. They think I am.


  1. The New Critics, in their glory days of dominance within academia in the mid-20th century, believed (which is ironically a subjective word) that literature could be objectively assessed. They had some good arguments, but in the end I think all the arguments about good v. bad writing all come down to a more simple proposition: readers' responses (i.e., readers either like or do not like what they read), and that "judgment," with all the high minded jibber-jabber about aesthetics and objective qualities aside, might be the most sensible and valuable POV. Readers will decide. You did not like _The Road_, but others liked it. At least readers were reading and discussing the book. That is all that is really necessary. Agreed? Case closed.

  2. Actually, you are quite right. As someone who made his living reviewing books I have to admit that it always comes down to whether you like the book or not (though there are cases where the book is poorly executed qua book but has something to get across that is worthwhile. But I think if one spends enough time among books one discerns certain characteristics that are essential to good ones and the lack of which makes for a bad book.