1. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Standards of literature (?)

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by minstrel, Feb 24, 2013.

    This thread is a more specific followup to the "Why does bad literature sell so good?" thread. In that thread, erebh and I got into a discussion that was getting a bit heated and was drifting off the point I think we both wanted to discuss, so I'm restarting it here, with a clean slate, so to speak.

    The question is this: Are there standards by which we can objectively determine whether one novel is better than another?

    How can we tell a great novel from a bad novel? Is there a generally-accepted standard? Most critics would regard Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms as a good novel and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code as an inferior one. Is there any objective validity to this?

    I think there is. Hemingway was a master builder of character, and did a beautiful job of presenting the world he was writing about. He had a clear, strong worldview and a brilliant prose style.

    Dan Brown, on the other hand, used paper-thin characters, a ridiculous plot, and obviously contrived and manipulative cliff-hangers. Brown, for all his popular success, is not a good writer.

    I think, research aside, Hemingway could have tossed off The Da Vinci Code over a weekend if he'd wanted to. I don't think Dan Brown could write A Farewell to Arms if he spent the rest of his life trying.

    Am I right? Am I "elitist"? Are there objective standards?
     
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  2. jwideman
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    jwideman Senior Member

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    I think we can certainly evaluate fiction by the same objective standards which we use when critiquing. Two dimensional character vs fully realized characters. Plots that require characters to carry the idiot ball vs plots that the characters seem to move through on their own. Brown vs Hemingway? That's a curb stomp battle.
     
  3. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it is very difficult. To me, a good novel is one that stays with me for a long time. One that makes me think about things in a new way. One that teaches me something about a different culture, group, condition, or situation.

    What I don't like are novels that are unrealistic, or purport to take place in a real-world setting but contain factual inaccuracies. I don't like stories that don't delve into the nuances of issues, but gloss over them and portray most things as black and white. I don't like stories that contain logical inconsistencies or where the characters do things that make no sense or strain credulity. I don't like cliched stories or characters, or shallow treatments of intense human experiences (such as death, illness, having children, losing children, divorce, job loss, etc.)

    I also don't like "poorly written" pieces. "Poorly written" is admittedly a vague characterization and I don't really like "poorly written" and "well written" as descriptions of writing, because they don't really say much. But what I mean in this instance are things that I think most people would agree on -- vague descriptions such as "handsome" for people, repetitive sections, descriptions or sentences, vast ruminations on commonplace or obvious things, or relationships that are described as intense and important, but the love is not shown through actions, dialogue or statements.

    When I'm done with a book I want to think "wow." I want to be changed in some way. I want to have learned something, or think about something in a new way, or understand a point of view different from my own. I want to be able to tell my friends that they really must read this book.

    But it's hard to formulate objective criteria for all of this. Even amongst "worthy" literature, there will still be varying degrees of erudition and deep meaning. Even with the novels I love, I don't think I could rank them in any way. I like different novels for different reasons. And different books overall for different reasons. I can't name my "favorite" book, because I don't have one. I could, however, name 10 books that I absolutely loved and think almost everyone should read. Heck, I could name 50. But I doubt I could say any were "better" than any of the others.

    So, I don't think it is possible to have objective standards, although there are clearly elements that make certain authors and books more worthy of a place in a To Read pile. That doesn't mean, though, that I think those stories that are less worthy or maybe even unworthy of a To Read designation should somehow be disallowed or banned. There is a place for close-to-mindless entertainment, even among the very intellectual and learned. Not every endeavor needs to expand one's mind or make one a better person. There's a lot to be said for spending time 'chilling out' occasionally with something that doesn't require much mental energy.
     
  4. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @chicagoliz: Thanks for your response. I'm not looking for hair-splitting here; I'm not trying to say Nabokov is better than Joyce or vice versa. I'm looking for a rough distinction - these over here are good books, and those over there are not good books. And I'm certainly not trying to say that ANY books should be disallowed or banned. I've only read a few pages of one of the Twilight books, and I know I don't want to read any more, but I'd still want them on the bookstore shelves. Sometimes I read books that get critical acclaim and I hate them. For example, I've only read a few chapters of William T. Vollman's "Seven Dreams" series, and many critics consider Vollman absolutely brilliant, but I thought what I was reading was very ugly and I put it aside.

    So I don't like Meyer and I don't like Vollman. But I do think Vollman fails on a higher level than Meyer does. Vollman aims very high and misses; Meyer aims low and I don't care whether she hits or not - she's aiming low.

    @jwideman: Thanks for your comment. I tried, in the other thread, to make the same point - that we're judging when we critique each other's work here on this forum. We're doing the same thing here we do when select books from the bookstore. We're judging. I don't think it's elitist to do that.
     
  5. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Since writing is a form of communication, I think one objective standard is that the work be understood by at least one other person. If a piece isn't understood by anyone, it's probably "bad" literature/writing. Other than that, I can't think of any criteria that can be used to objectively call something good or bad.

    I do think there is a certain standard out there, and I think it's mostly professors or scholars of literature who get to decide what that standard is. I find that older works tend to be favored. I've heard many times from different sources that the late 19th century and early 20th century was when the novel peaked. Which is why you'll always see authors like Tolstoy, Dickens, Flaubert, Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, etc. on lists of the "best" novels.

    There's also the test of time, which might be a more objective way of looking at it. "Good" works tend to survive after the deaths of their creators (by survive I mean read/discussed by people and/or academia).

    Of course, when it comes to novels, there's more than just the writing itself (characterization, plot), but those things, IMO, are secondary. After all, if a writer can't communicate clearly, plot and characterization are meaningless.
     
  6. E. C. Scrubb
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    E. C. Scrubb Active Member

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    Interesting question - and your second example brings up a specific point for me: Dan Brown.

    I have quite a bit of training in the time-frame of history that he consistently refers too. So for me, he is a hack writer because he's failed to do any true research into the historical facts. There is definitely debatable material concerning the first few centuries of Christianity (and I say this as a "conservative Christian" as well), but he completely ignored everything for his own literary/agenda(?) purposes.

    That leads me to posit that one standard is that an author either (1) researches the material and time frame well enough to present a viable history or (2) finds a way in his/her work to inform the reader that there has been purposed changed in the history - either by an act of a MC, or by producing a second society (see Harry Potter), etc.

    In short - a writer must DO THE RESEARCH.
     
  7. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This is an excellent point. We can't objectively evaluate a work of literature until we have the perspective of time. It's easier to evaluate a novel from the distance of a few decades, because we can see it in the context of history and the other novels published in the same timeframe. That's probably why so many novels from the time you mentioned are regularly ranked among the best.

    It's like a flood, and we have to wait until the water recedes to see which buildings are still standing. But why are they the ones still standing? Is it something intrinsic in them, or is it simple marketing?
     
  8. Corazon Santiago
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    Corazon Santiago Member

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    What you are discussing is unarguably subjective, but there is no shame in that. Too many people find it offensive that their convictions aren't objective; don't be those people.
     
  9. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Are you saying that all novels are equally valuable? That a reasonable, intelligent, well-read person cannot sort a heap of books into "good" and "not good" piles, and have those piles agree, more often than not, with the piles sorted by another, equally-qualified person?

    I recognize that taste is subjective. What I'm trying to determine here is whether or not there's something deeper than taste involved - something objective.
     
  10. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    There has to be a certain likeable quality about the writing itself, but I would say it's a combination of marketing and luck. The work has to be accessible, and this is where writers who write in languages that are hard to translate are at a disadvantage. Writers from war-torn countries are also at a disadvantage. Interestingly enough, writers from poverty-stricken countries do quite well in terms of fame (Joyce, Tagore). Finally, I would say that the right person at the right time makes a difference at well. A lot of obscure writers were made famous after their deaths by other famous writers. For example, I would have never come across Ernesto Sabato had it not been for Camus.

    It's interesting to note that winning prestigious prizes doesn't necessarily mean a writer will be remembered after his/her death; a lot of Nobel laureates have faded into obscurity.
     
  11. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This is another excellent point, and the converse also holds: Writers we now hold in high regard did not win the Nobel or any other significant prize. Melville's Moby Dick was ignored when it was first published, and wasn't recognized as a masterpiece until Carl Van Doren championed the book long after Melville's death. Tolstoy was eligible for the Nobel, but did not win it. Same with Marcel Proust. More recently, same with Robertson Davies.
     
  12. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I'm not sure why Tolstoy never won, but who knows what the Nobel committee was thinking back then. I can see why Proust never won, though. He only had a collection of short stories published, and In Search of Lost Time was never completed. And I think Joyce was just too experimental. I'm really surprised Nabokov never won. He was one of the 20th century's greatest writers. Anyways, I'm getting way off topic here.
     
  13. Sved
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    Sved Senior Member

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    Back then the quality of the writing was not enough. It was also assumed the author should convey a sense of idealism. 'Gone with the Wind' was actually a serious contender.
     
  14. Ian J.
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    Ian J. Active Member

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    My subjective view of what is good or bad (in any media, not just books) is whether the item in question is 'well thought out' or not. In the case of Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code', it may be a 'page turner' but it isn't well enough thought out to be a good book. Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings' is based on very well thought out background, but I can't say for sure I feel the book (in its entire trilogy form) is that well thought out. Some of its story aspects are a little off key today (Tom Bombadil never seemed to have any reason to be in the book in my eyes other than JRRT liked him as a character). Herbert's 'Dune' on the other hand is full of complexity that all holds together despite its dense style.

    It's the same in films. 'Prometheus' is less well thought out than 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'. 'The Matrix' is more well thought out than either of its sequels (which seems to be a rule of thumb with Hollywood and sequels anyway).

    But I have to add that it's no good something being well thought out then executed badly, which (and I'm blowing my own trumpet here as I can't think of an example that has made it through to publishing via traditional routes) I did with my first novels and consequently now have to go back and fix.
     
  15. Corazon Santiago
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    Corazon Santiago Member

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    Value is in the eye of the beholder, so whether or not all novels are equally valuable is a subjective matter. A reasonable, intelligent and well-read person could indeed sort books into such piles, but he could not do so objectively because his sorting would be subject to his beliefs.

    I understand what you are doing, however I disagree with your choice in words. I am particularly sensitive to the use of the term objective, because I often see people misuse it under the mistaken assumption that in order to validate their views their views must be objective truths.
     
  16. Bimber
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    Bimber Contributing Member

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    I dont agree i think it gives more depth to his world as it shows their are other forces that are unknown to the reader and makes you think about it, same trick can be found in the original "phantom of the opera" their is almost a chapter were the MC and one other cant remember the names now(think he was the owner) went under the opera house to look for the phantom when the owner pulls him to hide as they hear someone coming and the MC asked if it was the phantom but was told it was something else far worse than the phantom a spirit of some kind and they spend that chapter hiding from it but the reader never finds out what it is or if it had any point in the story... but it did add a sort of depth to that world, yes its page filler but i like it makes it more real for me.

    Back to topic

    Think writing styles change every couple of generations when we look back many didnt use what today we consider a standard like third person view as well as many other things, bottom line is stories were told differently. Today i feel many writers dont need to know how to write well and can get away with it with good marketing and using cheap tricks in stories that will make people feel sorry for their MC by making him look like the one legged puppy, for me more often those books have no logic in order for the writer to make that one legged puppy they make him dance depending on their needs and makes their character development hard to follow as more often i cant believe it.

    For me what makes a good book is not an excellent story(of course its always nice to have a full house) but its how the writer tells that story and how much he can make me believe in that world and those characters in it, you can tell a cliche story but if you show extra ordinary character development it would be a good book for me.
     
  17. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Taste is subjective, but some people do have a better taste than others I find. I guess I can come across as snobbish about this point (and, to be honest, I am) but I don't actually think I have the best taste either. I know many people who like better books than I do, and which I have tried to read and just either could not get in to them, or could not fully appreciate. I am well aware of this standard too. One of my very good friends is a great lover of Horace, and adores W.B. Yeats, and George Eliot. I have never liked Horace very much, he leaves me cold, and while I quite like W.B. Yeats and George Eliot I've never liked them as much as I really should.

    What are the rules? What makes up a 'good taste'. Can I rely on the old idea of 'the sublime' and say something vauge around that? No. The truth is that I don't actually know, but I find my tastes refining as I age, as will everyone if they read enough novels that challenge. That is why I think things like The Da Vinci Code falls and A Farewell to Arms rises. The Da Vinci Code was a bit like a conspiracy theory, it interests you for maybe a week and then you quickly forget about it. There is just so much more about A Farewell to Arms, with it's depiction of the effects of war on the human psyche, loss of masculinity, and the almost existentialist angst following WW1. There is more going on under the surface of something like Hemingway's novel that some people will only get vibrations of, but they still know its there, and this just isn't the case with Dan Brown.

    Just for a point of comparison Ulysses by James Joyce (at least so I've heard) was a good success with the reading public when it was released in 1922 - I think - and dealt with two guys and their adventures around Dublin on a pretty average day. When It Was Dark by Guy Thorne was a massive, international best seller a little before the first world war, and was about Jesus's grave being rediscovered and a Zionist/secularist conspiracy. Which one have you heard the most about?

    There is also, I think, a lot to be said for style. This is one of the main reasons why I hear someone like Stephen King (or Dan Brown) gets derided a lot by more literary critics, where as a lot of the time someone who frankly isn't as good in some areas but has an amazing style, someone like Don Delillo say, gets a lot less punishment. Especally for story telling. No one can tell me Americana was a better story than Salam's Lot and make me believe them. A good style can really made a mediocre book worthy of praise, at least, and a bad style can ruin an otherwise decent book.

    What is a good style? That is another question entirely.
     
  18. Bimber
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    Bimber Contributing Member

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    For me Stephen King is like a production machine the more he prints the lower the quality, read some were that he said a writer should just write and not bother with editing just sends it to them when he finishes the book, kind of makes sense why many complain about his books
     
  19. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I honestly wouldn't be surprised if he actually said that. He obviously thinks it. Ever read his book On Writing? In it he shows you the first few pages of the first draft of the story '1408', and off the top of my head I can't think of a single difference between that 'draft' and the finished product. So either King was being disingenuous at that point of the book or he just doesn't know how to redraft.

    One of the things I also find irritating, actually kind of infuriating, about King is how he passes off his lesser novels during the late 80s, early 90s with something like 'I don't know what I was doing, I was on crack when I wrote this'. I've read all of those novels and I'm really not sure why; if he didn't really bother to write them why should I bother to read them?

    That said, I can't deny he's a really good story teller, and he does have books I actually really enjoy. Misery, for example, that's a good book, Bag of Bones is good too. And some of his short stories are objectively excellent. 'L.T.'s Theory of Pets', 'The Man in the Black Suit' and 'Riding the Bullet', and 'The Fifth Quarter' are fine short stories anyone could be proud of. 'Jerusalem's Lot', the prequel to Salam's Lot, is a damn fun Cthulhu Mythos story. He can be good, can be very good, but he's very often not.
     
  20. Bimber
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    Bimber Contributing Member

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    Didnt read his "on writing" but have seen many sections of it in some lectures about reading, i like some of his ideas though, some of his books are on my list what to read next(need another 20 years to read everything i want!), wanted to start the Black tower series but keep hearing how terrible its ending is, just like many of his other books.

    He is really good with character developments and his stories can be great but think his problem is that he does seem to rush to write as many books as he can(and he always struck me as an unstable person).

    Some writers say it takes from 6-10 years to write a good book so who knows many there is some truth in it
     
  21. JennyM
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    E C Scrubb homed in on the lack of research Dan Brown demonstrated in the Da Vinci Code. For me it was the fact the MC or his accomplice never went to bed over the two or three day timeframe of the book. It boils down to what we are looking for I guess.

    In one of Lee Child's Jack Reacher books, Jack has a name change to Richard in a couple of chapters. Now that is confusing.

    If I can't imagine the story then the book is dead for me. I don't blame the book necessarily, I put it down to what my interests, and life experiences are.

    Shakespeare is rightly acclaimed as being a master, although he manipulated history to suit his story. I know there are a group of people coming together to clear Richard III's name after Shakespeare rubbished his reputation.
     
  22. chicagoliz
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    I was thinking about this some more and remembered something someone in my book club once said. She said she reads for education, entertainment, and erudition. I would change "erudition" to "enlightenment," and I think that's a good way to evaluate a book. Ideally, a book should have all three. However, I think maybe some of the most "worthy" books would score high on "enlightenment," and not necessarily as high on the other two. Books such as Dan Brown's books might score very high on Entertainment, but not as high on the others.

    I'd actually rate some of Michael Crichton's relatively high on "education." A while ago I read his book Airframe, and I really liked it (although I was apparently almost the only person.) It had a lot of interesting tidbits about airplanes and aerodynamics. The plot revolved around a pilot intentionally crashing a plane. When the Egypt Air crash happened a while back, I remember hearing the news reports and thinking, "wow -- that sounds just like what happened in Airframe, where the pilot intentionally crashed the plane," and it turned out later that that was exactly what had happened. I always appreciated the amount of research and factual information that was conveyed in the novels I ready by him in an entertaining way. I'm not sure how high I'd rank his stories on "Enlightenment," but I'd rate them highly on Education and for novels, fairly high in Education.

    Something like FSOG, I'd give a fairly high mark to Entertainment, but close to zero on the other two.

    Of course, all of these are subjective, too. But I think it provides a decent framework to attempt to determine the relative value of books. Although no two people are going to rank the books in the exact same way.
     
  23. Snicket
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    I disagree that knowing what is good and what is bad is subjective. That isn't a subjective thing at all. Just as we know about bad movies and bad video games it simply means the tools they had for what they made were used improper. Now saying Meyer is a bad writer is subjective. But knowing Twilight for example is a bad book isn't subjective. If you look at the tools used and strip the book to its bare parts on what it did wrong and what it did right, the cons would certainly outweigh the pros. Now I am not saying that I think all books meant for that audience are bad, I simply think that any form of art and media can be stripped to its works and objectively be considered good or bad.
     
  24. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    One can objectively look at the technical aspects of any book and determine whether it's good or bad in that respect. Past that point - it's all subjective. As has been mentioned, many authors revered today were looked on as hacks in their own time. There are books considered classics that are still spurned by many. If there were some clearly defined objective way of determining quality, don't you think, after all this time, someone would have found it?
     
  25. Snicket
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    But there is quality and a standard. In the objective form.

    These are technical functions of a book that can be looked at individually.

    The only time it becomes subject is beyond that. And writers who were considered hacks of their time often times were simply people in the wrong era at the wrong time, imo. I like a lot of authors who had controversy to their name because they often were people trying to get out of a standardize system.

    But you can objectively look at a story or a book and say why it is good or bad. The only time it does become subjective is when you put your own feelings into the critical analysis of said book.
     

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