PDA

View Full Version : What Is "Great" Literature?



cmi0616
04-25-2012, 12:27 AM
I was reading a review of something on Goodreads yesterday (I can't for the life of me remember what it was for, otherwise I'd have posted it), but anyways the basis of the review was basically this:

"All of this supposedly "classic" and "great" literature seems to bore me. I feel like people don't actually enjoy these books, but they say they do because they're supposed to like "the classics"".

I'm not sure I agree with that entirely. I've read some classics that I've loved, but there are certainly some highly regarded works (Bleak House, most of Shakespeare's works, Catcher In The Rye, and so on) that I guess I just didn't get or didn't think were very interesting.

Anyways, I started thinking, what makes a book a "classic" or "great"? What differentiates Hemingway or Dickens (not to discredit those guys, some of the stuff they've written is genius) from the average joe, so to speak? Why do we cherish these works when some of them, at least in my humble opinion, aren't very good?

Phaeal
04-25-2012, 12:43 AM
You don't think Bleak House, Shakespeare or The Catcher in the Rye are very good, eh? Well, Time does, and Time is what makes the classics, while the ephemera fall away.

I personally think all the above rock. I eat them like candy. And my taste is infallible. Ask Time. She's right over there, sipping a caramel latte.

Drachen Jager
04-25-2012, 12:59 AM
Great literature is that which changes the way you think about something, puts ideas in your head that remain long after you're finished, means different things to you when you read it at different points in your life.

Nymtoc
04-25-2012, 01:07 AM
I've read some classics that I've loved, but there are certainly some highly regarded works (Bleak House, most of Shakespeare's works, Catcher In The Rye, and so on) that I guess I just didn't get or didn't think were very interesting.

Anyways, I started thinking, what makes a book a "classic" or "great"? What differentiates Hemingway or Dickens (not to discredit those guys, some of the stuff they've written is genius) from the average joe, so to speak? Why do we cherish these works when some of them, at least in my humble opinion, aren't very good?

Gee whiz, guy, what makes a work "great" doesn't have much to do with your personal likes and dislikes. It has to do with opinions of multitudes of readers and critics that attach to a work after a certain amount of time--usually a lot of time. Sometimes the status of a particular work changes. For example, the novels of William Makepeace Thackeray may once have been placed at the highest level, but their merits are less obvious today. However, it is difficult to dismiss from the ranks of greatness such writers as Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Goethe, John Donne, Mark Twain or (sorry about that) Shakespeare.

:animal

RobJ
04-25-2012, 01:10 AM
Great literature is that which changes the way you think about something, puts ideas in your head that remain long after you're finished, means different things to you when you read it at different points in your life.
So if Twilight had this effect on my daughter -- changed the way she thought about something, put ideas in her head long after she finished it, and means different things when she reads it at different points in her life -- it would be great literature by your definition.

I'm not saying that Twilight shouldn't be considered great literature, just looking for confirmation that it would be, by your definition.

leahzero
04-25-2012, 01:32 AM
Great literature is that which changes the way you think about something, puts ideas in your head that remain long after you're finished, means different things to you when you read it at different points in your life.

This is a nice sentiment, but I don't agree that it's the criteria for great literature. Because like Rob said, even bad books can do the above.

As for what makes great literature: IMO, it's several things.



Timelessness. The writing resonates with readers across multiple generations, even centuries.
Truth. Great literature offers profound insights, especially into the human condition.
Prose. Whether it's the graceful lyricism of Nabokov or the elegant economy of Hemingway, the prose is highly polished and stands apart from other novels of its ilk.
Characters. Memorable. Believable. Not necessarily likable, but sympathetic. Characters who make you feel that somewhere in this universe or a parallel one, they actually exist.

This is pretty rough, but I'm not writing an essay here. :D

Mr Flibble
04-25-2012, 01:37 AM
A while ago (in fact, far enough back I can't find a link) a UK bookseller that is now defunct did a little poll

The top ten books people say they read/loved v the top ten books/classics people actually buy.

Only one of the books was on both lists (LOTR). Now, yes, libraries, borrowing etc...but still.

What makes literature great is subjective. I like certain classics and loathe others. Your feelings may be the other way round. Someone else may just read the cliff notes so they can appear well read. etc etc.

Al Stevens
04-25-2012, 01:57 AM
I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.

thebloodfiend
04-25-2012, 02:27 AM
It's subjective. What's great lit to me, might be shit to you. I love Catcher in the Rye, but a lot of people think it's amateur hour. I hate Things Fall Apart and The Red Badge of Courage, but other people praise them as the best books ever written.

If more people were like me, a lot of the classics would simply not be classics. They appealed to the majority of "smart" people at the time, therefor they were chosen, just like a lot of books are given awards that I don't necessarily think they deserve. Just because the majority likes it, or a bunch of "smart" people like it, doesn't mean it's good to you or me, or that's it's great lit. And just because I think a book is great lit, it doesn't mean it is for you. It's all opinion in the end. Time could say Vampire Academy is the best series of the century, but it doesn't mean it's true for everyone who reads and likes their magazine.

fireluxlou
04-25-2012, 02:36 AM
The book that had a long lasting effects on me was Jostein Gaarder's, Hello is anybody out there? and Bridge to Terabithia they are children's book but I felt a deep connection to them, they are classics to me, made me cry, made me think about life.

I wouldn't worry about what others consider classics. Charles Dickens to me is ok, his stories are good but he relies on coincidence for everything. Wuthering Heights I felt only connection to it after seeing the most recent adaption with Kaya Scoldelerio like I could feel the relationship develop and the actual reality to the story that other adaptions lack. But that's my experiences and your experiences will shape what you consider classic.

dclary
04-25-2012, 02:37 AM
Great literature needs to be read. There is a short list of books that I read annually, because they move me.

Great literature breaks the mold. Let's be honest. The Bronte's didn't write great prose, or have compelling stories. But they were some of the first women to do so -- and do so well. This is inspirational on a great many levels.

Great literature advances literature itself. Nathaniel Hawthorne's works are god-awful to read. But his stuff is classic, great literature because it's early American literature. It set the mold for our first generation of novelists.

Great literature is this: memorable. Love it, hate it, be bored with it. You may not remember a damned thing that happened in Twilight or Eragon or any of the Mac Bolan novels beyond basic story ideas... but you remember Sydney Carlton headed for the guillotine, and his epic epitath. You remember Melville taking an entire chapter off from the telling of Moby Dick to tell you shit that you never cared to know. You remember.

RichardGarfinkle
04-25-2012, 02:51 AM
It is, of course subjective. No book will be great to everyone.

I do think there are three distinct categories which are blended together in the generic category of great.


1. This is a theory from a friend of mine: Some of the books labeled great mark transitions in writing. These are considered great more by Lit Crit than by readers.

2. There are books considered great because what they had to say was important. These vary from person to person or cultural attitude to cultural attitude.

3. The books that have stood the test of time in that people are willing to make the effort to read them and are enriched by them.

I would say that there is a personal test for this. Does this book have something new for me every time I read it and does it never get old to me.

PPartisan
04-25-2012, 03:05 AM
As a general rule, I love the classics.

Someone just got in trouble for posting some of Thomas Pynchon's work as their own in SYW. It was supposed to be a test, I think, as to whether or not people could recognise greatness when it was put up as any other piece of work to be critted.

Now, I've only read one Pynchon book, The Crying of Lot 49, and it was a while back so I had to remember why it was such a piece of quality literature. Now I remember why it deserves to mark Pynchon out as a great author. It's postmodernism at its finest - it takes the mystery genre and flips it on its head, by having a protagonist that investigates a conspiracy, yet her conclusions actually become less conclusive the more information she discovers. By the time we reach the end of the book, it feels like we have no idea where we are.

There was more to it of course, it was a while back, but that's how I remember feeling at the end. Very much like "Ah. That's very clever."

So, a great piece of literature, changes how I think. And I can name several that have done just that. And...they all broke the rules in one way or another ;)

thothguard51
04-25-2012, 03:17 AM
Outside of scholars who have proclaimed certain classics as great literature, and I am not disputing their claims, Great literature to me is as follows.

A novel that has remained in the public eyes through multiple generations.

A novel that has touched me personally, no matter the genre.

A novel that entertains me in such a way that it suspends my mundane life and takes me elsewhere.

A novel that makes me think about topics I would not normally entertain, and in such a way that I don't feel lectured...

I feel there are lots of things that make a novel, a poem, a script great to one reader or another, and not so great to others. But, if we are only talking about what a scholar proclaims to be great literature, then I feel we are limiting literature to the views of a few and ignoring the impact on the many.

Oppps, if my last paragraph is true, then Twilight is considered great literature and I did not exactly mean that...

thothguard51
04-25-2012, 03:29 AM
As a general rule, I love the classics.

Someone just got in trouble for posting some of Thomas Pynchon's work as their own in SYW. It was supposed to be a test, I think, as to whether or not people could recognise greatness when it was put up as any other piece of work to be critted.

Now, I've only read one Pynchon book, The Crying of Lot 49, and it was a while back so I had to remember why it was such a piece of quality literature. Now I remember why it deserves to mark Pynchon out as a great author. It's postmodernism at its finest - it takes the mystery genre and flips it on its head, by having a protagonist that investigates a conspiracy, yet her conclusions actually become less conclusive the more information she discovers. By the time we reach the end of the book, it feels like we have no idea where we are.

There was more to it of course, it was a while back, but that's how I remember feeling at the end. Very much like "Ah. That's very clever."

So, a great piece of literature, changes how I think. And I can name several that have done just that. And...they all broke the rules in one way or another ;)

Part of the problem with post like you mentioned is that anyone could take one obscure paragraph from any known work and ask what is wrong with this paragraph and you will get many different answers because its a personal observation on that single paragraph.

Even great literature does not always have great paragraphs from start to finish.

We really don't rate a novel by a single paragraph but the whole work, start to finish.

And its never cool to post someone else's work without giving credit, or context for the posting.

Jamesaritchie
04-25-2012, 04:19 AM
I was reading a review of something on Goodreads yesterday (I can't for the life of me remember what it was for, otherwise I'd have posted it), but anyways the basis of the review was basically this:

"All of this supposedly "classic" and "great" literature seems to bore me. I feel like people don't actually enjoy these books, but they say they do because they're supposed to like "the classics"".

I'm not sure I agree with that entirely. I've read some classics that I've loved, but there are certainly some highly regarded works (Bleak House, most of Shakespeare's works, Catcher In The Rye, and so on) that I guess I just didn't get or didn't think were very interesting.

Anyways, I started thinking, what makes a book a "classic" or "great"? What differentiates Hemingway or Dickens (not to discredit those guys, some of the stuff they've written is genius) from the average joe, so to speak? Why do we cherish these works when some of them, at least in my humble opinion, aren't very good?

It stands the test of time, and the classics have. No one likes everything, classics included, but only a fool thinks people read all these classics because they think they have to.

Don't confuse good with whether or not you personally like a book. It's good if people have been liking it for decades, or longer. It may not be your cup of tea, but it's GOOD.

You question Shakespeare? Seriously? There's your first mistake, right there.

Drachen Jager
04-25-2012, 04:38 AM
So if Twilight had this effect on my daughter -- changed the way she thought about something, put ideas in her head long after she finished it, and means different things when she reads it at different points in her life -- it would be great literature by your definition.

I'm not saying that Twilight shouldn't be considered great literature, just looking for confirmation that it would be, by your definition.

Yep.

Because, as with all art, "great" is subjective, not an objective standard.

Though I highly doubt your daughter will read it when she's 50 and find it incredibly enlightening.

thothguard51
04-25-2012, 04:59 AM
What I wonder, is if there are any studies that show if scholars or reviewers from 50 or more years ago who proclaimed this or that novel great, and scholars or reviewers from today disagree. If so, why?

HoneyBadger
04-25-2012, 05:38 AM
Good books change people.

Great books change the world.

(I don't know if I believe that. It just sounded real pithy.)

KellyAssauer
04-25-2012, 05:45 AM
Every post I make is great literature, haven't you been listening at all?

buz
04-25-2012, 05:51 AM
Most books I've seen categorized as classics or great literature or somesuch generally have some historical importance--whether it's the history of literature itself (Ulysses, Don Quixote, Sound and the Fury) or reflecting/capturing/commenting on the ideologies and events and thought-miasma of a particular period (Candide, Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Jungle, Sister Carrie, even *swallows vomit* Catcher in the Rye). So, I'mma say history is probably the biggest factor in determining "great literature", rather than how well-liked or "good" it is (which is super subjective anyhow).

(Speaking of Candide: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IrOXId1y5g wheee--totally off topic)

willietheshakes
04-25-2012, 06:42 AM
Literature ISN'T subjective.

Literature is the canon. The canon changes. There are no fixed criteria.

Helpful, no?

jennontheisland
04-25-2012, 06:43 AM
The stuff they force people to read for college credit.

virtue_summer
04-25-2012, 07:20 AM
Historical importance and influence are both, I think, major factors in determining classic status. It's the role those works have played in history or literary history or the great influence they've had on other works and other writers or their persistence in our culture to the point where they've become iconic (Romeo and Juliet, for example).

Mr. Anonymous
04-25-2012, 07:55 AM
IMO, great literature =/ classics.

Not necessarily, anyway.

I think that:

poor writers write about messages/ideas. - So, The Jungle, while it's considered a classic, isn't great literature to me. I'd also lump Orwell's 1984, and Animal Farm into this category. These sorts of writers can make readers think, but not feel (for their characters), and so they're doing little more than writing (IMO) treatises disguised as fiction.

good writers write about characters. They understand that to tell a story is to relate a character's journey. In so doing, they make readers feel. Yes, I realize plenty of people would castrate me for saying this, but I think Lois Lowry's The Giver is a better work of literature than either Animal Farm or 1984 for this reason. Jonas, unlike Winston, did not feel like he existed simply for the sake of selling us a message/warning. What's more, I genuinely cared about him, whereas with Winston, not really.

great writers write about characters and their journeys, but these journeys find a way to lead (naturally) into the realm of ideas without ever being preachy or pedantic (sometimes explicitly, sometimes more subtly.) These writers make us feel, and this heightening of feeling leads us to raise questions and consider answers we wouldn't have before. Personally I'm not a huge fan of Dostoevsky, as I think he's rather melodramatic (and thus, his characters don't really resonate with me) but I could see a lot of people thinking of him as a paradigmatic example of what I'm talking about. Other examples of this kind of writer might be Steinbeck, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, Salinger... I'd stick Bradbury (F 451) in here too.

As for classics, classics are novels that for whatever reason we continue to remember/read to this day. It may be, as in the case of The Jungle, that they were historically significant. It may be that their message is relevant to this day/was particularly prescient (ie, Brave New world, Animal Farm, 1984.) It may be because the work was brilliant back when it was published and is still brilliant (Voltaire's Candide is a good example of a book that holds up amazingly well even after centuries...) It may be because the author did something really new, that hadn't really been done before, and did it well. This may be style related (Hemmingway), or it may be content related (the status of many of H.G. Wells' novels as classics is a good example of this, I think. Also shelley's Frankenstein.) It may be some combination of the above.

Just my 2 cents.

jjdebenedictis
04-25-2012, 07:59 AM
I think great art--as defined by the person experiencing it (and this is true of all forms of art, not just literature)--is art which provokes a powerful emotional response.

As long as it's not disgust over having bought such a cruddy book.

dangerousbill
04-25-2012, 08:59 AM
"All of this supposedly "classic" and "great" literature seems to bore me. I feel like people don't actually enjoy these books, but they say they do because they're supposed to like "the classics"".


Classic literature is defined as sufficiently boring for public school classroom use.

RichardGarfinkle
04-25-2012, 10:58 AM
IMO, great literature =/ classics.

Not necessarily, anyway.

I think that:

poor writers write about messages/ideas. - So, The Jungle, while it's considered a classic, isn't great literature to me. I'd also lump Orwell's 1984, and Animal Farm into this category. These sorts of writers can make readers think, but not feel (for their characters), and so they're doing little more than writing (IMO) treatises disguised as fiction.


I'm sorry. Did I understand this correctly. The ability to make someone think Is the sign of a poor writer?

Pardon me. I'll just be over here working as hard as I can to write one single poor novel.

Medievalist
04-25-2012, 11:37 AM
Classic literature is defined as sufficiently boring for public school classroom use.

oreally?

Sez you.

Go read Tristram Shandy. Or The Adventures of Tom Jones. Or Shamela.

Fallen
04-25-2012, 01:58 PM
I was reading a review of something on Goodreads yesterday (I can't for the life of me remember what it was for, otherwise I'd have posted it), but anyways the basis of the review was basically this:

"All of this supposedly "classic" and "great" literature seems to bore me. I feel like people don't actually enjoy these books, but they say they do because they're supposed to like "the classics"".

I'm not sure I agree with that entirely. I've read some classics that I've loved, but there are certainly some highly regarded works (Bleak House, most of Shakespeare's works, Catcher In The Rye, and so on) that I guess I just didn't get or didn't think were very interesting.

Anyways, I started thinking, what makes a book a "classic" or "great"? What differentiates Hemingway or Dickens (not to discredit those guys, some of the stuff they've written is genius) from the average joe, so to speak? Why do we cherish these works when some of them, at least in my humble opinion, aren't very good?

Hmm, I don't know, an example, maybe?


I lost my own father at 12yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history was for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in hell.

(Carey, P, True Hostory of the Kelly Gang)

I find this one 'great' because of the voice. It's distinctive because it doesn't follow today's conventions, so the language of the literary text appeals. But on a sociocultural level, the whole story format reflects nineteenth-century style (summary notes) which gives it real historical flavour. (This one won the Booker Prize in 2001) Would some find this annoying? Probably.

With others, I guess I judge it on whether characters just slot into the novel to forward the plot (James bond v the bad guy types) or whether the connection between pro and antagonist is more complex, getting you to think, taking in not only the words, but the time the novel was written to see what social constraints there was on the writing, or if it turns the norm upside down (e.g., War of The Worlds).

Subjective... yeah, I agree with that.

Shakespeare... sometimes my own limitations come into play. I know Shakespeare employs rhyme, rhythm, alliteratrion etc., but I personally can't get my head around the semantics. He fits into the 'greats' for me because I love his creativeness with paradigms to create metaphors (we burn daylight) and the his widening of the English Lexicon, but it has nothing to do with his full works.

PPartisan
04-25-2012, 02:22 PM
I'm sorry. Did I understand this correctly. The ability to make someone think Is the sign of a poor writer?

Pardon me. I'll just be over here working as hard as I can to write one single poor novel.

I know right :crazy:

Want to know what makes a good plot? Watch some Shakespeare.
Want to know how to write said good plot? Read some Chekhov.

As far as I'm concerned there's no disconnect between a book that changes the way I think and a novel that I enjoy. I think it's impossible to write a book that solely entertains without having some deeper thread of meaning, whether conscious or not.

I'd compare it to a morphine injection vs. running across the Andes (or whatever). One gives a feel-good vibe that quickly fades while the other is more of a challenge but reaps long term rewards. It's also a journey of discovery, not just in regard to the book's characters and their little adventures, but in regards to your own life too. If a book changes the way you operate once you put it down, it's on the "great piece of literature" shortlist.

quicklime
04-25-2012, 04:54 PM
I have trouble with shakeaspeare, because the Elizabethan is distracting as hell. Then again, that means I don't care for it, not that I question others ability to enjoy it.

I've read other classics where the writing made it more of a slog than reading a paperback now but I enjoyed them anyway (Something Wicked This Way Comes, Rebecca, Frankenstein).

I've also read more modern classics, like Grapes of Wrath, which don't have the language issue. (Yes, I'm aware "Something Wicked" was much more modern, but the prose was dense and plotting very different for me than a more modern take on horror...though, as I said, the story and, in part, the language itself, overcame my disconfort with the language)


considering all that is out there, if you haven't found any classic stuff you can enjoy I'm inclined to think you ought to read a bit farther--Hemingway certainly didn't write the same as Faulkner as Harper Lee as Shakeaspeare as Du Maurier.....

all that said, what do YOU look for, or where do "the classics" universally fail you, beyond the completely meaningless "they're boring..."?

quicklime
04-25-2012, 04:56 PM
IMO, great literature =/ classics.

Not necessarily, anyway.

I think that:

poor writers write about messages/ideas. - So, The Jungle, while it's considered a classic, isn't great literature to me. I'd also lump Orwell's 1984, and Animal Farm into this category. These sorts of writers can make readers think, but not feel (for their characters), and so they're doing little more than writing (IMO) treatises disguised as fiction.

.


i know...I read "Lord of the Flies," pondered the nature of man, and then thought "wow....making me think? What a waste."

Luckily, I was able to get the taste out of my brain fairly quickly by reading some sappy-assed Nicholas Sparks, so I could feel.

RichardGarfinkle
04-25-2012, 05:41 PM
i know...I read "Lord of the Flies," pondered the nature of man, and then thought "wow....making me think? What a waste."

Luckily, I was able to get the taste out of my brain fairly quickly by reading some sappy-assed Nicholas Sparks, so I could feel.

To be fair to Lord of the Flies, it's apparently a response to another book called The Coral Island.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Coral_Island

The idea in Lord of the flies was to break down the idea that British Public School Boys were the epitome of civilization and would behave like perfect gentlemen under all circumstances.

It's less a standalone novel as it is a part of an ongoing dialogue on the nature of civilization, breeding, and ontological goodness.

So, I respect it for its place in history and its work in breaking down a classist illusion, but I don't want to read it either, and I don't really have to because I'm not its target audience.

quicklime
04-25-2012, 05:44 PM
you don't have to read LotF, you could as easily sub in 1984, Animal Farm, etc. above.....the point was more the absurdity of saying literature that made you think was inferior to literature which made you feel.

that said, LotF is not a book solely for kids, or about kids.

RichardGarfinkle
04-25-2012, 06:19 PM
you don't have to read LotF, you could as easily sub in 1984, Animal Farm, etc. above.....the point was more the absurdity of saying literature that made you think was inferior to literature which made you feel.

that said, LotF is not a book solely for kids, or about kids.

Sorry, I'm confused as to where you are on the issue of literature to make you think.

And no LOTF is not just for or about kids, but it did arise in reaction to an earlier depiction that was centered around a particular conception of human perfection focused on British Public School Boys.

quicklime
04-25-2012, 06:24 PM
Sorry, I'm confused as to where you are on the issue of literature to make you think.

And no LOTF is not just for or about kids, but it did arise in reaction to an earlier depiction that was centered around a particular conception of human perfection focused on British Public School Boys.


I find the idea someone posted earlier that literature which makes you think is inferior to literature that makes you feel to be silly.

that clear it up? (I'm dragging serious ass this AM, and beginning to doubt my own clarity)


I used LotF as a single example because it is a book "about the human condition" that I'd consider a thinking book. Conversely, Sparks' books are "feeling books"......granted, there's better books which also make you feel, but I was pointing out the issue I had with the notion "feeling" was a criteria for greatness.

RichardGarfinkle
04-25-2012, 07:10 PM
I find the idea someone posted earlier that literature which makes you think is inferior to literature that makes you feel to be silly.

that clear it up? (I'm dragging serious ass this AM, and beginning to doubt my own clarity)


I used LotF as a single example because it is a book "about the human condition" that I'd consider a thinking book. Conversely, Sparks' books are "feeling books"......granted, there's better books which also make you feel, but I was pointing out the issue I had with the notion "feeling" was a criteria for greatness.

Okay, that's a relief. It's probably not you being unclear; I'm having a hard time spotting sarcasm this morning.

Anyway, I agree with you in case my earlier posts were unclear.

Mr. Anonymous
04-25-2012, 07:26 PM
quicklime and Richard Garfinkle,

I'm specifically talking about fiction, here.

A writer who makes the reader think but not feel fails as a writer of stories/characters. Thus, he is not a good writer of fiction, in my opinion.

However, if you read on, I say that the great writers are those who make us feel first, and in this outpouring of feeling, also cause us to think. (Lord of the Flies certainly falls into this category.)

I'm not saying simply that fiction which makes you think is inferior to fiction which makes you feel.

I AM saying that, in my opinion, fiction that only makes you think is inferior to fiction which makes you feel, and fiction that only makes you feel is inferior to fiction that makes you do both.

Because fiction is first and foremost about characters. About people, and their journeys. If your priority is selling me a message (I read part of a christian fiction novel called Sins of the Father which certainly felt this way to me) or introducing me to a bunch of ideas (Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End) then your priorities are completely out of whack.

PPartisan
04-25-2012, 07:42 PM
I'd like to add that these "great literature is completely subjective" arguments don't sit with me either. No-one cared for van Gogh while he was alive - does that mean that his paintings weren't great before people said they were?

Or, as we're talking about Literature, is Stephenie Meyer a greater author than James Joyce, because her sales are beating his at the moment? What if tomorrow people stop buying Twilight books. Does that mean her work wasn't great literature, but then it was, but then it wasn't again?

It's a little bit "if a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound." As far as I'm concerned it's impossible to say that great art is defined subjectively. There is (must be) an objective standard at work.

Torgo
04-25-2012, 07:48 PM
There is (must be) an objective standard at work.

A priori, no such thing could possibly exist.

Mr. Anonymous
04-25-2012, 07:49 PM
PPartisan has a good point.

Saying that great literature is completely subjective is really an untenable position, especially for a writer.

After all, do we not work to become better writers?

If it's all subjective, then all that we're doing when we try to become better writers is become more appealing to the subjective tastes of the readers.

Now, let me tell you, I've compared some of my early writing to some of my current writing, and it's not just that what I'm writing now appeals to people more. It's just outright better (according to certain standards which we can inter-subjectively agree upon.) It reads more smoothly. The characterization is much stronger. etc etc.

Becoming a better writer/artist may go along with becoming more appealing to peoples' subjective tastes. But the two should not be conflated, and certainly we can imagine an instance in which they don't go together (ie, PPartisan's Van Gogh example.)

RichardGarfinkle
04-25-2012, 07:49 PM
quicklime and Richard Garfinkle,

I'm specifically talking about fiction, here.

A writer who makes the reader think but not feel fails as a writer of stories/characters. Thus, he is not a good writer of fiction, in my opinion.

However, if you read on, I say that the great writers are those who make us feel first, and in this outpouring of feeling, also cause us to think. (Lord of the Flies certainly falls into this category.)

I'm not saying simply that fiction which makes you think is inferior to fiction which makes you feel.

I AM saying that, in my opinion, fiction that only makes you think is inferior to fiction which makes you feel, and fiction that only makes you feel is inferior to fiction that makes you do both.

Because fiction is first and foremost about characters. About people, and their journeys. If your priority is selling me a message (I read part of a christian fiction novel called Sins of the Father which certainly felt this way to me) or introducing me to a bunch of ideas (Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End) then your priorities are completely out of whack.

I accept that both feeling and thinking make for better fiction. But your examples The Jungle and 1984 both hit people hard in the stomach (particularly The Jungle). They are both visceral novels that use the feelings to carry the ideas.

You seem to be saying that the only valid vehicle for feelings is characters. I see it more broadly. Everything in a book has character. The environment is a character, places are characters, corporations can be characters (but not people), nations can be characters and so on.

Human characters are simply the easiest characters to identify with. That's why one of the easiest tools for writers is anthropomorphizing. Storms that brood, sunrises that smile and so on.

But one can expand beyond that basic opening and create characters of anything.

Torgo
04-25-2012, 08:04 PM
PPartisan has a good point.

Saying that great literature is completely subjective is really an untenable position, especially for a writer.

Nope, sorry, quite the opposite. Literature can't be interpreted by measuring instruments. There's no judgement about it that can be made by anything other than a person, and so by definition all such judgement is subjective.

There might be consensus - lots of people having the same subjective opinion - but that isn't the same as having objective standards. They'll change over time.

Amadan
04-25-2012, 08:11 PM
quicklime and Richard Garfinkle,

I'm specifically talking about fiction, here.

A writer who makes the reader think but not feel fails as a writer of stories/characters. Thus, he is not a good writer of fiction, in my opinion.

That's your opinion. I'm a "story" person myself, but not everyone is. Dostoevsky completely fails to make me like or care about his characters or feel much of anything about the plot, but he definitely makes me think; by your definition, for me Dostoevsky is not a good writer. I would definitely not say that.


Anyone who defines greatness in terms of their own personal reactions is missing the point and needs to cultivate a more detached appreciation for literature. I've read many classics whose prose I did not like (Frankenstein, anything by Thomas Hardy) or whose stories and/or characters bored me/made me grind my teeth (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Age of Innocence, A Separate Peace, Madame Bovary) but I can still see what makes them timeless, even if they aren't ever going to be on my own personal list of favorites and may in fact be books I never want to read again.

Likewise, I read a lot of modern fiction that I can see is brilliant writing by a genius but which I don't like. Philip Roth, J.M. Coetzee, Jane Smiley... good for you, collect your literary accolades, I can see why you deserve them. Meanwhile, I'm going to enjoy a nice Ian Fleming novel. Which I would never call great literature.

Al Stevens
04-25-2012, 08:19 PM
If your priority is selling me a message (I read part of a christian fiction novel called Sins of the Father which certainly felt this way to me) or introducing me to a bunch of ideas (Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End) then your priorities are completely out of whack.Out of whack with what you are buying, that is. Others feel differently and buy what those authors are selling.


There might be consensus - lots of people having the same subjective opinion - but that isn't the same as having objective standards. They'll change over time.

This.

Mr. Anonymous
04-25-2012, 08:20 PM
Torgo, you're making a couple different arguments so I'll address them one at a time. I'm thinking as I go so tell me if you buy this.

There's no judgement about it that can be made by anything other than a person, and so by definition all such judgement is subjective.

This isn't really what you want to say, I think. Otherwise I could point out that there's no scientific judgment that can be made by anything other than a person, and so by definition all such scientific judgement is subjective.


Literature can't be interpreted by measuring instruments.

On the contrary, we can measure it! Our faculties of intuition are our instruments. Sure we don't have actual physical tools that can measure the greatness of literature. We can't put a book on a scale and get a 1-100 rating. But that doesn't mean we can't be the instruments. This is not to say, however, that it's all subjective. If we can inter-subjectively agree on certain standards (characterization, for example) then we can begin to judge novels in a way that is not simply arbitrary or wholly subjective. And it is an objective fact as to whether a book elicits a type of response from us and from beings like us (a response which either meets the agreed upon criteria or doesn't meet it.) If some people think that a character is poorly characterized then either they seem to be different in some important way (psychological, biological, etc) or, perhaps more likely, they mean something different by "good characterization" than you do. So you have to go back and find a common conception of "good characterization."

Torgo
04-25-2012, 08:36 PM
Torgo, you're making a couple different arguments so I'll address them one at a time. I'm thinking as I go so tell me if you buy this.

There's no judgement about it that can be made by anything other than a person, and so by definition all such judgement is subjective.

This isn't really what you want to say, I think. Otherwise I could point out that there's no scientific judgment that can be made by anything other than a person, and so by definition all such scientific judgement is subjective.

Literature can't be interpreted by measuring instruments.

On the contrary, we can measure it! Our faculties of intuition are our instruments. Sure we don't have actual physical tools that can measure the greatness of literature. We can't put a book on a scale and get a 1-100 rating. But that doesn't mean we can't be the instruments. This is not to say, however, that it's all subjective. If we can inter-subjectively agree on certain standards (characterization, for example) then we can begin to judge novels in a way that is not simply arbitrary or wholly subjective. And it is an objective fact as to whether a book elicits a type of response from us and from beings like us (a response which either meets the agreed upon criteria or doesn't meet it.) If some people think that a character is poorly characterized then either they seem to be different in some important way (psychological, biological, etc) or, perhaps more likely, they mean something different by "good characterization" than you do. So you have to go back and find a common conception of "good characterization."

You make good points, Mister, but as a philosophical realist I believe in objective reality - that there exist mind-independent qualities which are the sorts of things that science can study and measure, even if strictly speaking all those measurements are inter-subjective in some way. Whereas qualities of literature can never be mind-independent, and thus their subjectivity is one level deeper.

You will never be able to set up any kind of objective test for good characterization, I think, in the way that one could test for alpha particles or the presence of salmonella. There exists another problem in that our measuring tools for physical properties are easily inspected, compared and shared, but we can't compare and contrast our intuitive faculties in any really empirical way, so how do we define standards?

Mr. Anonymous
04-25-2012, 08:38 PM
Amadan,

That's your opinion. I'm a "story" person myself, but not everyone is. Dostoevsky completely fails to make me like or care about his characters or feel much of anything about the plot, but he definitely makes me think; by your definition, for me Dostoevsky is not a good writer. I would definitely not say that.


If you don't agree that literature is storytelling first and foremost, then obviously we're at an impasse. All I can do to try to sway you to my side is ask you what all literature has in common (it tells a story about a character/characters.)

The different gradations I set up are ideals of course. If (and this is coming from someone who's not a big fan of dostoevsky either) NOTHING, absolutely NOTHING in Dostoevsky makes you both feel and think, then, IMO, you're just not getting Dostoevsky. Even someone who's not in love will still probably see flashes of greatness in many works that are commonly held to be great. If they don't see it, then perhaps the problem is not with the work itself, but with their perception/interpretation of it (and I'm completely open to the idea that we can all be myopic about certain works. I'm not trying to get on a elitist horse here or anything. In fact, maybe it is inevitable that we are myopic about certain works.)

Anyone who defines greatness in terms of their own personal reactions is missing the point and needs to cultivate a more detached appreciation for literature. I've read many classics whose prose I did not like (Frankenstein, anything by Thomas Hardy) or whose stories and/or characters bored me/made me grind my teeth (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Age of Innocence, A Separate Peace, Madame Bovary) but I can still see what makes them timeless, even if they aren't ever going to be on my own personal list of favorites and may in fact be books I never want to read again.

If you can see what makes them timeless, then IMO, they are making you feel and think, even if only a little. Characters we don't like/that bore us can still (on occasion) make us feel and think. The same with stories written in old fashioned prose. If you disagree, and feel there's something more you're getting at when you speak of timelessness, then I'd ask you to elaborate. What makes something timeless?

Al

Out of whack with what you are buying, that is. Others feel differently and buy what those authors are selling.

Sure, other people feel differently. But in my opinion, they're not buying those writers because those writers are telling stories. They're buying those writers because those writers are telling stories they want to hear (with messages they want to hear.) Which is fine. All I'm saying is that there's a difference between a storyteller and a message/idea-seller.

Amadan
04-25-2012, 08:45 PM
If you don't agree that literature is storytelling first and foremost, then obviously we're at an impasse. All I can do to try to sway you to my side is ask you what all literature has in common (it tells a story about a character/characters.)

That's the definition of fiction. That doesn't make the "quality" of the story a universal definition of good fiction. What about people who love prose stylings and what someone like Cormac McCarthy or Anthony Powell can do with language more than they care about plot? Are they just plain wrong?



The different gradations I set up are ideals of course. If (and this is coming from someone who's not a big fan of dostoevsky either) NOTHING, absolutely NOTHING in Dostoevsky makes you both feel and think, then, IMO, you're just not getting Dostoevsky.

Okay, "feels nothing" is an exaggeration, obviously I had some level of reaction, I wasn't in a fugue state while reading The Brothers Karamazov. But I never really cared who killed Fyodor Karamazov or what would happen to his sons, and I would submit that Dostoevsky didn't intend that to be what the reader cared about most.

(Also, I am sure there are plenty of readers of Dostoevsky who find his books to be moving, transformational experiences. I'm just not one of them.)

Mr. Anonymous
04-25-2012, 08:52 PM
Richard, you make a good argument.

I'll cede you that everything can have a character in a work of fiction.

But I think only living, breathing characters can make us feel. Take 1984. Why is the world of 1984 so terrifying? Is it terrifying in and of itself, or is it terrifying because I know people like me are living in it (I'm inclined to say the latter)? So the next question is who are these people? What do they look like, what do they think, how do they live?

Furthermore, I think that inanimate characters like corporations, nations, etc are only characters in so far as their relation to individual living beings. A cup of hot water can take on a character of it's own in a story, but only by it's relation to a living character (ie, the protagonist.) Or if we anthropomorphize it.

So back to 1984.

*spotlight on Winston*

Now, I'm not saying that Winston is horribly written, per se, so much as that he's a tool of the message. He does precisely what Orwell wants him to do. He has no free will.

Yes, in reality, we still feel something for him (as I said in my response to someone else, the gradations I set up are kind of ideals, especially the "poor writer" gradation, in reality most writers who make you think will also make you feel at least a little). But we would feel so much more for him, I think, if he were not simply a servant of Orwell's warning/message.

So maybe I should qualify what I said earlier by saying something like,

In my opinion,

a writer who aspires to be good puts the character first...

a writer who aspires to be great puts the character first but via the character's journey hopes to lead into the realm of ideas...

a writer who aspires to be sell a message is, in my opinion, wearing the mask of a storyteller for the purpose of what he sees as a greater end (selling a message.)

Mr. Anonymous
04-25-2012, 09:06 PM
That's the definition of fiction. That doesn't make the "quality" of the story a universal definition of good fiction. What about people who love prose stylings and what someone like Cormac McCarthy or Anthony Powell can do with language more than they care about plot? Are they just plain wrong?




Okay, "feels nothing" is an exaggeration, obviously I had some level of reaction, I wasn't in a fugue state while reading The Brothers Karamazov. But I never really cared who killed Fyodor Karamazov or what would happen to his sons, and I would submit that Dostoevsky didn't intend that to be what the reader cared about most.

(Also, I am sure there are plenty of readers of Dostoevsky who find his books to be moving, transformational experiences. I'm just not one of them.)

Amadan, I've read The Road and I find the story/his characterization of the characters quite beautiful. If all there was, however, was beautiful writing, with no well drawn characters/story, then yes, I think that would not be good fiction.

As for your reaction to Dostoevsky, well, that is precisely my point. He DID make you think and feel (not consistently, perhaps, but still), and for that reason, you have some understanding of why others consider him great. After all, what else do you have to point to if you wanted to justify his status as a great writer?

PPartisan
04-25-2012, 09:17 PM
Nope, sorry, quite the opposite. Literature can't be interpreted by measuring instruments. There's no judgement about it that can be made by anything other than a person, and so by definition all such judgement is subjective.

There might be consensus - lots of people having the same subjective opinion - but that isn't the same as having objective standards. They'll change over time.

My immediate answer to this would be to ask you to define objective and subjective so I know what we're talking about, but I'd rather you don't, else we'll go off on a tangeant that will keep us here all day :D

Instead I'll say - if great literature is defined solely by the consensus, then aren't we doing our children a disservice by teaching them the "classics" in school? Shouldn't we instead give them whatever's at the top of the bestseller list and say "this is the greatest example of literature we have, to date"?

You didn't actually answer the points I made in my post either. Is it the case that a piece of literature can go from being rubbish to great just through its mass appeal, as van Gogh's paintings would have done. Doesn't it seem quite ridiculous to you that something can be great one minute and then not the next just because people have said so, even though the object itself hasn't changed at all.

In addition, doesn't your analysis render every Humanities subject a waste of time, because how can anyone hope to teach something that operates without rules?

RichardGarfinkle
04-25-2012, 09:27 PM
Richard, you make a good argument.

I'll cede you that everything can have a character in a work of fiction.

But I think only living, breathing characters can make us feel. Take 1984. Why is the world of 1984 so terrifying? Is it terrifying in and of itself, or is it terrifying because I know people like me are living in it (I'm inclined to say the latter)? So the next question is who are these people? What do they look like, what do they think, how do they live?

Furthermore, I think that inanimate characters like corporations, nations, etc are only characters in so far as their relation to individual living beings. A cup of hot water can take on a character of it's own in a story, but only by it's relation to a living character (ie, the protagonist.) Or if we anthropomorphize it.

So back to 1984.

*spotlight on Winston*

Now, I'm not saying that Winston is horribly written, per se, so much as that he's a tool of the message. He does precisely what Orwell wants him to do. He has no free will.

Yes, in reality, we still feel something for him (as I said in my response to someone else, the gradations I set up are kind of ideals, especially the "poor writer" gradation, in reality most writers who make you think will also make you feel at least a little). But we would feel so much more for him, I think, if he were not simply a servant of Orwell's warning/message.

So maybe I should qualify what I said earlier by saying something like,

In my opinion,

a writer who aspires to be good puts the character first...

a writer who aspires to be great puts the character first but via the character's journey hopes to lead into the realm of ideas...

a writer who aspires to be sell a message is, in my opinion, wearing the mask of a storyteller for the purpose of what he sees as a greater end (selling a message.)

There's a tension in writing the character of Winston because I personally think he's meant to be a foil for the main character of 1984, which is The State. From this perspective Winston is meant to be the equivalent of Watson to Holmes, the normal lens through which the alien strangeness is seen.

It's a hard trick to make a character like that fully realized because the character loses some of its necessary transparency. I'm not saying it can't be done, but I can see why Orwell would try not to do it.

Your last sentence intrigues me, because I don't see art that serves a purpose as somehow false (which the phrase mask of a storyteller implies).

It seems to be saying that entertainment by characters has a purity which meaning somehow corrupts. I'm torn between trying to argue the point and simply acknowledging an unbridgable difference of opinion.

Torgo
04-25-2012, 09:30 PM
My immediate answer to this would be to ask you to define objective and subjective so I know what we're talking about, but I'd rather you don't, else we'll go off on a tangeant that will keep us here all day :D

Instead I'll say - if great literature is defined solely by the consensus, then aren't we doing our children a disservice by teaching them the "classics" in school? Shouldn't we instead give them whatever's at the top of the bestseller list and say "this is the greatest example of literature we have, to date"?

You didn't actually answer the points I made in my post either. Is it the case that a piece of literature can go from being rubbish to great just through its mass appeal, as van Gogh's paintings would have done. Doesn't it seem quite ridiculous to you that something can be great one minute and then not the next just because people have said so, even though the object itself hasn't changed at all.

In addition, doesn't your analysis render every Humanities subject a waste of time, because how can anyone hope to teach something that operates without rules?

I'll get back to you on this later (I am on a bus) but I would say, to that last point, that only follows if you think the only things worth studying are those things that are subject to measurement; I would argue that depends on what you're trying to achieve.

thebloodfiend
04-25-2012, 09:32 PM
But don't all books have messages, Mr. Anon? Using your Steinbeck example -- I felt very little emotion when I read The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. When I read Grapes, I kept waiting for Steinbeck to get over the hard on he had for the poor Okies and stop hate fucking the government. It was painful for me to finish because I couldn't feel anything for the characters. If anything, that feels more like a treatise than anything you've mentioned. According to your definition, all dystopian fiction by definition is "lesser" than all else because it relies on message first.

Yet, everytime I read Animal Farm or The Jungle (can't use 1984 because it's been years since I've read it) I find myself moved in ways Steinbeck's books fail for me. I get the idea behind the books, and I enjoyed the Malkovitch movie, but I don't enjoy reading it. I love the idea behind wuthering heights, the character motivation, and the way it makes me think, but I never want to read that book again. Tbh, it bored me. But so did Twilight. Yet, there's a lot about twilight that makes you think as well. And yes, I think the prose is pretty bad, but I also think McCarthy'd prose is pretty bad and I can't understand the hype behind him when other writers do what he does without spechul conventions.

Unless my emotional response is somehow inferior to yours, quality lit is rather subjective.

But I'm not sure what your point is. In the end, characters are just tools for the story. Steinbecks characters have no more free will than Orwells. Heathcliff and Cathy have no more free will than Jurgis. They exist to further the plot. Using your definition, the only great lit is lit that moves you because of how you perceive the story, making it subjective.

That's not to say that you can't aspire to become a better writer, or that some aren't better than others, but its impossible to just say /this/ books is better than that book, even with a strict set of criteria.

Amadan
04-25-2012, 10:00 PM
Amadan, I've read The Road and I find the story/his characterization of the characters quite beautiful.

Whereas I thought they were flat, annoying, and non-credible, little more than cartoons.

I can appreciate the artistry of his prosesmithing, even if it doesn't always appeal to me; thebloodfiend thinks it's just plain bad writing.

You still haven't explained why the story and characters are the one true measure of literary greatness.

Mr. Anonymous
04-25-2012, 10:19 PM
Amadan, certainly I have. Because I think to be a good storyteller, you need to tell a good story. And to tell a good story, you need to focus on character (as a character is what drives the story.)

Bloodfiend, on some level, we might say that yes, all novels are shaped by the author's worldview. But that is not the same as having an explicit message. I got no "message" out of Steinbeck. Certainly not a "hate the government" message. Rather, he depicted a time of great suffering. A lot of people didn't come out looking so hot, Okies included. As for Dystopian fiction. Never Let Me Go is my example of dystopian fiction (in my opinion) of the highest order. Dystopian fiction in which the characters exist as ends in themselves, not as servants of a message.

Unless my emotional response is somehow inferior to yours, quality lit is rather subjective.

Or we are simply attuned to different things. Mine is inferior to yours in some ways, and yours to mine is some ways.

"In the end, characters are just tools for the story."

Absolutely not. Story arises out of the character. Story is a character's journey. The character cannot be a tool of his own journey. That would assume that his destination, the stops along the way are already predetermined. That would assume he has no free will (which, incidentally, is my very objection to writers like Orwell.)

Using your definition, the only great lit is lit that moves you because of how you perceive the story, making it subjective.

We can, however, pick apart what it is that moves us, and establish, inter-subjectively, certain criteria. Say, characterization. Once we've established certain criteria, this allows us to talk of the goodness/greatness of literature in a manner that is not simply arbitrary and subjective (see my response to Torgo for a more detailed explanation. In fact, I'll just quote it for you below.) This should come as no surprise, considering that it happens every day in comp classrooms and right here on the SYW boards. If it's all truly truly subjective then there'd be no point in discussion. The fact that we discuss means that we feel we have common ground. Otherwise, what would be the point, if literary tastes were really just as subjective as tastes in food (when was the last time you had a good long discussion with someone about why they didn't like carrots)?

My response to Torgo:

He said: Literature can't be interpreted by measuring instruments.

I said: On the contrary, we can measure it! Our faculties of intuition are our instruments. Sure we don't have actual physical tools that can measure the greatness of literature. We can't put a book on a scale and get a 1-100 rating. But that doesn't mean we can't be the instruments. This is not to say, however, that it's all subjective. If we can inter-subjectively agree on certain standards (characterization, for example) then we can begin to judge novels in a way that is not simply arbitrary or wholly subjective. And it is an objective fact as to whether a book elicits a type of response from us and from beings like us (a response which either meets the agreed upon criteria or doesn't meet it.) If some people think that a character is poorly characterized then either they seem to be different in some important way (psychological, biological, etc) or, perhaps more likely, they mean something different by "good characterization" than you do. So you have to go back and find a common conception of "good characterization." Otherwise you're just talking about apples and oranges, if you'll pardon the cliche.

Richard, i'll respond to you in a bit.

EDIT: I should apologize though, for the way I worded my first post. Granted, I really do think Orwell isn't a very good writer of fiction, largely for the reason I gave, but phrasing myself the way I did was troll-ish.

thebloodfiend
04-25-2012, 11:03 PM
Bloodfiend, on some level, we might say that yes, all novels are shaped by the author's worldview. But that is not the same as having an explicit message. I got no "message" out of Steinbeck.

And I did. Your opinion is no more valid than mine.

Certainly not a "hate the government" message. Rather, he depicted a time of great suffering. A lot of people didn't come out looking so hot, Okies included.

And I yawned throughout the book. I got what Steinbeck was going for, but I wasn't moved. You got what Sinclair was going for, but you weren't moved. As far as books go, they're very similar. People suffer due to forces greater than themselves. People are forced to question their morality. Family vs success. Etc. I prefer The Jungle because I couldn't bring myself to care for the characters in Grapes. I felt like Steinbeck put the message above developing Okies. You feel differently.

As for Dystopian fiction. Never Let Me Go is my example of dystopian fiction (in my opinion) of the highest order. Dystopian fiction in which the characters exist as ends in themselves, not as servants of a message.

If you think NLMG is dystopic fiction of the greatest order, we'll never agree on anything. Out of all the sci-fi I've read/watched, for me, it was a poor attempt at saying things others said much better with more engaging characters.

Unless my emotional response is somehow inferior to yours, quality lit is rather subjective.

Or we are simply attuned to different things. Mine is inferior to yours in some ways, and yours to mine is some ways.

No. What you perceive as inferior, is something I might value and view as superior, and vice-versa.

"In the end, characters are just tools for the story."

Absolutely not. Story arises out of the character. Story is a character's journey. The character cannot be a tool of his own journey. That would assume that his destination, the stops along the way are already predetermined. That would assume he has no free will (which, incidentally, is my very objection to writers like Orwell.)

And I still disagree. When I write, characters arise from stories, and sometimes, stories arise from characters. Situations create different characters, and characters create different situations. But for me, characters are still tools to further their stories. The story isn't a tool to further the character. When I write, destinations are already predetermined. You're treating characters like they're real people. They aren't. In the end, you control their destiny. They don't control you. They have no free will.

Using your definition, the only great lit is lit that moves you because of how you perceive the story, making it subjective.

We can, however, pick apart what it is that moves us, and establish, inter-subjectively, certain criteria. Say, characterization. Once we've established certain criteria, this allows us to talk of the goodness/greatness of literature in a manner that is not simply arbitrary and subjective (see my response to Torgo for a more detailed explanation.) This should come as no surprise, considering that it happens every day in comp classrooms and right here on the SYW boards. If it's all truly truly subjective then there'd be no point in discussion. The fact that we discuss means that we feel we have common ground. Otherwise, what would be the point, if literary tastes were really just as subjective as tastes in food (when was the last time you had a good long discussion with someone about why they didn't like carrots)? It was chocolate and coffee actually, but it was quite a good convo.

Objectivity requires no discussion. If we were to come across some kind of lit checklist for greatness, we'd have to agree what makes a good character. Three-dimensional characters are best, IMO. So, what makes a three dimensional character? Positive and negative traits. And that's where the discussion spirals off. I mean, from a previous thread, we can't even agree on the morality of abortion, so how could we agree on a set of criteria that dictates what makes a good or bad character, let alone a good or bad book? Hell, how could we even agree on what's a good or bad trait?

...

Amadan
04-25-2012, 11:06 PM
Amadan, certainly I have. Because I think to be a good storyteller, you need to tell a good story. And to tell a good story, you need to focus on character (as a character is what drives the story.)


That does not explain why storytelling is the one true measure of literary greatness, only that you think it is.

Romantic Heretic
04-25-2012, 11:12 PM
Grump. Somehow my post disappeared into the ether.

Anyway, in my opinion it depends on whether you're talking about good stories or Great Literature™.

Good stories enthral the readers or the audience. They speak to the heart and the soul. They stir universal emotions and change people's perceptions of the world.

Also, they stand the test of time. In fifty years no one will be reading Twilight save, maybe, historians of literature. They will be reading Chronicles of Narnia.

One thing I will note is that great writers never set out to become great writers. Shakespeare is a good example. All he wanted was asses in seats. He did this by writing good stories that have kept readers and audiences paying attention for centuries.

Great Literature™ is experts showing off their expertise to other experts. Whether the story is good or even vaguely accessible to the public is of no concern. None of their work will stand the test of time because no one outside that exclusive circle cares, or is even aware of Great Literature™. Most would quickly try to be unaware if they were exposed to it.

My $0.02

Mr. Anonymous
04-25-2012, 11:19 PM
Bloodfiend, I'll respond to you in a bit.


That does not explain why storytelling is the one true measure of literary greatness, only that you think it is.

Fiction = storytelling.

Your sentence here reads to me as if you're saying, "That does not explain why storytelling is the one true measure of storytelling greatness, only that you think it is."

If we disagree on Fiction = storytelling then we're talking about two different "fiction"s, and if we're talking about two different "fiction"s then essentially we're talking past each other.

Amadan
04-25-2012, 11:38 PM
Fiction = storytelling.

Your sentence here reads to me as if you're saying, "That does not explain why storytelling is the one true measure of storytelling greatness, only that you think it is."

If we disagree on Fiction = storytelling then we're talking about two different "fiction"s, and if we're talking about two different "fiction"s then essentially we're talking past each other.


We're not debating whether fiction is storytelling. We're debating whether great literature is defined by its storytelling.

Fiction has other qualities besides story.

It's like saying "Great cuisine is defined by its nutritional value." All food has nutritional value, which is an important quality and some people might consider it the most important one. But most people weigh other qualities (like taste, texture, aesthetic appearance, mouth feel, etc.) in judging what makes food great.

Or to put it another way: in my opinion, J.K. Rowling is a marvelous storyteller. But she's not a great writer in other ways. Harry Potter isn't great literature just because it's a great story. Anthony Powell, on the other hand, is an absolutely genius writer. His characterization and his prose is immaculate. But there's barely any plot in his entire Dance to the Music of Time magnum opus. (Okay, this isn't literally true, but the story is about the last thing you read it for.)

Using your criteria, Harry Potter is great literature, and A Dance to the Music of Time is not. To that, I would laugh disbelievingly in your face.

Fallen
04-26-2012, 02:37 AM
Anyone who defines greatness in terms of their own personal reactions is missing the point and needs to cultivate a more detached appreciation for literature.

Okay, let's look at a few of the available 'detached' methods for judging literariness in a text.

1 inherency approach: 'creativity at the level of of language itself'. So these guys don't move outside of the text to judge a text's literariness, they go by 'poetic function of language' or their definition of 'special properties' located in texts, and it's an old method dating back to Aristotle.

The six language function of Jakobson's: referential, emotive, conative, metalingual, poetic, phatic.

2 sociocultural approach: they look at the writing in context, to see what social and ideological factors of the time influenced the work. It can look into the politics of the time etc...

3 cognitive approach: they class a text in literary terms by how the 'reader reads'. Schema-refreshing is one cognitive aspect: how a text can turn the readers comfort zone on its head (I'd put War of the Worlds in with this: British Empire, world dominance, all overturned and leaving us on our ass in a time when we thought we were invincible, etc).

They all have their frameworks to look at literariness objectively, and you can bounce between the three to get a real objective pov. But behind all of that, there's still you. There is always going to be an element of subjective interpretation no matter how objective the framework.

Shaekespeare: I can fit his texts into all three aprroaches, tick all the boxes and come out with the answer 'literary', but still leave with the personal viewpoint -- I hate his work because it's too heavy semantically. I'd say, for poetic function, paradigms are bloody gorgeous, but on the whole, I really don't see what people love about his work.

Mr. Anonymous
04-26-2012, 10:03 AM
A few quick thoughts before I begin.

If literary greatness is wholly subjective, what is it that we accomplish when we try to become better writers? Why do we talk of writing as craft? Why do we discuss different techniques? Why do we take criticism in SYW boards seriously, if the people critiquing are, essentially, expressing opinions that are neither true nor false and are entirely subjective to them?

Why can’t writing be like music? Sure, to an extent music taste is subjective, but we can also break music down. Notes, harmonies, and lots of other things I’m not very familiar with, but the people who spend years studying this sort of thing at Juliard surely are (certainly it seems as if they’ve found a set of inter-subjectively agreed upon criteria.)

What are they up to, with all their studying, if our response to music, in the end, is entirely subjective and therefore wholly beyond their control?

Aren’t we up to something similar, in our critting and comp classrooms?

Every so often a conversation like this comes up and everyone says “Of course it’s all subjective” but it seems to me more interesting to try and challenge that conception which we tend to take for granted. Not sure if I've been successful or not. This sort of thing, in my experience, usually works better in person. Over a cup of tea and cookies. When you have three hours to spare. lol.

I very much appreciate everyone’s responses. It’s an interesting conversation, though I’m not sure I can keep up with the volume of responses.


You make good points, Mister, but as a philosophical realist I believe in objective reality - that there exist mind-independent qualities which are the sorts of things that science can study and measure, even if strictly speaking all those measurements are inter-subjective in some way. Whereas qualities of literature can never be mind-independent, and thus their subjectivity is one level deeper.

A fair point.

But I’m also talking about mind-independent qualities.

The Grapes of Wrath has a property, such that, should I (the person writing these words, with this biological and psychological and experiential make-up) come into contact with it, I will be moved.

This is true, regardless of whether I (the person writing these words) actually exist.

This is true, regardless of whether any human beings or rational creatures exist.

It can be expressed as a conditional (if P then Q)

If a rational creature with this biological, psychological and experiential make-up were to exist (let’s call him Mr. A), and if he were to come in contact with The Grapes of Wrath, then he would have a certain response (be moved).

A conditional with a False antecedent (the italicized) but a true consequent (the bold) is true.


You will never be able to set up any kind of objective test for good characterization, I think, in the way that one could test for alpha particles or the presence of salmonella. There exists another problem in that our measuring tools for physical properties are easily inspected, compared and shared, but we can't compare and contrast our intuitive faculties in any really empirical way, so how do we define standards?

No, it won’t be the same sort of objective test, I agree. This is because our response to alpha particles or the presence of salmonella is more consistent than our response to works of art. Yet we do have our own sorts of tests, do we not (many of these are not as methodical/philosophical as I might like but certainly we have them.) We rate restaurants on the quality of their food. We rate movies and check rotten tomatoes before deciding what to spend money on. Plays and musicals and concerts and books are all reviewed and rated. For a range of things which are apparently entirely subjective, we do seem to spend a lot of time discussing these things as if they weren’t. As if there really are some criteria by which they may be judged.

Now, whether we can ever apply the criteria in an unbiased fashion is a good question.

But my answer to that is what I said to Bloodfiend.

Why can’t it be the case that if we disagree on how to apply a certain set of agreed upon criteria, we’re either actually not talking about the same thing or we are attuned to different things. You see something about popcorn flicks which I don’t, and I see something about romantic comedies which you don’t. Or whatever.


There's a tension in writing the character of Winston because I personally think he's meant to be a foil for the main character of 1984, which is The State. From this perspective Winston is meant to be the equivalent of Watson to Holmes, the normal lens through which the alien strangeness is seen.

It's a hard trick to make a character like that fully realized because the character loses some of its necessary transparency. I'm not saying it can't be done, but I can see why Orwell would try not to do it.

Your last sentence intrigues me, because I don't see art that serves a purpose as somehow false (which the phrase mask of a storyteller implies).

It seems to be saying that entertainment by characters has a purity which meaning somehow corrupts. I'm torn between trying to argue the point and simply acknowledging an unbridgable difference of opinion.

Thanks for the response Richard, interesting to get your thoughts.

Well, I think that great art transcends mere entertainment. But in essence, what you said in bold is exactly what I feel. There is a corruption of art at play if you come in with a message and make your story/characters subservient to it.

Let me give you an example.

Let’s take Christian fiction, which, to be perfectly honest, I tend to look down upon a little for the reason above—mainly that it makes story/character subservient to a message.

But put that aside for a moment.

What is Christian fiction? Let’s say that you and I both agree that Christian Fiction is a story in which, by the end, there is some kind of an affirmation/reconciliation with God and/or with Christian values.

Now, let’s say I write a Christian fiction book, but my goal from the start/my message at the end of the day is not about reconciliation with God/affirming christian values but that homosexuality is a sin/is perfectly okay (it really doesn’t matter which.)

***It is important to note that there are ways in which I could write a Christian fiction book in which homosexuality is seen as okay as a consequence of/byproduct of some kind of affirmation of Christian values. That is NOT what I’m talking about. I’m talking about where my message about homosexuality (good or bad) is the end point, that which everything in the novel is working toward (and in this way, this message displaces the role that reconciliation with God/affirmation of Christian values plays in christian fiction.)***

So yes, what I want to say is, in so doing, I’m not actually writing Christian fiction. I'm not staying true to what christian fiction is about. Instead, I’m writing a book in which I’m trying to sell Christians my message about homosexuality.

Yes, I think this is corruption of what Christian fiction is, regardless of whether my message is ultimately noble (that homosexuality is perfectly okay, that homosexuals are no different from heterosexuals) or not so noble (ie, Westboro Baptist Church spiel.)


We're not debating whether fiction is storytelling. We're debating whether great literature is defined by its storytelling.

Amadan, appreciate you going back and forth me, interesting to hear your thoughts. Let me see if I can clarify my position.


For me

Great fiction = a work of great storytelling.

A work of great storytelling = great story (which is possible only by focusing on the characters) + a great telling of the story.

Of course the way you in which storyTELL matters. But the two (story and its telling) are so closely intertwined I'm not sure you can separate them. I'm really not sure you can have a great story/great characters without a great telling of the story.

To use your Harry Potter example, of course we could find things to nitpick about but for the most part, Rowling wrote in a manner appropriate to the story she was telling. She didn't write like Nabokov because she wasn't writing Lolita. She didn't write like Tolstoy because she wasn't writing War and Peace. She was writing Harry fricking Potter. lol. Given her audience, given what she was trying to accomplish, I really wouldn't spend time faulting Rowling on her writing style (Confucians are very big on the idea of good action being action that is appropriate to the circumstances. Perhaps we can say something similar about writing?)

My real problem with Harry Potter is not with the telling but rather with the story.

Why?

Well, it does make me feel. And it does make me think. But only to a very limited extent. The ideas it brings up are, to my mind, rather simplistic (the power of love and self-sacrifice, the conflict between Good and Evil, etc) and the characters are not fully realized because they never hold their destinies in their hands.

Why does Snape love Lily? Because the story demands it.

Why are Mr. and Mrs. Dursley so horrible to Harry (making him live in a CLOSET for christ's sake???)? Because the story demands it.

Why is Voldemort evil? Because the story demands it.

Why does Bellatrix not even bat an eye upon killing her cousin? Because she's evil (as demanded by the story.)

Why is Dumbeldore, greatest wizard in like forevers, dumb enough to get screwed over by touching a Hocrux? Because the story demands it.

Why is Voldemort really really dumb in the last book? Because the story demands it.

Why did Ron have to sacrifice himself in the chess game and Hermione had to go back after figuring out that whole potions thing in book 1? Because Rowling needed a way to get Harry to face Quirrel + Voldemort alone. In other words, the story demanded it.

Rowling moves her characters like pawns in a game she's already planned out from start to finish. We connect with her characters because she writes them in a way that allows us to relate to them (she gives them breathing room to come into their own a bit), but they are not ever truly free. And that is why, to my mind, she is not a great writer.


Anthony Powell, on the other hand, is an absolutely genius writer. His characterization and his prose is immaculate. But there's barely any plot in his entire Dance to the Music of Time magnum opus. (Okay, this isn't literally true, but the story is about the last thing you read it for.)

Just a note--if writing is completely subjective, the only thing you're doing when you call Anthony Powell "an absolutely genius writer" is expressing an attitude of approval. Basically, if writing is completely subjective, all you're saying, "YAY Anthony Powell." Are you willing to accept that?

also, for me

a character's actions/thoughts = story = "plot"

A plot can be wandering around NYC wondering where the ducks go in the winter. In fact, I think that's a great plot.


Using your criteria, Harry Potter is great literature, and A Dance to the Music of Time is not. To that, I would laugh disbelievingly in your face.

My criteria were a little unrealistic, given that most literature makes us think and feel, even stuff that's not necessarily GREAT. My point was more about authorial intent. If you aspire to be great, I think you need to focus on characters but see if you can, through them, make readers think. If you aspire to be good, I think you at the very least need to focus on characters. If you aspire to sell people message, I think you're using fiction as a means to an end.



And I did. Your opinion is no more valid than mine.


A message is like a moral at the end of those old fashioned fairy tales. If we're in disagreement about whether there's a message or not, then I'd be tempted to say that what you take as Steinbeck's message is really something you’re reading into his work. Which you're entitled to do, of course, but I don't think that should be conflated with authorial intent.


And I yawned throughout the book. I got what Steinbeck was going for, but I wasn't moved. You got what Sinclair was going for, but you weren't moved. As far as books go, they're very similar. People suffer due to forces greater than themselves. People are forced to question their morality. Family vs success. Etc. I prefer The Jungle because I couldn't bring myself to care for the characters in Grapes. I felt like Steinbeck put the message above developing Okies. You feel differently.

As I said, I was a bit extreme in my first post. I'm not sure there's any widely acclaimed literature that would have absolutely no effect on a reader (as far as making us feel and think goes) if he actually gave it a real chance/really made an effort to understand what people saw in it.

But even if there was, it wouldn’t really matter.

Why? Well let me try to phrase my thoughts in a better, less trollish way.

In my eyes, to aspire to be good is to aspire to make a reader feel, to aspire to be great is to make a reader think and feel, and to aspire to sell a message is to aspire to something other than fiction.

As for our supposedly subjective responses to my examples, this is an objection on the level of the examples (the application of my criteria) I’m giving, not necessarily on the criteria I’m using itself (or my search for inter-subjective criteria.) If we can agree to my criteria (maybe we can’t, in which case we could start from scratch and try to construct different set of criteria) then we can say that, say, a novel like The Jungle really is objectively great because it makes readers think and feel on a deep level.

If you see that and I don’t, that simply means you are attuned to something I’m missing.


No. What you perceive as inferior, is something I might value and view as superior, and vice-versa.

Which means we are attuned to different things. Your perspective is missing something and my perspective is missing something.
I may be the kind of reader that likes tragic endings. You may be the kind of reader that likes happy endings. We may view each other's respective tastes as inferior. However, if we actually sit down and have a conversation we can do some constructive work. I tell you I like tragic endings because they represent all the little tragedies that happen every day and have happened throughout the whole course of human history. [insert cliche about the inevitable end of humanity.] You tell me you like happy endings because they represent all the good that people do for each other, all the hope that we have in one another, in a better world, etc.

It's not that we're both neither wrong nor right (subjectivism.) It's the case that we're both right, we're just picking out different things. You're better at picking out/appreciating one aspect, I'm better at picking out another.


And I still disagree. When I write, characters arise from stories, and sometimes, stories arise from characters. Situations create different characters, and characters create different situations. But for me, characters are still tools to further their stories. The story isn't a tool to further the character. When I write, destinations are already predetermined. You're treating characters like they're real people. They aren't. In the end, you control their destiny. They don't control you. They have no free will.

There are very good deterministic arguments for humans not having free will.

But what matters is that we appear to have free will.

Similarly. I'd say that even if we grant that characters are not real and thus cannot have free will, if you want to be true to them, they need to appear, for all intents and purposes, to have free will. And for them to appear to have free will, they need to have (or at the very least, appear to have) their destinies in their own hands.

Also, I wonder if characters don’t actually have a peculiar type of free will.

Philosophers mostly agree that for us to have free will, it needs to be possible for us to act in ways other than the ways in which we’ve acted.

If I sit down today to work on a story and all I’m doing is following the character (not consciously, mind you, I’m not sitting down and thinking, what will I make him do NOW), what will happen is different from what will happen if I sit down tomorrow to follow my character. What will happen will be different depending on whether I’ve had enough sleep or am sleep deprived, whether I am sick or healthy, whether I’m happy or sad. Can it even be said that I am controlling him, really, if this control is not really even exercised in conscious fashion? If I’m just writing in response to the momentum of what’s happened early on in the story (and to a lesser extent my current circumstances)? And is the character not free, in a sense, if my response to this momentum of the story’s past can vary? If he can do otherwise than he has done?


Objectivity requires no discussion. If we were to come across some kind of lit checklist for greatness, we'd have to agree what makes a good character. Three-dimensional characters are best, IMO. So, what makes a three dimensional character? Positive and negative traits. And that's where the discussion spirals off. I mean, from a previous thread, we can't even agree on the morality of abortion, so how could we agree on a set of criteria that dictates what makes a good or bad character, let alone a good or bad book? Hell, how could we even agree on what's a good or bad trait?

If we agree on objectivity, then there is no need for discussion.

Obviously, we don’t agree, thus we discuss, because we feel there is something to discuss (an objective issue at stake) and are trying to account for our disagreement. As for our lit checklist.

Good characterization = 3 dimensional characters = positive and negative traits

Is a great start. I’m not even sure we need to go further than that at all (rather, it might be more productive to try and find other criteria we can agree on. Clarity, for example.)

Sure, we might not agree all the time about whether characters have positive and negative traits. But that is simply to say, in my opinion, that we are attuned to different aspects of goodness and different aspects of badness (or perhaps we're not even talking about the same thing, in which case we have to backtrack and get our definitions straight. Come up with new words if we have to.) Also, we all have the potential to be myopic and irrational. All this talk of subjectivism may sound good on paper (though personally it gives me heart palpitations) but I seriously doubt whether you’d take someone’s rejection of a literary work as a piece of crap because the main character happens to be, say, black, very seriously. Yet if his appraisal/response is just as valid as any other, this is something you’re forced to swallow.

On the other hand, my account equips us to say to this person, “On what basis are you calling the work a piece of crap?”

And he will say “Because the main character is black”

And I will say “That is not a criteria which I recognize.”

And so, for the dialogue to continue, we need to find common ground. If we can’t find it, dialogue is not possible. But usually we can find something, at which point, we can do some real constructive work. Because it is a fact whether a literary work fulfills criteria for a person/people. It is a fact about the relationship between the literary work and the type of person which they are (a person with certain tastes, values, background, psychological make-up, etc.) And if more than one person has the same type of response, then there is a relationship between the type of people which both of these people are, and the literary work. Something objective is at play here, I think. And we can start to go to some really interesting places once we have some intersubjective criteria and can begin to discuss how we think various works meet/or don't meet them (because this has the potential to bring us into contact with perspectives we are not naturally ourselves attuned to.)

thebloodfiend
04-26-2012, 11:32 AM
Damn, your posts are long.

A message is like a moral at the end of those old fashioned fairy tales. If we're in disagreement about whether there's a message or not, then I'd be tempted to say that what you take as Steinbeck's message is really something youíre reading into his work. Which you're entitled to do, of course, but I don't think that should be conflated with authorial intent.

Then we disagree. I don't know why it's that hard to understand that people will disagree on what makes an objectively brilliant novel. There's no such thing.

I could just as easily say that you're reading into Sinclair's work and conflating the end result of the story with authorial intent. Your opinions on Steinbeck and Sinclair are your own. You're entitled to them. You are not, however, entitled to tell others that their interpretation of the text are wrong, or that they're reading into it. No two individuals read a book the same way. They take their own experiences and apply them to the novel.

You look at a Pollock painting and you might see the meaning of life because of some nostalgic event in your childhood. I look at a Pollock painting and I see shit on a canvas because I hate modern art. Your enjoyment doesn't take away from my disenjoyment (not a word) and vice-versa. Some people will still praise Pollock as a genius. I see no merit to his work. Because it is art, neither of us is objectively right because there's no such thing as objectively good art.

Now, we aspire to get better, but there's no mark at which you're suddenly a 25% better writer than so-so and so. And, depending on the group, they might think you're worse.

It's usually an agreed upon consensus, which varies, when you're able to write a character/story that moves the majority of those critiquing your work in a way that did not move them before, that you're improving. It is "better" because it elicits a more positive emotional response. And that's not to say that Twilight is "good" because it has many fans, but that there's no check mark list that you can tick off things and give a writers a B- or an A+, unlike with mathematics and non-fiction essays by undergrads, when you reach a certain point past basic mistakes like misusing commas and abusing adjectives. And even then, there are some who'd disagree.

In my eyes, to aspire to be good is to aspire to make a reader feel, to aspire to be great is to make a reader think and feel, and to aspire to sell a message is to aspire to something other than fiction.

And when I feel, I think. When I think, I feel. The two aren't mutually exclusive. And what you interpret as a message, I might not interpret as such.

As for our supposedly subjective responses to my examples, this is an objection on the level of the examples Iím giving, not necessarily on the criteria Iím using. If we can agree to my criteria (maybe we canít, in which case we could start from scratch and try to construct different set of criteria) then we can say that, say, a novel like The Jungle is objectively great because it makes readers think and feel on a deep level. If you see that and I donít, that simply means you are attuned to something Iím missing.

Not really. I don't think I'm any more or less attuned than you. Nor do I think you're missing anything. That right there is an attitude I hate in regard to entertainment and literature. The Jungle isn't objectively great. I just happen to enjoy it more than I enjoyed Grapes. I don't know why. They're rather similar in writing style, and the characterization is about equal in both. Perhaps because my attention span is zero and The Jungle is short?

Which means we are attuned to different things. Your perspective is missing something and my perspective is missing something.

And I don't know why you're afraid to admit that people have likes and dislikes when it comes to art, and that these likes and dislikes are based upon individual personalities. Unless this is some kind of philosophical thing that you're trying to get at, there's nothing wrong with being flat out honest about not giving two shits for Jurgis because you thought he was a flat character. What worked for me, didn't work for you. It has nothing do with missing something, or not being attuned to something.

So, because I dislike Bella Swan, am I missing something about Twilight? Am I not attuned to the story? Eh, no. It means that, because of her traits (or lack of traits) I couldn't bring myself to care for her character and her flights of fancy regarding vampires and werewolves. Some people just so happen to like her lack of traits because it allows them to immerse themselves in the story. If that's what Meyer was going for, she succeeded. I don't think Twilight is a great book, but according to your criteria:

a) it did make me feel
b) it did make me think

Therefor, it's a great book. I don't hate the book, but by no means is it great, IMO.

I may be the kind of reader that likes tragic endings. You may be the kind of reader that likes happy endings. We may view each other's respective tastes as inferior. However, if we actually sit down and have a conversation we can do some constructive work. I tell you I like tragic endings because they represent all the little tragedies that happen every day and have happened throughout the whole course of human history. You tell me you like happy endings because they represent all the good that people do for each other, all the hope that we have in one another, in a better world, etc.

It's not that we're both neither wrong nor right (subjectivism.) It's the case that we're both right, we're just picking out different things. You're better at picking out/appreciating one aspect, I'm better at picking out another.

You're basically echoing what I've repeated my last three posts.

There are very good deterministic arguments for humans not having free will.

But what matters is that we appear to have free will.

Determinism, I know. But characters are not real. They appear to be real, but in the end, you control what happens to them. Without you, they would not exist. They would cease to exist if you never wrote their stories.

Similarly. I'd say that even if we grant that characters are not real and thus cannot have free will, if you want to be true to them, they need to appear, for all intents and purposes, to have free will. And for them to appear to have free will, they need to have (or at the very least, appear to have) their destinies in their own hands.

Also, I wonder if characters donít actually have a peculiar type of free will.

And, once again, while JKR's characters don't appear to have freewill to you, to some, they do. You have a good set of criteria, I'll give you that, but you don't seem to be able to divorce yourself from it.

If I sit down today to work on a story and all Iím doing is following the character (not consciously, mind you, Iím not sitting down and thinking, what will I make him do NOW), what will happen is different from what will happen if I sit down tomorrow to follow my character. What will happen will be different depending on whether Iíve had enough sleep or am sleep deprived, whether I am sick or healthy, whether Iím happy or sad. Can it even be said that I am controlling him, really, if this control is not really even exercised in conscious fashion? If Iím just writing in response to the momentum of whatís happened early on in the story? And is the character not free, in a sense, if my response to this momentum of the storyís past can vary? If he can do otherwise than he has done?

I'm not interested in addressing this because a) it's 1 AM and I have class in the morning and b) it's philosophical musings that I'd have to be high to want to contemplate. I'll leave it at this -- you "choose" to write when you're sick, happy, etcetera, knowing that your moods will dictate how you write. This has nothing to do with the character. Yes, you could say that the character is "free," that there are a million paths for this character to take down the road of the story (god knows I've changed my characters' paths a million times) but the character doesn't choose. You do. Characters don't write themselves. It'd be pretty badass if they did, though.

If we agree on objectivity, then there is no need for discussion.

Exactly. You don't see any threads around here that discuss whether or not it's right to rape, or gay bash, or shit on babies, do you? We know that those things are objectively bad, therefor, no need for discussion. Yet, here I am past midnight, typing this long as fuck response to you. As we can't agree on objectivity here, -- hell, you're the only person arguing that it exists -- that, by default, means that it does not exist. With objectivity comes no disagreements. For rational minds, anyway.

Good characterization = 3 dimensional characters = positive and negative traits

Is a great start. Iím not even sure we need to go further than that at all (rather, it might be more productive to try and find other criteria we can agree on. Clarity, for example.)

Sure, we might not agree all the time about whether characters have positive and negative traits. But that is simply to say, in my opinion, that we are attuned to different aspects of goodness and different aspects of badness. Also, we all have the potential to be myopic and irrational. All this talk of subjectivism may sound good on paper (though personally it gives me heart palpitations) but I seriously doubt whether youíd take someoneís rejection of a literary work as a piece of crap because the main character happens to be, say, black, very seriously. Yet if his appraisal/response is just as valid as any other, this is something youíre forced to swallow.

On the other hand, my account equips us to say to this person, ďOn what basis are you calling the work a piece of crap?Ē

And he will say ďBecause the main character is blackĒ

And I will say ďThat is not a criteria which I recognize.Ē

Black is not a personality trait. It's a physical trait. And, in certain scenarios, that [I]is a valid criticism. If the token black character in your novel rapes white women, my problem would indeed be that he's black -- because he's the only black character, and her follows a very racist stereotype. Your heart palpitations are for nothing. You're free to dismiss the guy who hates The Hunger Games because Rue is black as a dumbass. His hate is based on racial bias, therefor, his opinion is invalid and irrational.

It's possible to create a set of criteria by which to judge a novel, sure, but you can't just say one novel is objectively better than another because feelings are personal. That's their nature. According to one set of criteria, yes, Twilight sucks. According to another, it's a damn good book. I'm not particularly interested in creating a set of criteria with someone else because what I look for in books is completely different from what you look for. There might be similarities, but there will be very little common ground as we won't agree on definitions.

And so, for the dialogue to continue, we need to find common ground. If we canít find it, dialogue is not possible. But usually we can find something, at which point, we can do some real constructive work. Because it is a fact whether a literary work fulfills criteria for a person/people. It is a fact about the relationship between the literary work and the type of person which they are (a person with certain tastes, values background, psychological make-up, etc.) And if more than one person has the same type of response, then there is a relationship between the type of people which both of these people are, and the literary work. Something objective is at play here, I think. And we can start to go to some really interesting places once we have some intersubjective criteria and can begin to discuss how we think various works meet/or don't meet them (because this has the potential to bring us into contact with perspectives we are not naturally ourselves attuned to.)

I'm not particularly interested in attuning myself to others, tbh. It's quite possible to understand an opposing viewpoint and disagree. You've got an interesting idea based on a philosophical bent that I don't agree with.

It's late, and I didn't proofread this, so anything that doesn't make sense, doesn't intentionally not make sense, if that makes any sense at all.

RichardGarfinkle
04-26-2012, 03:20 PM
Thanks for the response Richard, interesting to get your thoughts.

Well, I think that great art transcends mere entertainment. But in essence, what you said in bold is exactly what I feel. There is a corruption of art at play if you come in with a message and make your story/characters subservient to it.

Let me give you an example.

Letís take Christian fiction, which, to be perfectly honest, I tend to look down upon a little for the reason aboveómainly that it makes story/character subservient to a message.

But put that aside for a moment.

What is Christian fiction? Letís say that you and I both agree that Christian Fiction is a story in which, by the end, there is some kind of an affirmation/reconciliation with God and/or with Christian values.

Now, letís say I write a Christian fiction book, but my goal from the start/my message at the end of the day is not about reconciliation with God/affirming christian values but that homosexuality is a sin/is perfectly okay (it really doesnít matter which.)

***It is important to note that there are ways in which I could write a Christian fiction book in which homosexuality is seen as okay as a consequence of/byproduct of some kind of affirmation of Christian values. That is NOT what Iím talking about. Iím talking about where my message about homosexuality (good or bad) is the end point, that which everything in the novel is working toward (and in this way, this message displaces the role that reconciliation with God/affirmation of Christian values plays in christian fiction.)***

So yes, what I want to say is, in so doing, Iím not actually writing Christian fiction. I'm not staying true to what christian fiction is about. Instead, Iím writing a book in which Iím trying to sell Christians my message about homosexuality.

Yes, I think this is corruption of what Christian fiction is, regardless of whether my message is ultimately noble (that homosexuality is perfectly okay, that homosexuals are no different from heterosexuals) or not so noble (ie, Westboro Baptist Church spiel.)


Let me respond to this part first. I'll need to think through your full post before answering it. You seem to be separating two things that I think are both meaning in stories.

This:


What is Christian fiction? Letís say that you and I both agree that Christian Fiction is a story in which, by the end, there is some kind of an affirmation/reconciliation with God and/or with Christian values.


To me, this is meaningful fiction. Fiction where the flow of the story and the actions of the characters bring forth the meaning. A story of affirmation and reconciliation with God is not about the characters it is about living a Christian life and why it's good.
Note: I'm not a Christian but i consider the Divine Comedy to be great literature.

The story you talk about is one where the story and characters don't fit the meaning they fit a prejudice on the part of the author. This story fails the test of making its readers think. If they accept the prejudice they will unthinkingly accept the story. If they don't accept it the only thought they will have is one of contempt for the author.

Meaning is not preachiness, and advocay is not automatically generative of thinking.

Al Stevens
04-26-2012, 03:27 PM
Shaekespeare: ... I really don't see what people love about his work.As a reader or from having seen his works performed well?

Amadan
04-26-2012, 04:15 PM
You're teal-deering me out, Mr Anon, so I'm just going to pick out a couple of things that struck me, rather than trying to respond to the whole thing:

1. I don't think literary greatness is wholly subjective. I'd echo what someone earlier in the thread who I can't remember said: "I know it when I see it." There are qualities to great literature we can define and reach a general consensus on but about which there will be no universal agreement, nor a truly objective way to measure, just like you can measure the caloric content of a five-star meal, but even with a panel of expert food critics, you can't get an absolutely objective and universal judgment on the quality of the food. They'll all probably agree if it's really good or really bad or just mediocre, but the nuances of flavor and balance and aesthetics, etc., will be debated. Same with literature. I don't think there is any book you can claim has an indefinable quality that guarantees everyone who knows anything about books will come to the same conclusion about it.


Why canít writing be like music? Sure, to an extent music taste is subjective, but we can also break music down. Notes, harmonies, and lots of other things Iím not very familiar with, but the people who spend years studying this sort of thing at Juliard surely are (certainly it seems as if theyíve found a set of inter-subjectively agreed upon criteria.)

Music is much more mathematical. That's a simplistic answer, but it is qualitatively different from writing. And even in the case of music, I don't think you'll ever be able to create a computer program that can evaluate the relative quality of musical performances and compositions independently of human taste and judgment.


What are they up to, with all their studying, if our response to music, in the end, is entirely subjective and therefore wholly beyond their control?

Subjective does not mean beyond our control.


The Grapes of Wrath has a property, such that, should I (the person writing these words, with this biological and psychological and experiential make-up) come into contact with it, I will be moved.

This argument works for any book. Do you think there is a book that no one will be moved by in any way? Even if it's disgust and disbelief that it was published?


Now, letís say I write a Christian fiction book, but my goal from the start/my message at the end of the day is not about reconciliation with God/affirming christian values but that homosexuality is a sin/is perfectly okay (it really doesnít matter which.)

You're arguing that authors who get up on a soapbox invariably cause their writing to suffer, and that's usually true, which is why it's mocked, but great authors still write great works even when they are doing it with an agenda. See: Dostoevsky.


Great fiction = a work of great storytelling.

Again, you keep ignoring the subtle difference between "fiction" and "literature."



Of course the way you in which storyTELL matters. But the two (story and its telling) are so closely intertwined I'm not sure you can separate them. I'm really not sure you can have a great story/great characters without a great telling of the story.

Sure you can. Trawl through fanfiction.net sometime. There are a lot of writers who are truly brilliant and imaginative and even have great things to say, but have terrible execution.


To use your Harry Potter example, of course we could find things to nitpick about but for the most part, Rowling wrote in a manner appropriate to the story she was telling. She didn't write like Nabokov because she wasn't writing Lolita. She didn't write like Tolstoy because she wasn't writing War and Peace. She was writing Harry fricking Potter. lol.

So? Are you saying a children's story inherently cannot be great literature? Or that a fantasy novel cannot be? Why is a book about a pedophile inherently more literary than a bildungsroman about a battle between good and evil? I daresay if Tolstoy or Nabokov got the idea of writing a children's story about wizards, they'd still have written like Tolstoy and Nabokov.


Just a note--if writing is completely subjective, the only thing you're doing when you call Anthony Powell "an absolutely genius writer" is expressing an attitude of approval. Basically, if writing is completely subjective, all you're saying, "YAY Anthony Powell." Are you willing to accept that?

No. I haven't said writing is completely subjective, just that it's not completely objective either.

RichardGarfinkle
04-26-2012, 04:36 PM
Why can’t writing be like music? Sure, to an extent music taste is subjective, but we can also break music down. Notes, harmonies, and lots of other things I’m not very familiar with, but the people who spend years studying this sort of thing at Juliard surely are (certainly it seems as if they’ve found a set of inter-subjectively agreed upon criteria.)




The Grapes of Wrath has a property, such that, should I (the person writing these words, with this biological and psychological and experiential make-up) come into contact with it, I will be moved.

This is true, regardless of whether I (the person writing these words) actually exist.

This is true, regardless of whether any human beings or rational creatures exist.

It can be expressed as a conditional (if P then Q)

If a rational creature with this biological, psychological and experiential make-up were to exist (let’s call him Mr. A), and if he were to come in contact with The Grapes of Wrath, then he would have a certain response (be moved).

A conditional with a False antecedent (the italicized) but a true consequent (the bold) is true.



Great fiction = a work of great storytelling.

A work of great storytelling = great story (which is possible only by focusing on the characters) + a great telling of the story.


Why does Snape love Lily? Because the story demands it.

Why are Mr. and Mrs. Dursley so horrible to Harry (making him live in a CLOSET for christ's sake???)? Because the story demands it.

Why is Voldemort evil? Because the story demands it.

Why does Bellatrix not even bat an eye upon killing her cousin? Because she's evil (as demanded by the story.)

Why is Dumbeldore, greatest wizard in like forevers, dumb enough to get screwed over by touching a Hocrux? Because the story demands it.

Why is Voldemort really really dumb in the last book? Because the story demands it.


A message is like a moral at the end of those old fashioned fairy tales. If we're in disagreement about whether there's a message or not, then I'd be tempted to say that what you take as Steinbeck's message is really something you’re reading into his work. Which you're entitled to do, of course, but I don't think that should be conflated with authorial intent.



Which means we are attuned to different things. Your perspective is missing something and my perspective is missing something.
I may be the kind of reader that likes tragic endings. You may be the kind of reader that likes happy endings. We may view each other's respective tastes as inferior. However, if we actually sit down and have a conversation we can do some constructive work. I tell you I like tragic endings because they represent all the little tragedies that happen every day and have happened throughout the whole course of human history. [insert cliche about the inevitable end of humanity.] You tell me you like happy endings because they represent all the good that people do for each other, all the hope that we have in one another, in a better world, etc.

It's not that we're both neither wrong nor right (subjectivism.) It's the case that we're both right, we're just picking out different things. You're better at picking out/appreciating one aspect, I'm better at picking out another.



Tempting as it is, I'll skip the matter of free will. At least, I think I choose to do so.

Anyway, I would like to address the elements I quoted above. While I do analogize music to writing at times and find it useful, in this case, I'd like to point out where the analogy breaks down.

Writing is built up out of a created phenomenon (language). Music is filtered out of a natural phenomenon (sound). In essence every form of music created (and there are a lot more of them then are taught in any given music school), takes different aspects of sound and formalizes them in order to give control to the composer and the musician.

I'm not a musician so I'm running secondhand on this:
Polyphonic music usually uses a single rhythm with variations in notes and volume with multiple voices and instruments following the same rhythm. Polyrhythmic music uses multiple rhythms simultaneously in a manner that violates the principles of polyphonic-monorhythmic music. Some musicians have recently combined the two in interesting fashions. But the point is that the agreed upon principles are not uniform and what one form of music deems good another deems bad.

And one person's music is definitely another person's noise.

Art cannot avoid, nor should it seek to avoid subjectivity for the simple reason that a great deal of the art is done in the mind of the audience.

This doesn't mean that there is no value in craft, just the opposite It means that a great deal more craft is needed because the result will depend on how the craft impacts the individual audience member.

It's as if the sturdiness of a house depended on the attitudes of the people living in it (Monty Python did this as a joke about buildings put up by hypnosis).

There is a skill in broadening appeal, but nothing will appeal to everyone. And it is a mistake, to my mind, to insist that it is possible to create an objectively great piece of work for any art.
De gustibus non est disputandum.
There is no arguing over taste.

It can certainly be said that a great work of literature will contain great characters in a great story. But beyond the subjectivity of the response there is a subjectivity in the method of approach. Some of us have an easier time starting from characters and getting to story, some have an easier time starting from story and making or creating characters to fit it, and some have an easier time starting from the underlying flow or meaning of the story and generating both story and character from them.

These are different styles of writing and different styles of learning to write. It is as much a mistake to say that one is better than the other as it is to say that a person who learns music formally first and then learns to play around is inherently a better/worse musician than a person who first learns to play around then learns the formality of systematic music.

Or that the artist who begins by drawing from their imagination then learns anatomy and life drawing is better/worse than the artist who learns the other way.

These are methods of approaching the same ideal and each line of approach has its own advantages and defects.

I'm tempted to end on that high minded note, but I'm having a hard time resisting the urge to Harry Potter nitpick. I think the problem with the characters in Harry Potter isn't that they weren't realized, but that J.K.Rowling deliberately concealed that realization in order to misdirect her readers. Misdirection is her major schtick. Her early books always have an obvious suspect (Snape, Draco, and Sirius for the first three books) who misdirects from the real culprit.

Several of the examples you have actually have good concealed explanations except for Ron on the Chessboard (but that was her first book and that section of the book is a pretty standard rookie trick) and the villains who are pretty cardboard.


Why does Snape love Lily? Because he lived a lonely childhood in a dysfunctional family and she was his only friend and fellow wizard.

Why are Mr. and Mrs. Dursley so horrible to Harry (making him live in a CLOSET for christ's sake???)? Because Mrs. Dursley was always jealous of her sister for her magic and resented Harry as being more of the same. Mr. Dursley and Dudley are again misdirection. Petunia is the root of that dysfunctional family.


Why is Dumbeldore, greatest wizard in like forevers, dumb enough to get screwed over by touching a Hocrux? Because he has always been tempted by power, and kept himself from power because of the harm he could do with it.

Each of these explanations is given in the last book, and insufficiently hinted at in earlier books. That's bad plotting more than anything else.

readitnweep
04-26-2012, 06:48 PM
I started thinking, what makes a book a "classic" or "great"?

I don't know if this helps or hinders, but I went to my English dictionary.

Penguin English Dictionary, copyright 2000

"classic adj 1a of recognized value or merit; serving as a standard of excellence. b both traditional and enduring. c characterized by simple tailored and elegant lines that remain in fashion year after year. 2a authoritative, definitive. b being an example that shows clearly the characteristics of some group of things or occurrences; archetypal.

classic noun work of lasting excellence, or the author of one. b an authoritative or definitive work. 2 (in pl.) (the classics) literary works of ancient Greece or Rome."

and

"great adj... b of importance, significant: a great day in English history. 3a eminent or distinguished."

The last definition is partial, as most of it pertains to size, plant names and family relationships.

Fallen
04-26-2012, 07:53 PM
As a reader or from having seen his works performed well?

I've read (even with the aid of The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Shakespeare :D ) seen performances at Stratford, and studied at uni. :)

But with viewing, you're shifting into multimodal contexts: you don't just have the text, you have the visual (setting, characters, costumes, body language, lighting), then there's auditory (tone of voice, musical score etc). All of these 'help' where isolated reading can't.

But I'm still left with the difficulty of getting to grips with meaning: there's too much going on for me: it's cluttered. Again, I know that's down to my own limitations, my subjective interpretation.

:)

Al Stevens
04-26-2012, 08:20 PM
But with viewing, you're shifting into multimodal contexts: you don't just have the text, you have the visual (setting, characters, costumes, body language, lighting), then there's auditory (tone of voice, musical score etc). All of these 'help' where isolated reading can't.
And viewing is the medium for which Shakespeare's plays are intended. The dynamics of the performance, and consequently, the effect on an audience, is a function of the actors' interpretations.

They're talking about music a lot above and getting some of it kind of wrong (in my opinion--I'm a musician), but to read one of Shakespeare's plays for entertainment is like reading the score to a symphony. You can do it if you know how, but the true meaning is better found in one's reaction to a human interpretation of the work, whereas a work of fiction, great or otherwise, is by definition self-contained.

Fallen
04-26-2012, 10:02 PM
And viewing is the medium for which Shakespeare's plays are intended. The dynamics of the performance, and consequently, the effect on an audience, is a function of the actors' interpretations.

They're talking about music a lot above and getting some of it kind of wrong (in my opinion--I'm a musician), but to read one of Shakespeare's plays for entertainment is like reading the score to a symphony. You can do it if you know how, but the true meaning is better found in one's reaction to a human interpretation of the work, whereas a work of fiction, great or otherwise, is by definition self-contained.

Good points.

I don't think anything is ever really self-contained. For example, I love the term 'don't judge a book by its cover', yet another mode (cover art) is employed to make you do just that. It's multimodel like a play. You'd get a few raised brows if you bought a copy of Gone with the Wind and the cover page had a wig flying off a bald man's head. You're appealing with two modes to stir a reaction in your intended audience.

Mr. Anonymous
05-03-2012, 09:53 AM
Hi Richard, bloodfiend and Amadan, sorry for not responding, I've been meaning to but the past few days have been really busy with end-of-semester finals and lots of other nonsense. I'll try to respond, even if briefly, but if I don't I just wanted to say that I've read your posts and appreciate your thoughts/having had the chance to discuss with you.

Hiroko
05-04-2012, 01:16 AM
To put it as I think it is, great literature is usually well thought out, well written, and often well-consumed. It refuses to die, and really, can't.