Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Subjectivity of Writing

If asked, every American would admit that art is subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, one man’s trash is another’s treasure, etc. Then they proceed to identify a series of movies, books, and authors who are “just absolute crap.” When analyzing and considering the writing world, this shift of judgment leads to problems for the author who actually cares about improvement. The subjectivity of subjectivity is one of the more confusing aspects when it comes to working to be a “better” writer.

I say there is no such thing as quality. “Good or bad” is better said as “effective or not.” Upon telling my teacher that senior year of college, his immediate response, similar to most’s response, “Then how come the other professors and I can watch the freshman’s auditions and agree on who is good or who isn’t?”

My response being, “Way to be supportive, you abusive hack."

The response, of course, being a silent one.

There is an obvious answer; the three faculty members were notorious for not having their own opinions or defending them, each being a special brand of yes man. So when discussing the talents or lack thereof of the students who paid 100,000 dollars to be there, they would systematically start agreeing with each other without even being aware of it.

But to just leave the answer at, “You’re just easily influenced,” would be lying about the reality of the situation.

You could bring several individuals into a room and give them a “bad” story, and, without having any prompting, see them agree on not liking it. Though I don’t believe that there is such a thing as actual quality, I recognize when a story is not up to my standards. In fact, if I truly believed that there was no such thing as good or bad, I would never edit a story because that would be a form of concealing the truth. My first draft would be what my mind is telling me to write about. The child-like view I sought to get rid of is how I truly perceive reality. The typos and grammar errors and Freudian slips reveal more about the English language than anything consciously accurate. The long, boring tangents into daily activities illustrates what my concerns are. Making changes to a draft to make it “better” wouldn’t make any sense.

There are two aspects that control the quality of a work and combat the subjectivity of "good."

One, culture; two, purpose.

Every book is written for a reason. It has a purpose onto itself, an intended point, a goal it hopes to achieve, whether or not the author is aware of it. Even stories of conversation, recollections, and gossip, have some sort of motivation. That intention could be as simple as being entertaining or as complex as enlisting help for the starving children in Africa.

No one writes, speaks, or even acts without a motive. We may not notice it consciously, but it’s still there. A book wants to do something—make the reader laugh, like the main character, or even just provoke thought. In that sense, a bad book does not achieve its goals, a good one does.

This, of course, still creates subjectivity in two parts. Not all authors have the same goals and not all readers will be affected by the same things. If, for example, the goal was to make someone cry, a style that is incredibly accurate for one soul is a waste of time for another.

But, it can be agreed that a book should do something for the reader, and stories that barely affect him at all isn't worth a read.

It gets complicated, however, because if we start defining quality by success of an objective, we would have to first and foremost know what the author’s objective was and assume he’s not lying about it. Secondly, just because an author did what he sought out to do, does not mean that it will be a fantastic book. If he paid only attention to exploring a problem and none to being at all interesting, he’s hurt himself pretty badly.

Of course, we could look at it as entertaining people and getting them to read the book would help fuel his goal, but either way, you get my gist. If an author wants to do something (say, make money) and he does it (say, by using them to transport drugs across the boarder) you're not necessarily going to get the noble prize for that one, nor should you.

The second aspect of agreed about “quality” has to do with culture.

Let me put it this way: If a person were to walk into work at Wall Street wearing sagging jeans and a football Jersey, would the majority of the population recognize it as weird?

I’m going to finish that rhetorical question as absolutely yes. They may not say it’s weird, they may not even think the actual word “weird,” but they would notice, and, with the exception of a few open-minded liars, everyone would agree that it is unusual.

But why? What is the practical use of a suit that makes it fit for that situation? Little, outside of simple appearance. We expect it because so many people follow that trend, and they really only follow it because of the expectation. Who’s going to buy 10,000 dollars of stock from a man who looks like he is waiting for the super bowl? Unless, perhaps, he actually going to be playing the game, but that's a whole other issue altogether.

Yet, it’s not some concrete rule of the universe. You bring someone over from a village in Zimbabwe whose culture has its own fashion laws, he’s not going to immediately know that the outfit is inappropriate, and he probably won’t be able to tell you what the man “should” be wearing.

It’s the same for art. The brain incorporates certain things as normal and has certain expectations to maintain that normalcy. Of course, and here's the problem, no one wants to read a book that can only be described as “normal;” readers demand for the author to defy expectations constantly. So an expectation is to defy expectations.

But this pressure to challenge the standards of protocol still has a great deal of regulations attached to it. The “weirdness” must be deliberate and it must have a reason. Why? Because someone who walks into Wall Street with a gold and green jersey to make a statement about individuality is very different than someone who doesn’t know how to dress properly. Unfortunately, sometimes it's hard to identify a statement from naivety, which can often lead to the credit of those who don't deserve it and the detriment to those who do.

Quality is contextual. There are too many people with too many personalities and too many different expectations to appease all of them with one concrete rule. Art cannot be classified as right or wrong, it just appeals to the largest number of people it can. In order to do that, it requires the upkeep of appearances and consideration of basic sociology. An author must be willing to use and manipulate preexisting notions unless his plan is to just depend on dumb luck.