Off Topic on Bad Books

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at
Thu Sep 2 14:49:37 EDT 1999

I'm so glad you wrote this, Nat!  And it doesn't sound one bit like a flame.
If we don't have dissenting opinions, we have no discussion--just a bunch of
people nodding their heads.  (Or, worse, a bunch of people who are afraid to
voice their own dissenting opinions....)

On Wed, 01 Sep 1999 20:27:54 -0400, Nat Case wrote:

>I really object to the idea of any arts judgement we make as "objective".
>From what "objective" point are you making this judgement? There are
>cultural standards, which we all have inherited one way or another, but I
>just don't buy that there's ANY objective basis of aesthetic judgement that
>cannot be challenged and put on its head.

Well, certainly.  Otherwise we couldn't have this discussion.  But I was not
talking only about aesthetic judgement.  I don't believe that any discussion
of art is by definition about aesthetics (meaning the beauty and
pleasingness of a work, and if you meant something different please correct
me).  I am not well informed about visual arts, but I do know that art
critics are always talking about technique and execution and things like
that.  Aren't these things *objective* criteria, and the relative weight a
critic puts on each element *subjective*?  I know that's the case with
literary criticism.  The literary critic for the paper I subscribe to is
extremely annoying to me because the things he values in books don't matter
to me at all.  But we both agree that there are techniques that make
characters come alive--ways of describing which are cliched--and so forth.
And there's not only one way, either.  Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen are
pretty different in their styles of characterization, yet I'd say both of
them are good at it.  There's a lot of room for different things to be
"good" according to my definition.

>A lot of what I'm working on now is precisely the question of what people
>get from "bad" writing. "Objectively," I don't think it's all that different
>from what we get from Jones. At the core of wanting to read a book, see a
>film, look at a painting, listen to music, or whatever, is the experience of
>being down in the middle of something DIFFERENT. And our different tastes,
>and beyond that, our different fundamental ideas of what is Good Art and
>what is Schlock, have much more to do with our society, our social selves,
>and our experiences outside the work in question, than they do to the work

Then what do you make of the fact that we have a canon of literature, made
up of stories and poems and novels and essays from every period of human
history that we have access to, which is more or less considered a necessary
reading list?  The titles included in this canon bear out what you're
saying; feminists fight to have more works by women included, blacks fight
for more African-American literature (yeah, I know, I'm an American) because
they have different fundamental ideas of what is good.  But the fact that we
have even the CONCEPT of a list of works that everyone should read is, I
think, significant to what *I'm* trying to say.

The supposed quality of a novel--whatever you mean by quality--should never
be a tool to bludgeon someone with.  It always comes down to "this is a
crappy book, how on earth can you enjoy it?" and that's just plain elitist.
Elitist and MEAN.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but what I understand from your
paragraph immediately above is that "goodness" is more related to enjoyment
(which, as you say, comes down to a lot of factors outside the actual book)
than it is to any innate quality.  (That's horribly simplistic, I'm sorry.)
I can understand this.  But I am nevertheless impressed by novels that have
been read and appreciated not only in their own time, but centuries
later--when there are dozens of other books which were wildly popular and
now are little more than trivia questions (unless you happen to be writing a
thesis about them).  And the books that HAVE lasted have a lot more in
common with each other than they do with their contemporaries that didn't.

Talking about books is so difficult because we have only the words we are
given, and trying to redefine those words--or even to get people to agree on
the exact shade of meaning they convey--is nigh impossible.  I am aware that
using the HIGHLY subjective terms "good" and "bad" to talk about what I
think are objective qualities is ironic.  Reading over all of this I become
convinced that we're still on different tracks and Nat is going to respond
with something like "you ninny, that is not at all what I said!" but that
just means that everyone who doesn't care about this discussion will be
using the delete key a lot in the near future.  When it comes to science and
literature, I take a stand that is summed up by two things:  1) My
understanding is based on things I've learned that I think are true, and 2)
Ongoing research may prove me wrong and at that point I'll have to reformat
my opinions.  And I would rather be having a more or less heated discussion
about whether I'm right than sitting in a corner of my ivory tower spurning
all the idiots who don't agree with me.

>Sorry to sound like a flame, but I do get het up about this stuff. 

I hope not TOO het up, because I don't (unless you call me stupid, at which
point it's pistols at dawn).

>This list
>is such a great way to crystallize ART IS A TOOL (working title). And now
>I've got some time in October and January to write up this stuff. I expect
>I'll be running it past you all... and in the meantime as well.

That sounds wonderful!  I'm looking forward to it.  What are you doing, by
the way?  Is this some sort of academic thesis or just for fun?  :)

Melissa Proffitt
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