Off Topic on Bad Books

Brian Forsyth zenseal at
Thu Sep 2 15:24:15 EDT 1999

I'm enjoying this discussion, but with a certain amount of, oh, fear might
be a good word for it, since I deal with this topic constantly in the
undergrad lit. courses I teach. I'll try to keep this short & simple because
I can pontificate for hours (which I've avoided doing in my classes thus
far, making it all the more likely my enthusiasm for the discussion will
explode elsewhere--like here).

To use a cliched example of an author people have loved & revered, not to
mention worshipped, over the centuries, you can look at Shakespeare. One can
say that Shakespeare is in the canon because he is a great writer, but if
one looks at the reception history of Shakespeare, he wasn't seen as all
*that* great for the first 150 years or so, until Garrick did his marketing
job on Shakespeare. (The low prestige of drama itself had something to do
with this; I always have the urge to hit my head on something when I think
about the library (I believe the Bodleian--the book I need right now is in
storage) where the head librarian (I believe Thomas Bodley?) didn't want to
waste shelf space on those darn plays because libraries should be for real
literature. The best he managed to do was throw out the old copies of plays
when new ones came in. (You know, you have the First Folio, but you can
chuck it when the second folio comes out.) In the 18th century, lots of
critics thought Shakespeare was a hack. If only he'd get on with the plot
and stop wasting our time with all these stupid soliloquies, they said. What
a lousy poet, they said. He keeps mixing his metaphors. Why can't
Shakespeare just be more like Ben Jonson or John Fletcher, they asked.

We all know the end of the story. Shakespeare is the great canonical writer,
and instead of having "objective" criteria for good literature which we
apply to Shakespeare, we look at Shakespeare, see what he does, and derive
our "objective" criteria *from* Shakespeare. The poor bums like Fletcher are
compared unfavorably to Shakespeare because they didn't write just like him.
If you don't have long soliloquies that stop the action and if you don't mix
your metaphors to provide "complex language," you're not a good writer.

I'm using Shakespeare as an example of what's wrong with a lot of
discussions about "good" & "bad" literature just because he's so darn
familiar, not because I'm trying to start a thread about whether or not
Shakespeare's any good. (Honestly, I do like Shakespeare, but, as I'm
writing my dissertation (that is, I should at this moment *be writing* my
dissertation) on John Fletcher, Shakespeare's occasional collaborator and
successor as chief dramatist for the King's Men, I've had to read a whole
lot of "objective" critiques of Fletcher which simply aren't objective.
Another example of people confusing "objective" standards with pure
prejudice is the study a couple researchers did a while back where they gave
one group of college students an essay supposedly written by Jane somebody
and another group the same essay but with by a John somebody and the group
who read the "woman's" essay reported that it wasn't very good because it
was too emotional and not logical and the arguments were weak, etc., while
those who read the same essay with a man's name rated it much higher and
said it was logical and clear and contained sound arguments and so on.

Sorry about this. I'm really rambling now. In class somebody would've
interrupted me long ago :-). Anyhow, I'm fundamentally skeptical of
"objective" criteria. (At the same time, I can't escape them when I'm having
an exciting conversation about books.)

Thanks to all who've contributed to this interesting thread,

Jennifer Forsyth

-----Original Message-----
From: Melissa Proffitt <Melissa at>
To: dwj at <dwj at>
Date: Thursday, September 02, 1999 11:49 AM
Subject: Re: Off Topic on Bad Books

>I'm so glad you wrote this, Nat!  And it doesn't sound one bit like a
>If we don't have dissenting opinions, we have no discussion--just a bunch
>people nodding their heads.  (Or, worse, a bunch of people who are afraid
>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
>>cannot be challenged and put on its head.
>Well, certainly.  Otherwise we couldn't have this discussion.  But I was
>talking only about aesthetic judgement.  I don't believe that any
>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
>>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
>>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
>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)
>they have different fundamental ideas of what is good.  But the fact that
>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
>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
>the exact shade of meaning they convey--is nigh impossible.  I am aware
>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
>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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