More than you ever wanted to know (was Re: answers from Diana)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at
Tue May 22 01:41:06 EDT 2001

In a long defunct discussion, I wrote:

>>Ven mentioned her off-the-cuff scale of book seriousness from 1 to 10.  I
>>have a similar scale, but it's a little more complex.  I rank books on four
>>main qualities and average those numbers for an overall book score.  (Not
>>literally, I don't read with a calculator in my hand, but in a general
>>sense, my overall score for a book comes from how well or poorly it does on
>>those four things.)  Specifically, I care about:
>>theme--that elusive Wisdom of a book
>>mental challenge--how hard I have to stretch
>>craft--my fallible and snooty evaluation of the writer's technical ability
>>emotional impact--how much it meant to me
>>Numbers two and four are entirely subjective.  Number one is probably the
>>most "objective," insofar as it represents how easy it would be to write a
>>critical essay about the book.  Number three is sort of objective--you can
>>cite rules about what makes good writing--but those rules vary in importance
>>depending on who you talk to and what genre you're reading.

and Hallie responded:

>The first's the one I have a bit of trouble with.  Understanding your 
>scale, and the objectivity/subjectivity of it, I mean.

A long time ago I talked about objectivity versus subjectivity and never got
around to explaining how I thought that was different from universality.
(How many long words can I fit into one sentence?)  I think I said something
about wanting an objective factor when talking about how "good" or "bad" a
book was; basically, I think it should be "I think this book is bad because
it violates principles A, B, and C of good writing" rather than "This book
is bad because I didn't like it."  A couple of people pointed out that
"objectivity" has been used to cover up subjective opinion--one example was
elevating Shakespeare to semi-divine status on the basis of "objective"
fact, while ignoring his many counterparts who could be considered more
"good" than he was.  Something like that, anyway.

To continue my point then, which was even longer ago and further away than
this post to which I am currently replying--"objective" shouldn't mean the
same as "universal."  It just means that you are using some concrete
criteria to discuss a particular text, NOT that your criteria are the
ultimate arbiters of goodness.  In the above example, if someone tells you
that a book is bad because of A, B, and C, you can argue these points--even
to disagreeing that A, B, or C even matter.  You can't really argue with
someone's subjective opinion except to say "well, who cares what you think
anyway?"  The problem with objectivity as I'm defining it is that it *can*
be turned into a universal "truth," which is bad for literary discussion but
good for grading papers or building a career.  But I like it as a foundation
for discussion.  It beats arguing with my mother-in-law, whose definition of
a good romance is one which meets her very narrow criteria of the manner in
which the hero and heroine end up together.  :)

So, in my scale:

*Theme is mostly "objective" because I'm usually not worried about whether
or not I like or agree with the messages that the writer is promoting.
Books get a higher score depending on how easily I think I could write a
critical essay using only the book as my source text.  Hmmm.  I guess that
could be seen as subjective, but replace "I" with "people who know basic lit
crit stuff, like from high school English classes."
*Mental challenge is obviously subjective, because it's dependent on each
reader's experience and ability.
*Craft is objective insofar as I'm using concrete ideas about what makes
good writing technique, but subjective when it comes to how important I
think those elements are.  I'm personally annoyed by certain techniques that
others don't care about.
*Emotional impact is, naturally, subjective.

I have no idea if this is what you were talking about.  I only know that I
managed to write for half an hour and am still not sure whether I said
anything coherent or interesting.  This is the disadvantage to waiting until
11 p.m. to catch up on email.

>  And does 
>character (which I recall your saying was important to you) fit only 
>in number four, or in three as well?

If a character seems to me to be poorly written, it brings down the number
three score.  But, if the character is poorly written, I'm not going to be
interested enough for it to drag down number four as well.  Only the really
well-fleshed-out characters matter on that scale.  So if I really hate a
character that I'm supposed to love (as far as I can tell), it lessens my
enjoyment of the book, but if the character is well-written enough to elicit
an emotional response--even a bad one--it could improve my opinion of the
writer's craft.

>I got a pleasant mental image of a little book-rating calculator 
>busily at work, rather like the chances-of-success/survival 
>calculator in the brain of the character in _Agent of Change_.  :) 
>(Borrowed from Kylie, so I can't check his name.)

That was the only thing I liked about those books.  Talk about a series that
I really disliked--and a complete miss for Alexlit.  (ducking to avoid the

Though I was on the website for that series recently and they did something
interesting with data they collected from the fans who are part of that
community.  It was based on what we did a while back, polling list members
on their favorite books and authors, but tweaking the information a little
to yield something they called the "Fans of Liad Congruent Authors List."
Not an essential "if you like Liaden you have to read this" list, but a
picture of what all those fans had in common.  This is the link to the page
(which also describes the creator's methodology):

I thought this might be an interesting thing to do with the data we
collected on the same topic, if it's still out there somewhere....

Melissa Proffitt
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