I said that at the bottom of Monday's post (you did read all the way to my blurb at the bottom, right? Right?)... but if writing is so darn subjective, then how can we have a conversation that doesn't just devolve into unsupported opinion-slinging? How can we talk about any sort of writing at all without prefacing our statements with "but that's just what I think?"
Today, that question is answered, courtesy of DannyJ. You might know him from either his comments on this blog, or his various stories. Click down below the break for his ideas of what we can--and can't--say about stories in the category of "factual statements."
Hello, audience I'm not used to writing for! I'm DannyJ, AKA that guy you see in the comments occasionally, and today I wanted to discuss how we define what is bad and good in relation to our own opinions and the opinions of others. That seems like a suitably high-brow topic for a blog like OMPR, right? It does to me. So let's discuss.
When we examine fiction in any medium, we all carry with us our own biases – our likes, our dislikes, and all the others little things. This very blog is a good place to observe said biases in action. Chris has often expressed before a review that, for example, shipping is not generally his thing. Commenters often bring up their own preferences in reading as well after some reviews. I myself have before expressed my need for interesting central concepts to get me involved in a story, and the lack of one will often lose me regardless of the work's other merits.
Through the lens of these biases that we carry with us, we then determine what it is we enjoy about fiction, and therefore what works of fiction we like and dislike. But does liking something actually equate to it being good? And does disliking something actually mean it's bad? I don't think many of the usual audience here will disagree with me when I say that no, a work's actual quality is not determined by whether or not you or I liked it.
I think it'd be pretty egotistical of me to say that a work is bad solely because I don't like it, or that it's good just because I do like it, at least if we do so without the additional qualifier, "In my opinion..." The problem a stance like that is that it denies a work of fiction any claim to having value and identity of its own. If I only define the world in relation to myself, and say that its nature is determined by my opinion, then that would be refusing to acknowledge that which exists outside of my own narrow view. I've compared this to solipsism before, and I think that that's apt, because like solipsism, it's a worldview that focuses heavily on the self and on disbelieving or ignoring the world outside our own minds, to perhaps oversimplify things a little.
This is why it's important to make the distinctions between our own opinion and what we consider the "facts" about a work, and this allows us to have conflicting feelings. I can say, for example, that I liked the first Equestria Girls movie. But I am not going to argue that it's a good movie, as I recognise [I just want to point out that the temptation to "fix" that -ise is overwhelming... but I resisted, here and throughout. You're welcome -Chris] that those are two different things. "I enjoyed it" is a statement that only matters in relation to me, as it's my opinion, whereas "it is good" without the above-mentioned qualifier implies a statement of fact.
But so much about fiction is subjective! How can we say, for a fact, that acclaimed work like Shakespeare's plays are actually good, and make that statement independent of our own opinions and biases? Because you might not like Shakespeare at all, but at the same time, you may also recognise merits in his work that would make you call it "good". This is certainly the case for me.
And here we come to the driving question of this essay: is there any way that we can determine what we'd call a story's objective quality, or must the "in my opinion" qualifier always be implied?
Let's discuss story quality independent of our personal opinions. If I enjoy Equestria Girls, but I do not believe it's a good movie, then by what standards am I judging its overall quality? Fiction being subjective, is actual quality as opposed to enjoyment just as much a matter of personal opinion? Am I judging the movie by two different sets of standards, both of them entirely self-constructed, and neither with a basis in fact?
I propose that yes, we do hold two different sets of standards like this, neither of which we can really call "objective", because they are themselves a matter of opinion. But I also believe that an objective quality standard does exist, in a very general sense. So how do we determine it?
There is the phenomenon of "quality by consensus", as we may call it. We generally accept that Shakespeare is good because generations of critics have sung his praises. But can this be called an objective indicator of quality? On the one hand, Shakespeare being good is based on those critics' opinions. On the other hand, it is a fact that the overwhelming majority of critics hold him up as an excellent author.
But there's another problem with quality by consensus, because we cannot claim that popularity is in any way an indicator of quality by itself, since as discussed before, popularity is opinion, and opinions can be highly disagreeable or wrong. Fifty Shades of Gray is popular, but would any of you call it good?
So then we have to specifically say that only the opinions of critics should be factored in, as the general public may like stupid things. And then we have to ask which critics specifically are intelligent enough for their opinions to count, what standards are we judging those critics by, and what percentage of them need to agree that a work is good before the public can say that a work is "objectively good". You obviously see the problem, right? We can't determine things like that in real life, because it's all so very arbitrary. And at the same time, this line of reasoning falls victim to the continuum fallacy – it can't hold up if it requires such an unreasonable amount of specificity.
So despite my initial assumptions, quality by consensus can't be called objective. We can't really use a work's popularity with either the public or the critics to be a real indicator of objective quality, even if I think that the consensus of critics is still a very valuable resource for determining subjective quality, and even though it may be called objectively true that X amount of credible sources hold positive opinions on work of fiction Y.
Where do we find "objective quality", then? Well, for that, I personally like to point towards the things that critics pick apart works of fiction for. Why do we consider Fifty Shades of Gray to be bad? Because it glorified an abusive relationship. Why is My Immortal considered an infamously bad fanfic? Among other things, because its grammar and spelling were atrocious. What is the most frequent criticism Chris brings up for shipping stories? That the author expects the reader to just accept unexplained elements going in when they might not be on board with it. These are all tangible things that we can point to and examine.
So okay, let's examine grammar and run with it. Say I write a fanfic and I do minimal editing, not because I'm intentionally trying to make my work hard to understand, but merely because I cannot be bothered to do it right. I get a variety of readers looking at it, and they respond in various different ways. If you're a real stickler for grammar, you might hate this story and tear it apart in a review. Maybe you're not that critical, though, and you may instead turn off your brain and enjoy it just fine. "I didn't notice any grammar problems," you might say. So it seems we can't objectively say that the story is overall good or bad because of its grammar, because the readers all had different reactions to it, and for some, that particular level of bad grammar was not a hindrance.
But, hold on... The reader who liked the story in this scenario did so in spite of bad grammar, not because of it. The bad grammar didn't negatively impact their experience only because they didn't notice it. But if the problem had hypothetically been worse, and they had noticed it more, then maybe they would have found their enjoyment of the story affected, since providing obstructions to reader comprehension was never my intent? There is something about lazy editing in a story that is considered a universally negative trait. Poor editing can never positively impact a story. At best, it can aspire to not be a hindrance to the portion of the audience it doesn't alienate, but nobody ever prefers the author to be sloppier.
And here, I believe, is where we find what we can call objective quality. Certainly, we still can't call an individual story objectively bad as a whole just because these flaws are present, because subjective reader opinion will vary on how much a flaw affects their experience. And stories have plenty of more subjective elements besides that will also affect our overall opinion of the work, making it a not entirely rational assessment when looking at the whole thing.
But we can point to objectively bad elements now. Poor editing, plot holes, making unwarranted assumptions about the reader (such as that they'll hold the same moral values as the work's protagonist), these are all things that cannot positively impact a reader (at least not when done unintentionally) and can at best only hope to not detract from the experience, whereas their inverses (thorough editing, plot consistency, accounting for a diverse audience), won't ever really negatively impact the story at all, and can only add to a work.
Therefore, I say that if there is any objective measure of quality in fiction, it is by the degree of presence or absence that these elements have. We can make definitive statements with this. I feel justified in saying now that Equestria Girls is quite bad in purely objective terms, because I can point to several plot holes and logical inconsistencies in it that can and have alienated viewers, whereas Shakespeare could be called fairly good in the same terms.
But do keep in mind that objective elements like the grammar are contrasted in every story by subjective elements, such as the characters, the setting, and the themes. And so when we judge a story as a whole, unless you're a robot, your final opinion is still subjective, factoring in both how you reacted to objective elements and how you reacted to subjective ones. And your subjective reaction to each is what leads us to form opinions like, "I like Equestria Girls, but I think it's not a good movie," or "I recognise Shakespeare's skill as a writer, but his work does not appeal to me." One part of the statement is pure opinion, and the other is more factual in our minds, because it's informed by analysis of those objective elements.
And your attitude and standards as a reader are determined by how much importance you place on each. If you're an extremely critical reader who frequently notices out of place commas and the like, you lean more towards objective elements. If you're like me, and you can just turn off your brain and enjoy something like Equestria Girls despite everything it does wrong, it's probably fair to say that you value subjective elements more. Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with either preference. At the end of the day, we like what we like, right?
But I do think that there is something to be said for an objective measure of quality like that. If these can be standards that we can agree upon, then new writers have an immediate starting point when it comes to improving their own writing. It is while working by these standards that we give new writers all the general advice that we don't even think about, like "Improve your editing," or "Make sure that your plot makes sense." At the very least, it's what informs us to learn the rules before we decide to break them.
For my part, I think that my argument is sound on this topic, but maybe you disagree. Do you believe that some of what I call objective elements are not so objective after all? Do you agree with my conclusion but not my reasoning? Or do you disagree entirely? If you have an opinion, voice it. I think there's a lot to be gained from an actual civil discussion on this topic.
What are the facts as you understand them, dear reader?
Thanks for the column, DannyJ! Civil discussion is one of the things that I love most about the ponyfic community; it's kind of depressing how uncommon that is to find in a fandom, but it seems to me that we've got more than a just a couple of places where we can discuss it--and I like to tell myself that one of them is on this blog. So yes: what do you think?