Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Objective Quality

"People often say that comedy is subjective... and it is.  But then, so's almost everything else about writing, and we can still speak intelligently about "good" and "bad" stories, can't we?"

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?


  1. Hmm, what do I think about this? Seems I might have put together some thoughts for a well-written blog that has handsome guest columnists. Or I might just be feverish again. The ague takes, and she gives as well. Maybe something will magically appear here on Friday?

  2. Haha! I knew it was you all along. Who's clever and handsome now, Danny boy?!

    As far as opinions go... I dunno. I don't really care. People have them, but they don't matter unless someone actually listens to them, whether they're subjective or not. The only time I ever see the argument of subjective vs. objective pop up is when someone makes a negative comment about someone's work, and then that person responds by saying that everything is subjective, so their opinion doesn't matter. It seems like an insignificant point.

    I feel like if you have at least some understanding of how stories work it's pretty obvious if any specific one is good or not. There's a quote by G.K. Chesterton that says, "A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author," and I think that's about right. Humans are good at picking up on other human's motivations, and when you read someone's writing, it's usually pretty clear whether they were actually trying to do a good job or just phoning it in. You can't fake craftsmanship, after all.

    Point being, I think it's more important to use good judgement to decide who you want to try to encourage/help more than it is to worry about if what you say is subjective or objective, because you never know how anything you say is actually going to be taken anyway. Spend your time and energy wisely. Don't be a toolbag. Do that and hopefully it'll work out okay in the end.

    1. I feel like that last paragraph is advice I could've used a lot sooner in my life.

    2. And so the student has become the master.

      Somewhere in the distance, an ancient Chinese gong sounds.

  3. So, subjective good, eh?
    Let's take a step back from "subjective" to "good."

    Quite possibly the most interesting thing I heard in that one philosophy class was a proposed definition for moral and non-moral good. As best I can remember it:

    A is a good X if A is, or does, what X-s are supposed, or required to be or do. (non-moral)

    A is good if A is, or does, what things are required to be or do. (moral)

    But while the rest of that class went on to discuss the moral good, I think the non-moral definition of good here is the more interesting idea. It would mean that something cannot be good in a non-moral sense except insofar as it is good for some given purpose. And that purpose, I would argue, would have to be provided by someone, because something cannot have a purpose without someone intending that it be for that purpose. So something also cannot be good in a non-moral sense except insofar as someone intends it to be for some given purpose.

    So if we're talking about good writing, then writing needs a purpose. Of course there are a few it can have: getting some sort of emotional reaction from the reader, getting the reader to think about something in a new way, etc. And while complaints that "you just don't get my story" are common, I'd expect that more often than not people agree about the purpose of a story. I mean, if a writer is even the slightest bit competent, then hopefully what the story is good at will make it clear what the story is meant to do. (Or not, there's always that stuff that's so bad it's funny, which is good for a not-the-original-intention purpose.)

    Then, to the extent that we can agree on what the purpose of a story is, we can argue on a more-or-less objective basis how well it accomplishes that. You don't have to like a story to see that what it sets out to do it does well, and you can enjoy a story that you clearly see did not do what it set out to.

    The stuff you called objective (good grammar, plot makes sense, etc.) it stuff that aids almost any purpose that writing could have, which is why it seems like a universally good thing in writing, whereas some specific characterization, tone, etc. can be good for one purpose but not for another. When people say "It was a good story." the purpose of the story is only implied, and if readers disagree about the purpose of the story, then someone's going to shout SUBJECTIVE! and the discussion will go nowhere, at least in my experience. But for any given purpose this "subjective stuff" (specific characterization, tone, etc.) is largely objectively good (i.e. effective at) or not good. And a story as a whole, given some specific purpose, can also be objectively good at that purpose or not.

    Or at least, that's my opinion.

    Of course, this all gets hellishly more complicated when someone says "Story A is better than story B." Especially when the stories have different purposes, and especially especially when people start thinking that one of those purposes is a more worthwhile purpose than the other.

    1. Judging quality by how well a work achieves its intended purposes seems logical. I especially like that if we go by this definition, then authors who claim to critical readers that they "just don't get it" are indeed bad writers, since by their own admission they would be failing to get across the message they intended to impart.

      Of course, when it comes to so-bad-it's-good works, I think the bottom line is that it's still bad by this measure, even if it can still be enjoyed. It may be that it's good at achieving a different purpose than originally intended, but just in my opinion, I think that the original purpose should be the only one that matters if we judge quality in this way.

      Maybe we can question if the author's stated goal was truthfully what the work's actual purpose is (such as if they claim that they're just telling a story but it's obvious there's a lot of real life allegories), but I don't really believe that it's the place of fans to redefine a work's purpose in contradiction to the creator's actual intent. I'm not really a proponent of Death of the Author, as you might've guessed.

    2. This is a bit of a tangent, but DannyJ's parenthetical comment reminded me. I took a fiction writing class once where everyone had to take turns writing stories that the rest of the class would critique (because obviously the best way to learn how to write is to have a bunch of people that don't know how to write give you a mandated 5-6 critiques per page), and I would say probably 80% just wrote little autobiographical blurbs about random things that happened to them. In a fiction writing class.

      One guy wrote about how he taught his daughter to drive a truck. One girl wrote about when she had a baby. Another guy wrote about his construction job. There was a nonfiction class in that same room right after that one! I don't understand why people do that. Not only were they obviously not fiction, but most of the time they were also reeeally boring. Is it school? Does school just condition people to do assignments wrong? I don't know. Whatever the case, it was weird.

    3. While most people who throw around the phrase "you just don't get it" are bad writers/artists/whatever, it is possible for someone to not get something without it necessarily being the creator's fault. I've certainly experienced moments where I finally grokked something and was able to appreciate it, and while I sometimes think more could've been done to help me, I can also feel like I didn't give the work its due attention. Kinda like finally solving a well-designed puzzle and realizing that they did, in fact, give you all the clues needed

      As for authorial intent, I'd say that only matters insofar as its influence on the text. If it's bad at that, but somehow good at something else (which is unlikely, since the author's intention will guide their creation), then it's still good

      Something that's "so bad, it's good" is just that: bad. The Room, for instance, is an absolutely terrible movie, to the point that it's funny (at least to a point. I'd recommend sticking to highlights rather than watching the whole thing). That clearly wasn't Tommy Wiseau's intention, despite his claims to the contrary. However, I wouldn't call it a good comedy, either. The key here might be that it isn't consistently funny. Had a competent director deliberately made such a comedy, the result would've been different

    4. @SV

      I've also attended creative writing classes, and that sounds very much like the kind of experience I had there, too. Not the writing about themselves thing, but just the general mediocrity of class assignments. And yeah, having amateurs critique other amateurs helps nobody. I know that from experience. If anything, getting a bunch of inexperienced writers in one place stifles improvement rather than fosters it, because they're too quick to reassure and defend each other rather than critique.


      Well, I was generalising when I made that statement. There are always outliers who really might miss something and thus not like it, which, yeah, isn't the author's fault. A work isn't bad for having outliers. But if the author is saying "You just don't get it!" to every third commenter, that's a pretty clear indication to me that it's their fault for failing to get their message across, not the reader's.

    5. "I'm not really a proponent of Death of the Author, as you might've guessed."

      I am, with pitchforks and torches if necessary.
      (I kid, of course)

      But if, somehow, a monkey at a typewriter produced a copy of Shakespeare's work (and Shakespeare had not; the monkey's was the only copy we had.) I think it would be strange to say that it's not a good work just because the monkey didn't know what it was doing. It doesn't make the monkey a good writer, but the work's merits shouldn't be ignored.

      Though I could understand not wanting to ignore the author's intent. The author has put a lot of time and work into what they created, and disregarding their own take on it seems like a slap in the face to the person who we have to thank for the story existing at all.

    6. @DJanny

      I got kicked out of that class for my critiques being too mean. I was trying to be fair though, so I guess go me for sticking it to the man!

      Also the whole "getting a bunch of amateurs together" scenario doesn't speak too well for the internet, but hey, at least on the internet it isn't mandatory, nor does it cost hundreds of dollars.

    7. @SV

      I also got spoken to about the harshness of my critiques once, and honestly, I still don't get what I said wrong now. Far as I recall, I just said that it's bad practice to leave out explaining elements that are crucial to understanding the story. Maybe they just didn't like my tone or something. I don't really remember.

      And yeah, you can observe that effect on the internet all the time. is a great example of what happens when you get a bunch of amateur writers in one place. It turns into a hugbox, because they all spend too much time patting each other on the back rather than being blunt and critical with each other, partially because none of them have much knowledge to pass on. And without experiencing and getting used to criticism, those people become fragile and easily upset.

      @Unremarkable Pony

      If Shakespeare's works WERE created by monkeys entirely by coincidence with no intended meaning behind them, then I think that fan interpretations do become important, because they can't conflict with anything. Same with works written by authors who themselves believe in Death of the Author and deliberately leave their works ambiguous. Some art really does rely on its audience to impose meaning onto it.

      But for me, I don't like Death of the Author because I think that any author who DOES have intentions becomes a part of their work, whether they want to or not. Rejecting the author's intent for a work, for me, is like rejecting a part of the work itself. Some people are fine with that. You see it in this fandom all the time, such as when people argue that the comics aren't canon despite what Hasbro says.

      I'm not fine with that. I think that it's not my place as a fan to decide what is and isn't a true part of the story, because the actual writers who make the story aren't working by my interpretation, but by theirs, and so theirs is what becomes canon if they ever continue a work. I say "Rarity's parents are dead." The staff say, "No, they aren't." I say, "Death of the Author." Then they make season 2, and Rarity's parents show up and have speaking lines.

      Death of the Author has done me no favours there, and I'm forced to either rescind my interpretation, or progress onto saying that canon itself isn't canon because I prefer my own ideas that were just contradicted. And by that point I may as well stop using words like "canon" at all, because I'm just making up whatever I like with no regard to the reality of the work that started all this.

      I get that this is probably not a popular opinion I'm arguing here, but that's how I see it. I think that it's a very blurry line between interpretting a work differently than how the author intended, and ignoring the work itself. An author and their creations are just too closely linked for me to feel comfortable ignoring the author.

    8. @DannyJ

      That's a way of seeing it I hadn't thought of before.
      And I'll admit to not considering the comics (head-)canon, but that's mostly because I don't want the fact that I haven't read them to stop me from enjoying the MLP world. It wouldn't bother me to have to change that head canon if the contents of the comics became somehow important.


      Wait, are you implying that there was a writing class that was somehow mandatory, that cost hundreds of dollars, that was full of only armatures, and that you got kicked out of for giving harsh but constructive criticism? Good God am I glad I didn't go to your school!

    9. amateurs*

      Is there an "edit" option I can't find.
      And yes I see the irony in this.

    10. So you're saying that because you haven't read them, you'd feel like you're not fully aware of the world anymore if you took them as canon? ...I guess I can understand that. I certainly wouldn't want to have to read every mediocre comic in IDW's library just to feel informed, because some of them are legitimately awful. But I read them all anyway, because I just generally enjoy the series.

      For my part, whenever I write fanfics nowadays, I adhere to comic canon as best I can. But ignoring the comics is the popular thing to do right now, so I'm not bothered by it in stories.* I don't want to get on everyone's case for not knowing the same obscure knowledge that I do. For me, being a comic reader just means the occasional moment of satifcation when I'm reading a story and recognise a comic reference.

      *People in forums actually trying to argue what Equestria is canonically like, on the other hand...

    11. @Unremarkable Pony

      The class wasn't mandatory, but the 5-6 critiques per page were, even if you didn't think there was anything wrong in particular, as was participation. Terrible, horrible participation. Other than that, yes! It was the worst. I also took that nonfiction writing class I mentioned earlier, and it had the exact same setup. The teacher was better though, so at least the unhelpfulness was streamlined.

      I was willing to pay for the classes because I thought that if an official institution made specifically for teaching people things was willing to charge so much for something, then they must have at least some sort of results backing them up to justify it, but I was wrong. School is dumb. I still want to believe that somewhere out there is a place that puts in actual effort to teach things right without wasting student's time with meaningless busywork and trying to scam them out of as much money as they can, but I've never found it. Oh well.

      Also I don't know of any way to edit posts post-post, so your irony is excused.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Darnit. I'm apparently still working on clicking the right button for a reply.

  5. "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 can only describe the world in relation to myself. If I say, "That ladder is 6 feet tall," I'm only describing it in relation to myself. To someone passing by at half the speed of light, it's 5'2".

    And yet I have described an objective fact.

    I'm not futzing with physics like those doofuses who say quantum mechanics means you have a soul. I'm pointing out that all facts are known to a person only insofar as that person can measure them from her point of view.

    Saying "That story is good" is much like saying "That ladder is good." I may be an apple farmer who mainly uses ladders to pick apples. I may have especially short or tall apple trees. I may be especially short or tall myself. I like lightweight ladders because I have to carry them all around the orchard. I don't care if they conduct electricity. I want a platform that can hold a bushel basket. So when I say that ladder is good, I really am talking about objective truths about the ladder, given what I want it to do.

    Many of the disagreements about how good stories are, are disagreements about what stories should do for us. People do all sorts of things with words and call them "stories". This is sometimes misleading. To talk about objective quialites, we really ought to state the kind of story we're talking about.

    Some properties are very general. Ladders that are wobbly or missing rungs are bad for most everyone. But the more general a property is, the more obvious and less interesting it is.