Writing, as with any form of art, often defies our attempts to evaluate its merits in an objective way. We already know that. Aquaman wrote a pretty involved blog entry that does try to make the case that it’s very possible to describe any form of art as good or bad. I tend to agree that for the most part, this is true. And in “for the most part,” I mean it in both senses: that it’s true of most pieces of art, and that for any given single piece of art, that holds for most of its characteristics. “Your mileage may vary,” as the qualifier goes, which then always leaves this open-endedness to just about any conversation of whether we’ll agree to call something good or not.
Where the conversation often derails is the split between head and heart. I can’t help liking what I like, and neither can the next guy. Ideally, head and heart would agree, but good luck with that. And therein lies the dilemma for the reviewer. Though that also depends on what type of reviewer, of course.
Back in the first guest column I wrote for this blog, I discussed the difference between author-centric and reader-centric reviews. No need to rehash that discussion here (just click on the link!), but the distinction can be a bit nuanced, and I find more and more that someone reading a review really has to know which angle the reviewer takes, because it can significantly alter how you might interpret his opinion. There are three major divisions on this spectrum: put your opinion out there for whoever cares; try to help readers find things they like, even if they’re things you don’t; and try to help the author improve his work.
I’ll pick on Titanium Dragon a bit, because he can take it, and because this won’t actually criticize him. We’ve had several discussions, almost always about reviews of write-off entries, regarding what constitutes a “good” story. There’s been a running joke going around for a while that “Titanium Dragon doesn’t like anything,” though he’s certainly not the only one (I’m looking at you, InquisitorM). But does that mean that stories he doesn’t like are bad? Or that he even thinks they’re bad? Indeed, a “not recommended” rating can mean anything from “I hated it” to “it’s inoffensive.” If I found that a story didn’t waste my time, but it didn’t make an impression on me, either, then, no, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s all in the words: “not recommended” doesn’t mean any more than it says on its face.
But then the real question: recommended to whom? I certainly don’t hold myself up as the end-all arbiter of what people should or shouldn’t read. I especially like this about Chris’s reviews: for nearly every story, he lists what types of people he suspects would enjoy it, even if he didn’t. As a reviewer, that’s a harder thing to do than most people might expect. And not every reviewer has to.
So if a reviewer says a story is “not recommended,” someone reading the review needs to understand what comes after the the implied “to” that follows. Chris comes at it from the other direction, of course, and he spells out what audiences he’d recommend the story to. Present Perfect has something similar, where he has his “conditionally recommended” rating with some sort of qualifier attached. Absent any of that, the only assumption can be that the story is “not recommended” to people who very closely hew to the reviewer’s mindset and tastes. I interpret it more as “I wouldn’t add it to my Favorites bookshelf” than anything else. And here, I think, is why Titanium Dragon and I seem to talk at cross-purposes when discussing this. I tend to take “not recommended” as saying the story has concrete, objective things wrong with it, while the truth may lie closer to a personal, subjective reason, which doesn’t invalidate the opinion at all. It just means we don’t view it from the same vantage point.
So the main thing I want to illustrate in this column is one that I say to reviewers especially, every opportunity I get, but also one that applies equally to the audience for those reviews: “I didn’t like it” is a very different thing than “It was bad.”
From the perspective of someone writing a blog, that may not be an important distinction to make. The blogger can call anything he doesn’t like “bad,” and the reader’s free to put as much stock in that as he pleases, whether from the persuasiveness of the blogger’s argument, the number of times their tastes have matched up in the past, or whatever. And to be fair, quite a bit of overlap will occur between the two. Something demonstrably wrong, like averaging a misspelled word every other sentence, will certainly hamper my enjoyment of a story. Thus, many justifiable “it was bad” reasons also become “I didn’t like it” reasons. That’s the easy part.
Here’s the fun part: liking a story that’s bad. Now, some solid reasons do exist for this, like the story had such a strong premise that it drew you in, but that just barely compensates for mediocre writing. We all have our guilty pleasures, though, and are willing to overlook shoddy writing because we find the storyline so amusing or interesting.
And then the difficult part: recognizing that a story you didn’t like is good. You won’t see many reviewers do this. but for a certain type of reviewer, it’s essential. For a review blogger, it’s pretty much implicit anyway that the rating is tied to whether he liked the story. When I ask Titanium Dragon about this—whether there are good stories he doesn’t like—his response has more or less been that this constitutes a paradoxical statement. If he doesn’t like them, then of course they’re not good. And for an opinion blog, that’s an entirely defensible answer. He merely wants to lift up that which he likes, and it becomes an exercise for the reader to decide whether he agrees. Again, it goes back to what constitutes the reviewer’s audience and intent.
Where this practice breaks down is in a position like a pre-reader for Equestria Daily, The Royal Guard, or the Royal Canterlot Library. We don’t have that luxury. I don’t want Equestria Daily’s archive to become “stories that Pascoite likes.” I want it to become “stories that pass a quality threshold,” which will have a lot in common, though there will be some stories that exist in only one of those groups. I put this question to Titanium Dragon once: would he ever give a “recommended” rating to a story he didn’t like? I never got an answer. Perhaps “recommended” means he likes it by definition, which is a moot point. But it’s still an interesting question for any reviewer to ponder, and for some, it’s a necessity for their job. I have approved stories for Equestria Daily that I didn’t like. I have favorited stories I didn’t like. It won’t happen often, of course, because I’m not going to choose stories from the submission queue that I suspect I’ll hate. I’ll start them to see if they should be rejected for errors in mechanics, characterization, etc., but if after a few pages, my only objection is my own distaste, which I can’t boil down to some concrete defensible thing the author has done wrong, then I’ll leave the story for someone else who’s more likely to enjoy it. WRITE works like this, too: reviewer preferences are known, and the moderators assign stories accordingly, so that personal biases are minimized.
So after hundreds more words, I finally get to another of my chief reviewing rules: judge the story for what it is, not for what you want it to be. Yes, a gray area exists. I want a story to use correct spelling, but of course I’ll ding a story for failing to do so. I’ve had discussions with other experienced reviewers about this as well, and it’s tough to know where to draw that line. I once got a critique of a story that amounted to “the first scene had me looking forward to an adventure story, but then it turned into a comedy.” Is that fair? Tonal shifts can be risky, and maybe it wasn’t handled well. Maybe I intended comedy all along, but the first scene’s jokes just didn’t land to create that atmosphere. There can be genuine criticisms of it, but when the only point ever made was “I wanted an adventure but got a comedy,” then that isn’t an objective judgment of the story. Now, if the author keeps getting the same subjective criticism, like an accusation of “boring,” it may fall to him to determine why; weight of numbers does at some point start to indicate a problem.
[Just to add to this: if you've never written reviews, I at least have sometimes found it very hard to separate "this is how the story is" from "this is how much better the story could have been." The latter is a very useful skill when you're editing for someone; the former is what's more important for a review -Chris]
That brings me to another closely related rule: don’t ding the author for not writing something the way you would. I will certainly give advice on this front. I’ll tell an author if I think his story would have carried much more impact with a limited narrator, or whether his subplot deserves to be the main plot. But it’s not fair to cite those as failings. I can say that his omniscient narrator spent too much time describing unimportant details of the setting, or that the main plot has a logical inconsistency, but those aren’t grounds to declaim his choices of premise and narrative voice as wrong.
So I’ve rambled on long enough, and those are the three chief rules I use to try and approach as objective a position as possible when judging a story. I do that because I have to, but reviewers in general can have their stamp of approval represent whatever they like. However, it helps if they acknowledge what it means so that their audiences understand the product, which also reduces conflicts between authors and reviewers. Anyone’s entitled to say they don’t like a story, after all, and the author can respect that. Calling it bad for nebulous, overly subjective, or nonexistent reasons isn’t justified.
- Don’t confuse preference with quality.
- Don’t make the author write the story you want to read.
- Don’t make the author write it how you would.
Of course, the opposites are true as well, which can be summarized in a single statement: don’t overstate a story’s merits just because it hit your sweet spot.
There's a Steven R. Donaldson quote I like to trot out every now and then, which I think bears on both this and Wednesday's post: "bad is objective, good is subjective." What he meant by that is that the reasons a bad story fails are usually pretty obvious and difficult to argue with (often falling into the categories DannyJ spoke about), but that what separates a great story from a merely competent one is much harder to encapsulate cleanly, and avoiding the preference/quality confusion Pasco talks about can be tricky. Still, it's an important thing to at least try to do; how much poorer would the world of fiction be, if we could say nothing of incredible stories beyond "it wasn't bad?"
Well, that's it for this summer's guest post takeover! I'd like to take one more opportunity to thank Icy Shake, Bachiavellian, Aragon, DannyJ, and Pascoite for contributing such wonderful columns. I hope you've all enjoyed them as much as I have--getting to sort through these was a treat, let me tell you. In any case, I'll be back in town and blogging away again on Monday. Until then!