subjective illusions: on criticism

This quote is from W.H. Auden, who was one of the principal poets of the last century. It comes from his autobiography (it’s not a standard autobiography, but there’s not much else to call it), A Certain World:

For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.

This both interests and disturbs me, because while it looks very even handed and reasonable, there’s one flaw I can’t get past. Every book must fall into one of two primary categories: this is good or this is trash.

So I tried to figure out how this does or doesn’t work for me. I’ve named novels that fall into each category, for me personally.

1. I can see this is good, and I like it. The Magician’s Assistant; Pride & Prejudice; A Thread of Grace

2. I can see this is good, but I don’t like it. almost all of James Joyce

3. I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that [with perseverance] I shall come to like it. Atonement

4. I can see that this is trash but I like it. I prefer the wording: guilty pleasures: Princess Daisy

5. I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it. DaVinci Code

But there are so many books that don’t fit into any of these five categories. Many, many books that I cannot call good, or trash. So now I’ll try to come up with my own variant on Auden’s list. In the meantime I’m off to Starbucks, my laptop firmly under my arm.

With apologies to Auden, this book evaluation scheme works for me better than his more streamlined version.

***** well written, great characters, great plot

**** some flaws, but still all around pretty darn good

*** nothing out of the ordinary

** some redeeming features

* poorly written, cardboard characters, terrible plot

(+) I like it.

(-) I don’t like it. (boring, annoying, irritating)

(~)Under other circumstances, I might come to like it.

Storyworkings-1

Now, thinking about this further, I would be even more comfortable going the whole way and using the system I set up when I was trying to figure out why some novels become best sellers. You see the diagram here, with seven categories. That would mean, for example, that a given novel might be a 6(~) or a 4(+) or (less likely) a 1(+), in my evalation.

A German idiom comes to mind: warum einfach, wenn es kompliziert auch geht?

The comment function should be working now; however, if you run into an error message, please email me, okay? Because that’s the only way I know that something’s off. In the meantime, this comment from Robyn on my Auden-esque ramble:

I’ve decided that my qualifiers for a Great Read (one
worthy of shelf space and re-reading and pressing on
to others) is, it: made me laugh, made me cry, got me
sexually or sensually involved, made me think, and had
at least one compelling character who CHANGED or
LEARNED and whom I still cared about some time after I
had closed the book. For bonus points, or if one of
these areas was weak or neglected, having been
surprised in a satisfied manner (or satisfied in a way
I didn’t see coming).

If it made me see something in a new way, or had a few
words that stuck in my head that I had to copy down to
read again, that’s extra points, too.

If I can’t muster that much critical energy, then the
fast, economy test for me is a two-pronged question —

Did it keep me in a trance? (judged by, lost track of
time, lost track of where I was, wasn’t bothered by
bodily signals) and, When I came out of the trance,
was I glad I had read it? (vs. embarassed, ashamed,
cheated of the time, made slightly worse as a person,
etc.)

So, interesting — I, the consumer, judge a read by
the effects it has on me. You, the pro, (pro-ducer and
pro-fessional) describe it in terms of its structure,
prose, etc.

I love your illustration, btw. Putting things in their
proper spot on a Venn diagram always makes me feel
that the world is in a teeny bit better order [g]

Now see, this is why I need input. Because Robyn’s qualitative questions work in a way that my venn diagram does not. I suppose my approach has some merits, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, basically Robyn’s two-pronged question:

Did it keep me in a trance? (judged by, lost track of
time, lost track of where I was, wasn’t bothered by
bodily signals) and, When I came out of the trance,
was I glad I had read it? (vs. embarassed, ashamed,
cheated of the time, made slightly worse as a person,
etc.)

I’m not sure where the compulsion comes from to quantify something so objective and personal as a story. Maybe my academic training; maybe the fact that my right and left brains are always in a struggle for the upperhand. Maybe because it’s what I do for a living, and as Robyn says, it just gives me a feeling of having some kind of understanding or control over a process that is opaque by its very nature.

Off to write.