When we say a piece of fiction is “good,” what do we mean? And is this elusive “goodness” an entirely subjective affair, something that each reader gets to judge for herself, or is it possible to say something objective about it?
Yesterday’s post, and the responses to it, set me thinking about this. It’s a tricky question.
Works of fiction are made of words. They exist only in people’s minds. If we’re judging house construction, we can legitimately say, “This house was well built: It stood up to a hurricane. This other house was badly built: It fell down.” But the standards for fiction can’t possibly be that concrete.
Perhaps talking in terms of “objective” vs. “subjective” creates a false dichotomy. Is it necessarily the case that all subjective judgments are equal? Let’s suppose a man and a woman are having a serious marital fight. Their subjective experiences of what’s going on are quite different. Do we have to shrug and say, “Each spouse is right in his or her own frame of reference, and there’s no way to get beyond that”?
No. We call in a marriage counselor. In theory at least, the counselor is an expert. The counselor can suggest areas where each spouse’s subjective perceptions are incorrect or unhelpful.
In judging fiction, we need to be ready to defer to, or at least carefully weigh, the views of experts. If you have five friends who tell you your new story is terrific, but two writing teachers and three editors tell you the story is weak, you need to examine your friends’ credentials and motivations with care. You also need to examine the credentials and possible biases of the experts, of course — most experts have enthusiasms and blind spots, and many have agendas, overt or covert.
At the end of the day, though, the opinions of the experts will quite likely be of more value to you than the opinions of your friends. At least, they’ll be more valuable if your goal is to write better and perhaps sell your work.
People who spend a lot of time reading fiction, writing fiction, and thinking about fiction understand many things that are not readily apparent to a casual reader. They can spot lapses of technique. They’re aware of theme and symbolism. They will recognize and reject cliches. If a story lacks focus, the expert, whose time is valuable, will yawn and stop reading, unlike your friend, who will plow through to the end and then assure you (quite sincerely) that it’s a terrific story.
This does not mean all experts will agree with one another. At the expert level, judgments are still subjective. But the expert’s subjectivity is qualitatively different from the casual reader’s.
The expert knows what good writing looks like. The casual reader doesn’t.
I guess my friends are lucky that my short stories are short: it doesn’t take them long to “plow through to the end.”