A week ago, I tweeted my bafflement regarding this xkcd. And, in the course of explaining the muddled premise of the strip, an acquaintance turned me onto xkcdsucks, which is a blog devoted to dissecting and skewering xkcd.
I found this blog refreshing and highly fascinating. But I was also somewhat repulsed by it, because, like pretty much every person, I know that there’s not really any sort of objective standard for quality in art. I might enjoy a work or not. I might find it complex or simplistic. I might find it discerning or idiotic. But the things I see in it are not inherent in the work, even down to the most micro-level.
I might say that the phrase “Tanya thrust the thruster into overdrive and blasted out towards the farthest reaches of the universe,” is terrible writing because “thrust” is repeated and “farthest reaches of the universe” is a cliché and the two clauses have different subjects (Tanya in the first clause and her [implicit] ship in the second clause). But if someone was to say to me, “No, you’re wrong about that, the thrusted thruster is a poetic repetition that calls to mind the sexual act, and the “farthest reaches of the universe” is meant to call attention to the banality of her ambitions vis a vis the scope of her opportunities” then what am I going to say? What meaning does our analysis really have? All we’re describing is…nothing, none of what we said has any concrete foundation. There is no evidence that repetition is banal, or that it is poetic. There is no proof that clichés are bad writing. Nor is there any possible way to acquire this evidence. All we’re doing is producing mental chaff. That is why I often steer away from any sort of criticism.
Disagreement is an absolute defense to criticism. For instance, I think that if this xkcd strip is about porn characters acting in an uncharacteristic way then that is a really confusing and bad premise because porn is already about ordinary archetypes acting in uncharacteristic ways (i.e. the pizza delivery man doesn’t just deliver your pizzas like he normally would…he also has sex with you), so if a porn character acts in an uncharacteristic way, wouldn’t that just mean that the pizza delivery man would deliver your pizzas?
But someone could easily reply to me, “Oh, no, it’s a brilliant inversion of what you’d expect. It’s a Dada marvel.” And what do I say then? Any attempt to provide some underpinning to my reaction, no matter how clever or even brilliant, can easily run up against the wall of just a single person saying, “That’s not true for me.”
That’s why I am always uncomfortable about criticizing any book or work. Because…those criticisms are usually just not true on the face of it. What does it mean for someone to say that Twilight is bad? Millions of people enjoy it. You might have tons of reasons for why it is bad. But if even one person enjoys something, then there is proof that what you’re saying is wrong.
Again, this is not any sort of new notion. It’s something everyone has thought about. And in fact that’s why there’s a FAQ response on xkcdsucks addressing this very comment. And I think that response is actually pretty smart.
I think the best way to describe [the interplay between subjectivity and objectivity in criticism] is to explain what a critic means when he says “this is bad.” Ideally he goes on to explain himself, but this is not an example of pure subjectivity. What he is saying is this: “many of the objective elements in this are ineffective or badly put together, or the ideas, feelings, and thoughts they tend to evoke are otherwise negative.” This is partially subjective, certainly–but I will then go on to describe why I think that something is put together. If I dislike the pacing, I will explain how the pacing doesn’t flow very well, and tends to be highly disjointed–this is an objective description of the pacing. It does not rely on me as an observer to make it a valid statement. I will then say that I think the pacing is ineffective because of its disjointed flow. This is a subjective statement! You may think the disjointed pacing lends the story a really brilliant, fragmented flow. But when you have finished with a criticism, you should be able to identify precisely what it is about the story (its objective qualities) that evoked that subjective reaction in the writer.
Of course that doesn’t really capture the complexity of what he was saying, because it’s hard to even say the “the pacing is disjointed” without being pretty subjective. But, as I was thinking about this over the past few days, I realized…”This is totally beyond the point.”
I don’t really care about trying to convince others about the quality of a particular work. I only care about my own reactions to it. And I use these notions of objectivity and subjectivity, which really only matter in terms of a larger audience, as bugbears to scare myself away from the notion that for me, there is good and bad.
When I read a book, I do have some reaction to it. And there are reactions I enjoy, and reactions that I do not. There are books that I enjoy more and books that I enjoy less. I don’t need to worry about this hypothetical person who might disagree with me, because I am not really concerned with trying to get him to agree with me. What I am concerned with is finding out what kinds of things I enjoy, why I enjoy them, and how to utilize those elements in my own writing
(Although I am slightly uncomfortable with the word I use here — “enjoy” — since it seems slightly facile and concerned with immediate emotional reactions rather than the sort of long-lasting imprint the book leaves on me, which is what I am really talking about. I think a more honest and appropriate word would be “love”. Although an even better word would be <3 because what I am really talking about the books I <3 and why I <3 them. Of course, that’s slightly ridiculous, so I will just go with “enjoy”.)
Because when I put aside my baggage about subjectivity, and go into a book and try to think about why I enjoy it, I can often find reasons. Often it’s about the worldview or ideas expressed by the book. Sometimes it’s just about the style of writing. And what’s more, I find value, for myself, in thinking about those reasons. Even though what I’m engaged in is a rather silly game, it does provide some insight into myself.
Of course, other people could object to what I say on a variety of levels ranging from “uhh, what you see in this book isn’t really there” to “I also see what you see in this book, but I don’t think that thing is very good”. And that would be crushing, if I cared about convincing them.
Which is not to say that sharing one’s criticism can’t be valuable as well. I just don’t think that the purpose of doing it is to “convince” other people that they are wrong. Clearly there is some universality in our subjective reactions. In fact, there is a huge amount of universality. Two people, watching TV in distant apartments, can laugh at the same joke on the same sit-com. That’s incredible, when you think about it. They heard the same words, analyzed the intention, pondered the intended reversal or disjunction or whatever makes humor humorous, and found it enjoyable.
So if I say that I see something in a work, there is a very good chance that someone else has seen it too. But there is no reason why a given person has to see it as well. In fact, it’s rather more incredible that anyone agrees on anything ever. That’s why I think that criticism really only works when it’s conducted in good faith, and I don’t mean good faith on the part of the critic. The critic is documenting his own reactions, as are we all. I mean good faith on the part of the reader.
Because it’s really easy, for me, at least, to say “I don’t see it.” And there is no way to disprove me. Sometimes I am doing it unconsciously. I am willing myself not to see what someone else is talking about. Sometimes I am just unwilling to put in the work to try to understand. And sometimes I’m just pissed off by someone shitting all over something awesome (like Mars Attacks) and I’d rather take refuge in my one unassailable defense. But usually, if I try, I do understand a little bit of what a person is talking about, and I can see a little bit of what they see, even though I am not required to.