What makes it good? (pt. 1)

One of the first subjects that I had hoped to address when starting this blog is the idea of evaluation in general. Circuit B and I are both going to be doing a lot of this, critiquing and judging works of art, film, music, and, especially, literature. But, we would like this to be an act of deliberation. We want to really look at what we’re reviewing and spend time considering it. Even if we hate something, we would like to give it the respect of a decent, thorough examination. (Also, that’s just way more fun when bashing something truly unbearable.) But, before we do this, I had hoped to address some challenges to criticism and discussion, and also what we’re striving for. After all, this is the internet. And, what is the internet good for if not providing a soapbox for what we net-users do best, complaining?

With endless opportunity for complaints, we have a unique environment. On the one hand, we have the chance to hear many different opinions, offered by many different people. On the other hand, we’ve also legitimized everyone’s opinions. Everyone’s. Yours, mine, the dog’s, that guy from the library who researches conspiracy theories all day long and never bathes. Everyone. With all this opinion-making going around, it’s easy to get lost in a quagmire of sentiments without ever finding a standard for anything. This is why we have earnest, starry-eyed bloggers insisting that Twilight is, in fact, as good as Shakespeare, and Harlequin romance novels are legitimate forms of literary art.

I think one of the biggest problems people have with evaluating literature (and art, and cinema, and music, and everything else) is reconciling acclaimed works, personal taste, and valuable craftsmanship. Most people tend to struggle over this, and I know that I do. The trouble is discovering if your likes and dislikes are firmly grounded, or if you’re a little daft. I’m sure everyone has at least one great work that is hard to “get into” or understand. For me, I don’t become all giddy over Jane Austen’s novels, and I’ve never been able to hop on that lively bandwagon of Lord of the Rings fanaticism. I just can’t. Nevertheless, it is important –when discovering what is or is not of great quality in the arts– to evaluate how personal tastes play a part in the critical process.

From my experience, most people fall into these categories:

  1. I don’t like it, therefore it is bad –my personal preferences being my own, and therefore infallible.
  2. It was praised, therefore it is good, and I must be absolutely, farting mad if I dislike it. I’ll just pretend to like everything that has ever been critically acclaimed!
  3. I need to evaluate the craft, note what is good and bad. Then I’ll allow for whatever subjective tendencies I may have, while still remaining open to correcting/widening my personal views.

Obviously, the third category is the ideal one, but it is very difficult to get there. You see, these days it is very easy to get your hands on enough techno-jargon to make even the most half-baked opinions sound reasonable. I’ve heard many passionate arguments claiming that Wuthering Heights is one of the worst books ever written. One need only look to sites like goodreads.com to find darn near every great work in the literary canon listed as “the worst books of all time”. Now, some people might be listing Wuthering Heights or War and Peace because they were forced to read it for school, and this is their petty revenge. However, many of these people have reasons for their beliefs. What inquiring minds today must realize is that most people have reasons.

It’s just that many of these reasons are absolute drivel.

With enough jargon, one can make anything sound intellectual. Take this example of Dumbsy McGenius writing:

Fifty Shades of Gray, far from being a popular bit of erotic fanfiction, is, in fact, a revolutionary inspection of the dichotomous relationship between the impulse/animal and the civilized norms today. The scenes of transgressive sexuality are, in fact, subjugating bourgeois society’s mores to the anti-fascistic levity of what we will term an Open Soul Experience (OSE). The OSE, qua Experiential Moment In Sexual Impulsivity (EMISI), breaks down the cross-cultural barriers of man and woman through the unification, connection, and fusion of flesh and blood in a quazi-primitive union. In this way, the novel is one of experiential wisdom, promoting a nigh mythopoeic exploration of love as a devouring source.”

‘Round these parts, that’s what we call bullshit. [Oh, and I wrote that in a timed two minute period. But, similar content mysteriously appeared in many of my old college essays (note the sublimely deflective passive voice…), and I managed to ace many of them.] The point is, having a reason for what you believe does not necessarily mean you’re not spouting nonsense about OSEs of the EMISIs. All reasons, all arguments are not created equal.

So, in this section, we’ll be looking at reasons (mostly bad ones) for evaluating literature, and explaining our own standards. We’ll also be expressing significant levels of literary outrage, so stay calm and await the inevitable.



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