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The Importance of Objective Criteria by which to Measure Literary Merit

A fine post by Dan Green over at the Reading Experience containing these insightful remarks:

Literature is "literature" because we have inherited this concept as a way of identifying a certain kind of imaginative writing deemed worthy of consideration in and of itself as something separate from ordinary discourse. The term has always been somewhat unstable (or at least so capacious in meaning that it can accomodate changing tastes and assumptions), but never has it been so completely relative as to mean whatever the "individual" reader wants it to mean, which is to in effect render it meaningless. If we want to hold on to "literature" as a category of writing acknowledged by everyone (or everyone interested in this kind of writing), then we have to also acknowledge that its contents can’t be judged simply through "individual activity."

To suggest that a given poem, story, or novel is especially accomplished or disappointingly weak, according to articulatable standards, is not to rob the reader of his/her "subjective approach" but to provide a context against which the reader might measure his/her own response. To apply critical criteria derived from careful and extensive study of literary history and aesthetic precepts is not to belittle the reader’s own standards but to encourage the reader to engage with that history and those precepts and apply them as well–an activity that will always have a "subjective" character to it.

The experience of reading poems and novels does indeed consist of the reader’s fully attentive encounter with the text, but that encounter is first of all with the author’s aesthetic methods, his/her "making" of the text, in the same way we encounter a painter’s execution on the canvas or the composer’s shaping of sound. Those methods are always themselves informed by the author’s influences and familiarity with the past practices of the form, however, and thus we are returned to literature as a collective, and to that degree objective, endeavor.

And in the comments, this from Carolyn, apropos of my listing suggested criteria by which the Booker might be judged, and its hostile reception:

"…the only thing worse than the fallacy of one correct objective approach to art is the idea of a world in which people have given up trying to find it…

Maybe I just wish people would be a little less mean-spirited when discussing art. Among the literary avant-garde, the compulsion to impugn the intelligence or – worse – moral character of people who don’t care for this or that style seems kind of rampant."

I think it is precisely when no common ground, no objective measures are in place to discuss, compare and rank literary works, that the ugly side exposes itself. What else can be said after expression of the purely subjective?I don’t agree with you? I don’t think your methods of evaluation are valid…I don’t think evaluation or assignment of merit is necessary or appropriate? There is no such thing as ‘objective,’ and you’re an idiot to think so…or an idiot to be unaware of the powers that exert themselves over you…a foot soldier, a pawn in an ideological battle that you aren’t equipped to understand…either that or you’re a megalomaniac, an ideologue, a dictator, a fascist…and so the bullshit continues… 

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One Response to “The Importance of Objective Criteria by which to Measure Literary Merit”

  1. maitresse Says:

    I was shocked by the response to your listing of criteria on the Guardian’s website– all the more so because the criteria you listed were a pretty fair summary of Aristotle’s Poetics. They’ve stood us in good stead this long, I think they’re probably good enough for the Booker committee. 

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