Monday, October 15, 2007

Are There Objective Standards in Literature?

Henry Neufeld is skeptical of claims that good and bad literature may be objectively identified:

And I could simply ask on just what basis you do say that one is objectively better than the other. Philosophers regularly argue that their thoughts are better than those of common people, and of course than those of certain other philosophers. But the question is just how one tells which is which? A popular presentation will have a much greater impact on the public in general. Which is better, an obscure philosophical article that is read by 20 or 30 people or a popular article read, and perhaps understood by millions? Either may be right or wrong. Either may be dangerous or of positive value to society.

My point is that while there are some objective characteristics both of literature and of thought, there are also abundant subjective factors. Elitists like to list boring and obscure literature and call it great. But what made it great, other than that people who write obscure prose happen to agree that it is? In the meantime, millions who just enjoy literature, or film, or other forms of entertainment simply go out and, well, enjoy it.

I’m often in the minority. In this case I’m with the millions.

And if you ask me why my favorite literature is better than your choice, my answer is this: “Because I like it!”

My own point of reference is aesthetics, which I would argue is parallel in its (hypothetically) hierarchical evaluation to literature. While blogging about Pop Art, I argued that although it may be hard to differentiate between "good art" from "bad art", one could discern a "good artist" from a "bad artist":

I was very skeptical at first because of what I perceived as a lack of technical artistic skill among its practitioners of the variety unmistakably present in Academic art. And it is truly possible that a creator of modern art forms may be able to hide a lack of technical talent behind pretended profundity. And in spite of my desire to be open-minded and not languish in Academicist provincialism, I insist that technical skill must play some role in discerning art from non-art. An artist must be capable of replicating in physical form the vision within his mind instead of shaping his vision to fit limited technical abilities. Bouguereau could create an Indiana if he so desired; Indiana could not create a Bouguereau in his wildest dreams.

I am not sure if this same evaluative method could be imported into literature, but I shall roll it around in my head for a while.

5 comments:

mike aubrey said...

I think so.

Annie Dillard could write a Lori Wick novel (though I don't know why should would want to)

Lori Wick or any other Christian Fiction writer could never write like Annie Dillard or Graham Greene, or Lewis, Tolkien, etc.

Divers and Sundry said...

When I've been involved in groups studying various "great books" or "classics" the standards always seem to involve contemporary significance, continuing relevance or influence over time and re-readability. The fact that there are lots of _different_ lists for "great" or "classic" literature argues that maybe objective standards are hard to come up with. The fact that there are some books that appear on _all_ the lists says to me that maybe there can be some basic objective standards.

I do agree there's a difference between "popular" and "good". Check out the NYT best-sellers.

~c. said...

Also, one of the qualities of good literature is the ability to lead different people to argue over its meaning for decades or, in the case of the Bible, millenia.

John said...

Confusion is a quality of a work of good literature? If so, then how would one distinguish complexity from obfuscation?

Divers and Sundry said...

I wouldn't say confusion.... But good literature tends to spark discussion over its meaning and give rise to differing interpretations. I think ~c.'s example of the Bible is perfect.