Why the inherent subjectivity of art is a good thing

The following is from a rejection I received  a short short story I wrote for a contest:

“Among judges’ general comments are:

Undeveloped characters, clever dialogue, weak plot, preachy tone, rhythmic prose, well-presented conflict, predictable resolution, nicely-established scene, unbelievable narrator, argumentative style, lyrical voice, little action, problematic point of view, entertaining.”

I wasn’t expecting to get any feedback on the story so it was a nice surprise to receive it. It was also initially a bit confusing. The messages seemed decidedly mixed; the list of phrases like some schizophrenic Zagat’s review. But then as I thought about it, I was quite delighted. I can’t begin to read the tea-leaves of these various responses. There’s just not enough to go on. Yet, I think that from various points of view, they are all quite valid (except for “predictable resolution” — that one I seem to bristle at, which, of course, may mean that it’s the one that is most valid). And I think several of them are quite invalid. So much depends on what one is expecting from a short short story; on how much experience one has reading short short stories; on how much one is in love with modern American literary discourse; on one’s attitude towards Mormonism; one what one values in relation to prose, plot, characterization, etc.

And I think is a very good thing. You know, as authors we tend to get tetchy when someone criticizes our work in certain ways — and tend to blow critics off as just not getting it or as being mean (because of some defect in their character). And as readers, we tend to get irritated when critics seem to invalidate our personal readings of a work or when we feel that by attacking a work they are attacking an author we hold dear in our hearts.

That’s all (usually) nonsense.

But so also is the notion of critics being able to establish some objective reading of a work that is definitive, that is absolute.

The simple truth is this: ones experience with a work of art relies on an entire fabric of personal histories, emotions, attitudes, personalities, educations, ideologies and aesthetic preferences. No matter how authoritative one tries to speak, all commentary on art begins with an I. And the more art I experience, and the more I write about art, and the more criticism and theory I read, the more I realize that what matters is the willingness to engage soulfully with works of art; the desire to situate oneself in conversation with works of art and the fields they are embedded in;  and the ability to conduct that conversation with civility, precision, poetry, elegance, honesty, and self-awareness. A myriad of ways how one can go about it, yes. Better ways than others, of course. Better immune from dispute, no way.

What this means is that authors and readers who cut themselves off from criticism are missing part of the conversation. And critics who seek to control the conversation are boors. We should all be authors, readers and critics and swirl between those identities and among the conversation of works with enthusiasm and elan. And if in doing so we send or receive mixed messages. Well, that’s all part of the fun.

14 thoughts on “Why the inherent subjectivity of art is a good thing”

  1. Good points, Wm.

    I’m curious about the “problematic point of view” comment. Do you think they’re referring to the narrative execution of POV, e.g., the POV of the story switches between characters without clarity, or is it supposed to be a criticism of the overall point of view (yours) from which the story is written?

  2. Oooh. Very good question. I don’t really know. I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t switch POV characters at all. I mean it’s just around 1k words.

    I took it to be a criticism of the overall point of view, which is understandable because like much of my work it plays with Mormonism in a way that undermines while it also strongly asserts.

    I’ll send it to you.

  3. .

    I agree that there should be a merry-go-round of discourse, in theory, but I’m not sure many artists can discuss with critics about their own work. Difficult not to end up asserting a primacy of perception.

  4. I agree with Orson Scott Card when he says that there’s one thing an artist can never argue with, and that’s a reader’s experience when reading the book.

    If the person starts saying inane things like, “By reading this, it’s obvious the person who wrote it was a ______,” those can all be dismissed out of hand, but as long as the reader is saying things like, “I was bored for this bit,” or “I didn’t like this character,” it is absolutely impossible to dismiss it, because they’re relating their own experience, which they are an expert on.

    I think that is what Gaiman means when he says, “When a reader tells you what is wrong with your story they are always right.” He doesn’t mean readers are all-knowing; he just means when a reader tells you what happens when they read, they aren’t wrong. Their experience was their experience.

    But Gaiman also says, “When a reader tells you what you have to do to fix something, they are always wrong.” I think the real trick to having a reader tell you what to do to fix something is to kind of reverse-engineer thier comment to try to get back to what experience they had that led to that. For example, if a reader says, “You have to cut all this exposition here,” what they’re really saying is, “I was bored here. It didn’t seem to me like it mattered.” So if I know it matters, my actual attempt at a cure may be to try to both make it clearer why it’s neccessary and make it more interesting.

    As for critics who write for publication, I think their usefullnes to the artist or reader varies.

    I think there are some critics who genuinely try to talk about the work that’s being discussed in a way that helps readers, both who’ve already read the book or who might be considering it. I think those critics may be part of a conversation, as you say.

    But there are other critics who see themselves as a kind of “artist” themselves, where their works are meant to be as much about the author as they are about the work. I don’t mean here critics who just mention themselves in their writing–lots of critics in the other category do that. I mean the ones where the work is more meant to be about, “Look at how clever I was to come up with this; I’m sure brilliant, aren’t I?” While I often enjoy those kinds of criticism, I see them as more a clever game on the part of the critic than I do as actual commentary on the work, something they created on their own while just grabbing something as a jumping off point. If someone were to come up with some clever peice about how, say, The Lord Of The Rings was actually a retelling of the Civil War, I might find the parralels interesting, but I wouldn’t suddenly start telling everyone that it’s what Lord of the Rings was really about.

  5. I think the best criticism is a form of narrative art, Erik. But I agree with what you are saying about criticism that exists to show off rather than engage.


    I also don’t think that authors should necessarily engage in criticism related to their own work except in very specific conditions. But I think being part of the overall conversation is important. And I have no problem with authors sharing certain intentions and source materials (which is why I do liner notes). Although part of why I’ve done that is because of the nature of my work so far. That may change in the future.

  6. Very good original post, and very good comments. I particularly liked Erik’s quoting of Neil Gaiman, because it parallels something I (independently) articulated to myself long ago.

    I agree that writers engaging with critics is problematic, but I think there are also some real benefits that can result from it. One area where this is true is in exploring the compositional process and the relationship between intention and performance/reception.

    It’s also often the case that the writer may have the broadest range of direct exposure to a variety of different readers’ perceptions about his/her work. This can allow discussion of points such as, “Yes, I’ve noticed that many readers have that question” — or, on the other hand, “No one else I’ve seen has had that reaction.” Granted it may be problematic when the author is also the filter for that kind of evidence, but then subjectivity introduces problems at every stage of the process, whether or not the author is involved.

    One important concept that I think is missing from William’s articulation is that of different types and/or communities of readers. Different types of readers read differently for a variety of reasons, including both factors such as styles of cognitive processing (e.g., do you see a story unfolding as you read, or do you hear the words in your head?) and community membership/socialization (I guarantee that experienced sf&f readers react very differently to certain kinds of texts than those with little experience in that genre).

    In short, there’s not just individual subjectivity and the larger conversation. Rather, there are both communities of literary discourse and discernible patterns of who-likes-what. I think much of the most interesting and insightful literary criticism — including reviews of specific works — addresses these patterns: e.g., “readers of this type are likely to like this work, while readers of this type are less likely.” Implicit in this is the concept that a given reader may not be part of the natural readership for a particular work, in which case his or her comments must be taken with about a peck of salt. Sadly, I often don’t see this acknowledged, particularly among academic critics. All of which is one reason why the collective pool of reactions to a work is such a valuable source of evidence, in my opinion.

  7. I completely agree about communities of discourse, Jonathan. Although I wasn’t explicit in saying so my assumption is that “educations, ideologies and aesthetic preferences” are formed within the communities and exposure to the patterns you mention.

    In regards to academic critics, there is some work that has been done in regards to reader response theory, including a professor of mine from grad school that is working on a book that relies actually gathered data on undergraduate reactions to the work of Toni Morrison in relation to literary value. I think even worse than academics are high-brow newspaper/magazine book critics/reviewers. At least with academics if you bracket off certain avenues, you can claim to be doing so in order to focus on certain problems. But ostensibly critics/reviewers are attempting to tell readers whether a work is of value (and how it is of value).

  8. It’s true.

    Even writers who are *asking* for critique, really are asking for affirmation. When you think about it. What would be the best critique?

    “Amazing! Don’t change a thing!”

    But what is the worst critique, in reality?

    Well. I guess it depends on the piece of art, but the one written above could very well qualify.

    I joined a local writer’s critique group several months ago. It took all of us a while to trust each other’s critiques. It took some heart-wrenching, annoyed moments to get through that first “critique courtship” as I have come to think of it. You really do have to trust somebody before you accept what they tell you that you ought to change. Something that comes so directly from all the vulnerable places inside of us, being turned over, examined, and sent back with less-than-perfect marks: it’s always personal.

  9. …it’s always personal.

    I think the point is that for reviewers, it’s personal, too.

    I’ve had readers thrash my characters’ politics because they don’t know anybody like that, therefore, it’s unrealistic because “nobody thinks like that.” Um…okay then.

    On the other hand, I don’t particularly think it’s a good idea for an author to engage a reviewer or critic. Seriously. Even if the reviewer/critic is asking the author to chime in. No matter what happens, the author comes off badly.

  10. I’m with you here, William. One thing that took me some time to understand is how one person can hate my work and another love it. Only by listening carefully to both viewpoints, without my guard up, was I able to see that there was validity to both viewpoints. Rather than dismiss “negative” criticism because I feel that critic just doesn’t “get it”, sometimes I have to accept that a particular story was not written for that kind of reader, and determine if it’s worth it to me adjust my style to gain more universal acceptance, or if I’m fine with the size and composition of the group who already enjoys my work. I’m referring to stylistic criticism and not feedback on technical errors, which I should always respond to with humility.

  11. Tolkien not caring for Shakespeare is one thing. Local run-of-the-mill academicians believing that Beethoven’s works were trash is quite another. Some criticism may be useful — and artists would be wise to make it useful. Most isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

  12. Once upon a time, I received judge feedback after a contest that was diametrically opposed. I meshed the two comments together and its sort of become my touchstone, something I often repeat to myself as I’m writing. It goes: “Elegantly written with odd, stilted syntax that almost works.” I was astonishingly fortunate to win an AML award for the story that earned these conflicting remarks, so I could approach the sharper criticism with a shrug. But I replay the merged observations about my work through my mind to remind myself that I won’t reach/please/touch every reader. And that’s okay. To expect otherwise would be unwise.

    I’ve admired you, Wm, for the way you manage to be both critic and artist. I can’t, or won’t, dive into the criticism pool, even if I have stuck a big toe in now and again. Maybe its just fear that I may say something as a critic that will come back to bite me in the bahunkus as an artist. As someone said, the writer never ends up looking good in these discussion.

    Also, I’ve now played judge in some of these contests and it always astonishes me how a well-educated, well-read, classically trained panel of judges can have such diverse opinions about the same story. The trick, it seems, isn’t so much to craft a well-written story, but to capture the pulse of culture and write it.

  13. As long as the conversation remains on the personal interpretation, I think the criticism can form a wonderfully relevant conversation among readers. Even the stupidly judgmental comments can be useful if they’re part of a continuing dialog, because the artist deserves to be challenged.

    One of the transition points (for me) between writer and artist is exactly that engagement–the artist is looking at a Question and is interested in various approaches and responses to it. Ideally, the artist contributes with either simple clarifications (I intended this…I believed that…I attempted to show the other thing in order to explore…), or with subsequent works that continue and expand the conversation.

    Learning to recognize a well-wrought work that you don’t actually *like* is a difficult thing that I think the better critics understand. And those critics can often give we fans some of the more relevant insight into a larger context–if we’re open, and the critic is too.

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