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Thursday, February 5, 2009

My own self-important rant on what is Good in art

I'm cross-posting this from a comment I posted on Nathan Bransford's blog because it's long, and because he gets like three hundred comments for every entry, and I didn't want something I'd spent time composing to get lost in the crowd.

Bransford's post was occasioned by Stephen King's comments in USA Weekend denigrating Stephanie Meyer. Bransford's question: Who decides what is "good," anyway?

I think the problem that comes up every time this issue is raised with respect to art is that we claim to be arguing about one thing, but we are actually arguing about another. We're not really arguing about what is "good." We're arguing about what is "better."

If your work of art moves someone, touches someone's soul, it is good. That's it.

Just one, I say. Who can set a minimum threshold, and say that X people have to agree that your work is good? The novel Ordinary People saved my life, I believe. If every other person who'd read that book hated it, would that make it not meaningful? Is there some Platonic Ideal Book somewhere that books are measured against, making them good or bad independent of the effect they create in a reader?

I don't think so. I think art exists only to act on the observer*. Therefore, the only meaningful measure of quality is whether or not a work succeeded in touching an observer, and it's not about discrete criteria, nor is it a numbers game.


Stephen King: Good. Obviously.

Stephanie Meyer: Good.

James Joyce: Good.

Judith Guest: Good.

René Magritte: Good.

Jackson Pollock: Good.

*gulp* Terry Goodkind: Good.

Their works have resonated; their works have been powerful for someone. How can I possibly say that what resonates with me is meaningful but what resonates with you is not? Well that's exactly what we say when we say that Stephanie Meyer is no good.

The problem, I think, is that some people think something is just plain wrong if we equate Meyer's accomplishment with Herman Melville's. So we look for some way to say her art is less good than his. Or less good than Updike's. Or less good than King's. We look for flaws to point out as evidence of this. But it's all bogus, because grammar, characterization, prosody, plotting, etc. are all just means to an end: the effect on the observer. And now we come back to the fact that one observer isn't worth more than another.

All we can make are personal pronouncements. And we can certainly give reasons why we individually feel as we do, but when we try to use those as some sort of objective evidence for the universal truth of our personal pronouncements, we're missing the point. We're either saying that these criteria are more meaningful than the cumulative effect a work has, or we're saying that the effect a work has on some other observer isn't worth as much as the effect it has on me.

I'd say that Stephen King is a better writer than James Joyce. Of course, what I really mean is that King's works have moved me, entertained me, and been meaningful for me, whereas the single work of Joyce's that I read failed to affect me on all three fronts. Does that mean King is really better? No, it means King was more effective in moving me. It would be the height of arrogance for someone else to suggest that moving or impressing some famous literary critic is a more meaningful accomplishment than moving me is, but there's an awful lot of arrogance in the world.

* Of course, the artist is an observer too.


rebecca said...

Well said. And I agree on all of your points. What I find "good" is based on yes, how it moved me, what connection did I make to it, did I love the language, the rhythm, the topic, did I feel as if I learned from it or was entertained by it. And I so love the way you state it that if moving you (us) is less significant than moving a literary writer, then it is nothing less than arrogance at it's full form.

I read Kafka's shorts stories over the summer. A great literary writer, right? Yes, his Metamorphosis, one of his most famous short stories was highly creative, but as with every other single story I read, I hated them all. All. They were full of despair and tragedy and graphic, unsettling images. It was not enjoyable but I read them anyway. This is not to say the book is not good - obviously his writings are hailed as one of the best - but it failed to leave me impressed.

Joe Iriarte said...


I think there is this mentality that reading, and art consumption in general, has to be an unpleasant experience for it to be worthwhile. Maybe it's because in life so many things that are pleasant are bad for you. But art isn't medicine!

(And there's also an element of smugness. Anybody can like the stuff that's fun; it takes a genius to like the stuff most people don't enjoy.)


Hybrid J said...

Well done and agreed with you, Joe! I'll say this - a few years ago, I enrolled to do a novel writing course with one of Australia's award winning literary writer. On one occassion, we were talking about books we liked. I mentioned Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" and oh my god, the looks I got from the gourp and (obviously) from the tutor were enough to burn me 300 times. I knew that I was in the wrong crowd! (That was another story.) Afterwards, I thought long and hard if there was something wrong about me enjoying Brown's book. I decided the answer was "No". I have learn a few things about storytelling which are beneficial to me as a writer-in-practice. Also I was greatly entertained and some passages did move me. So what else do you want from a book? Hence, well said and really appreciate you made a stand. Thank you! :)

Joe Iriarte said...


It's like some people forget why this whole "art" thing exists. It's not reserved for the elite. There's nothing wrong with creating or enjoying art that caters to a sophisticated palate, but a lot of people seem to buy into the notion that telling stories to one class of people is intrinsically better than telling them to another.

I aspire to be a storyteller, in the tradition of folks around the campfire since time began. That's plenty noble for me. My stories may or may not be judged as literary--because ultimately they'll be whatever stories I want to tell, hoping that enough people will share my tastes--but either way I'll measure their success not by how many people find them literary, but by how many people find them moving, powerful, truthful, etc.