I’ve always gone along with this idea of ‘different strokes for different folks’. Nothing – and I mean nothing – is liked by absolutely everyone, is it? And there’s nothing wrong with that. Lately though, I’ve been noticing lots of articles and blog posts and the like with tips on how to write (nothing new there) as well as lists on what makes a ‘good book’. It got me thinking – can there ever be such a thing as an objectively good book? Is there a book out there, somewhere, that is just ‘good’, regardless of what people actually think? And if there is, what exactly is it that makes it objectively good?
Morons… Morons Everywhere!
Of course, the first problem this idea throws up is what does that mean for people who don’t like said book? I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a single book that is liked by absolutely everyone. So, if a book really is objectively good, does that mean people who don’t like it are stupid? Wrong? Moronic?
The easy answer to this is that ‘like’ and ‘good’ are not synonymous. There are lots of things that are ‘good’ that many people don’t like. Taking medicine when you’re sick is arguably ‘good’, but not always particularly pleasant. Broccoli is ‘good’ for you, but there can’t be many people who would pick a head of broccoli over a jam doughnut, can there?
Similarly, there are lots of authors I can appreciate for their skill, but whose books I don’t particularly like. Dickens is the first one that comes to mind – undoubtedly a skilled writer and storyteller but simply not to my taste. Is his work objectively good? I don’t think so, but then perhaps I’m wrong.
This distinction between what’s good and what we like can perhaps be explained though. There’s a big difference between aesthetics and technique, between art and technical expertise, between story-telling and writing. There are, arguably, objective rules for good writing – where to put the commas, how to format dialogue, word order, tense usage, and so on. (For the sake of argument, we’ll forget the fact that grammar is actually sometimes subjective, as illustrated by the numerous ‘style guides’ available. Or, you know, by the rather controversial Oxford comma). If, then, a book is written according to these objective rules, does that make it objectively good?
I don’t think so. A book could be written absolutely perfectly, down to the letter, down to the character spacing, and still lack that certain something – a spark, a life thread, the thing that makes it breath-taking; that part of a book that makes it flow with beauty and style and magic. It may have the technique right, but not the art, not the story-telling, and therefore, in my eyes at least, it can’t ever be objectively good.
The same works vice versa, of course. Sometimes, a book has everything it could possibly need in terms of wonder and awesomeness, but be appalling in a technical sense, but that’s is much, much easier to fix.
When I first started thinking about this blog post, I did a quick Google search, and stumbled upon a Reddit thread that brought up some really great points, one of which was that of cultural norms. Our ideas of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ has been shaped by our culture, our family, our society, our education, etc., and so our idea is completely different to that of someone on the other side of the Earth – or even to that of someone with a different socio-economic background. Time makes a massive difference too.
There’s literature that was once considered great, only to be shunned years later, especially as political ideals change. Authors once considered Masters of their art have later been eschewed due to their opinions on race, for example, or their use of language that is no longer considered politically correct. Rudyard Kipling is a great example of this. The one time literary king has since had poems defaced and has been criticised for his imperial beliefs.
Perhaps it would be easier to argue that there are objectively bad books then. Good can come and go, but bad is always bad, right? If I write a load of gobbledygook on a page and publish it, isn’t that objectively bad? Not necessarily. Just look Spike Milligan. His nonsense poems are well celebrated the world over.
It’s more than that, too. Sometimes, we just can’t see the hidden good in something that is different or new or unusual. Something that shocks and challenges us, for example. One commenter on Reddit argued:
Truly novel and groundbreaking work is going to tend to break established ideas and subvert whatever criteria you’ve accepted, so it can quite easily be mistaken for bad work before eventually coming to be understood, at which point the criteria that make up a critical consensus are modified to allow the new work into the canon.
I don’t know whether a book can be objectively good, but I’m inclined to say it can’t. There are so many elements that go into making a book good or bad that it would be near-impossible to get it all right, for everyone. Yes, a book can get the technique right and that is, on the surface at least, an objective thing. But can a book have an objective magic? That thing that makes us fall in love with it? Absolutely not, because that spark, that thing that causes awe in readers, is so unbelievably subjective. We all fall in love for different reasons.
So perhaps, for now at least, we’ll have to settle for Bentham’s idea that the greatest happiness for the greatest number wins. That book that captures the hearts of the majority, or that stands the test of time, is the closest we’ll ever get to something that is objectively good.