Tuesday, January 08, 2008
The Eye of the Beholder
The 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that beauty is objective and universal, in other words, there are immutable standards by which aesthetic judgment can be applied.
Contemporary thinkers hold more to the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” theory, that is, individual taste and cultural influences determine what is considered beautiful on a case-by-case basis, and there is no objective standard.
I say, all you have to do is be an artist to find out which view is more practical. You’ll find out mighty fast that whatever your medium, there will be no consensus as to whether or not you’ve created something good. That’s certainly the case if you choose to write fiction...oh boy, is it!
Let me give you some examples from my own experience.
Last week my novel Bloodchained was reviewed by the sometimes irascible, always entertaining romance reviewer, Mrs. Giggles. Mrs. G was a big fan of my first writings as Diana Laurence, but I can never guess what she’s going to say. Well, she pretty much panned the book (a 52 out of 100)--the worst review I’ve ever received for anything! Had this been Bloodchained’s first review, I would have quite dismayed, but fortunately it had already received two 5 star and one 4.5 star review, so I could fall back on that good old “Eye of the Beholder” theory. (Likewise, several significant errors in the plot summary told me Mrs. G didn’t give the book a very close read--not surprising considering how prolific she is!)
Meanwhile, interestingly, it was only a couple days later that Mrs. Giggles gave a “Best Short Story Award for 2007” to my sci-fi tale, “Alloy Love” (Soulful Sex: The Science Fiction Collection). The amusing thing about this is that I felt that story was pretty weak and considered replacing it! E.O.T.B. much? Yeah, one woman’s treasure is another’s, well, so-so.
That’s not the first time my judgment of my own work has been questionable. In 2005, the Reviewers International Organization declared my story “Je t’aime, Etienne” (Soulful Sex Volume II) a Best Story from an Anthology Finalist. I’ve gotten a bunch of fan mail for that tale, too. But you know what? I almost left it out of the book, thinking it was weak and rambling.
Yeah, the things that make you go “huh.”
But enough about my stuff. I’ve had the same problem regarding the work of others. This year I once again judged the Eppie Awards, reading four books and rating them. The finalists were just announced, and in my category, only one of the books I read finalled: the one I thought was the worst by far and perhaps unpublishable! Last year I had a similar problem with the Eppies, when a title I gave nearly a perfect score and found superb failed to final at all.
It’s enough to give an author a complex.
A couple of favorite books that I read last year were The Man Who Heard Voices, Michael Bamberger’s wonderful biography of M. Night Shyamalan, and The Name of the Wind, by new fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss. Bamberger’s book flopped and was pulled early from stores; Rothfuss’s book won a Quill Award for Best Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Book of 2007.
You get the picture. It’s really a crapshoot if what I judge to be great writing will be met with the same reaction by other people. This is why, when I set out to write my last novel, I liked the idea of recruiting a bunch of readers to help. The 63 participants in the Soulful Sex Partners Project gave me feedback galore, and in the end, the consensus was that Bloodchained was a terrific book, thanks to their help.
I know those folks were being honest, just as I know I was not exactly deluding myself when I considered it my best work to date. Meanwhile, however, I know Mrs. Giggles was being just as honest when she said the book bugged her to death.
It makes a person crazy. Are there really no absolute standards of aesthetics? Is it impossible to determine the truth as to whether a book is well written, a painting is beautiful, a piece of music is good? And if it isn’t, what’s the point of reviews?
As one author who works really hard to get her books reviewed (and really enjoys the good ones!), I still feel that artistic criticism has a point. However, it seems to work best on a consensus basis, like the star systems for films on Netflix and IMDB, and the Tomatometer readings for movies and games on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s nearly impossible for a bad movie to get a high fresh rating, or a good one to score rotten.
Just so, the fact that my overall critical rating is 4.3 (after 59 reviews) suggests I’m not a bad writer. It does not, however, guarantee some reviewer isn’t going to pan me tomorrow. Because it’s pretty much all in the eye of the beholder, folks. Bottom line, you gotta judge for yourself!
(But if you read me and like me, by all means let me know! LOL)