Friday, December 9, 2011

Balancing personal taste with a critical perspective

A lot of students tell me that they don't like a certain piece of writing because it isn't their preferred style of reading or writing. To quote one student, "If the style of writing is not what I prefer to read or write, I can’t handle it."

I'm all for allowing students to dislike certain pieces. They ought to form opinions about literature. Hell, there are some styles of lit that I just can't stand. I think what annoys me about the student's mindset is the implication that because the student doesn't care for something, or if it doesn't fit the student's definition of "good," it isn't legitimate and it lacks quality. Last year I taught Push, the novel by Sapphire. If you've never heard of it, look it up. It's grim. It's dark. Some students didn't like it for those reasons and didn't think it was "real literature," so they shut off, they complained to my boss, and I even had two people drop the class because they didn't want to read it.

To a certain extent, that's legit. It's their choice what they read and what they don't read. But to use a metaphor from Tiger, you can't say that a well-cooked corn dish is bad because you don't like corn. If it is technically, objectively well-cooked, then it's well-cooked. The same goes for writing. There are objective aspects of writing and reading--maybe not the same ones as cooking, granted, but a reader/editor can (and should be able to) acknowledge that a piece of writing has value and quality even if it is not to the reader's taste. Take Faulkner. I'm probably un-American in my dislike of Faulkner, but his writing is simply not to my taste. However, I still teach a couple of stories that are, objectively, very good. That is, they fulfill the purpose the author intended them to fulfill. They're not to my taste, but they're still fine examples of how a short story can be written.

I find that many (too many) people analyze stories on a completely subjective level, absolutely without any effort at critical thinking. They think that being a critic will take the fun out of it. Or something. I find exactly the opposite. Attempting to analyze theme and meaning deepens the experience for me and opens up new levels of appreciation for stories I like on a subjective level as well as stories I wouldn't otherwise like.

This brings me to editing. I've been a professional writing critic for a number of years on several different levels in several different capacities. I've read a lot of writing that was shitty objectively, and I've read a lot of writing that I struggled to appreciate but accepted anyway because I could see that the writer was achieving his/her/zir purpose. This capacity to appreciate that which you may not subjectively enjoy is a key skill for an editor to cultivate. If you edit professionally, you will read genres/styles/stories you don't care for. It's vital to understand the difference between aspects of a work you don't like and aspects that aren't successful or effective.

The best advice I can give in order to understand this difference is to assume that the writer is doing everything on purpose. Assume that the writer meant to choose that particular word or make that shift in authorial distance or twist the plot that certain way. You can question whether the author's choice is effective overall--that's your job as an editor, after all--but consider the author's purpose first. Does it fulfill that purpose? Does it fulfill the story promise? Then consider getting over it.

I've struggled with this myself. Some of my students/editing clients have written pieces that I absolutely would not read if I had the choice. They're just not the type of stories I enjoy reading for pleasure. I've had to train myself to consider what the author is trying to do and to help him/her/zir do it more effectively, for his/her/zir intended audience. Yeah, this is difficult, but as a teacher it's unfair of me to dock points because a story is not to my taste, and as an editor it's unfair of me to ask the writer to write what I want them to write.

Feel free to make a note of what you like/don't like/aren't sure about, because your input as a reader counts, but if you ever think, "I don't like this story/I think it's a crappy story because I hate zombies" (yeah, sorry, I really do hate them), take a step back and question yourself. Do you think it's crap because you find it cliche, or are you having a knee-jerk reaction to your hatred of the shambling horde? If I hadn't let my then-boyfriend talk me into watching Dawn of the Dead because of my unreasoning hatred for zombie movies, I wouldn't have grown to appreciate the parody aspect of the movie and understand its message. I grant that my skepticism of zombies in general lead me to question what possible value this 90-minute romp into absurdity had. That's not a bad thing. It made me a more critical viewer, which then likely allowed me to experience the movie in a deeper, more meaningful fashion.

I'm not saying that a reader/editor can't have opinions or can't dislike something on a subjective taste level. I'm advocating critical thinking. There's a lot of literature out there that is not to my taste, but some people like it and I can objectively understand why they like it. I found my intelligence constantly insulted while reading The Da Vinci Code, but I can understand why a bajillion people bought it and loved it. Many readers liked it for exactly the reasons I hated it. I wasn't Dan Brown's intended audience and that's okay. I would still have edited the fucker to death, but in the service of helping the author fulfill his purpose, not making the book into what I would rather read.

Whether you love or hate something you read, I think it's important to consider why you had that reaction. Understand that you may not be the author's intended audience, but consider whether the piece of writing works before you pass judgment.


  1. Really well said! There's a good many books that 'aren't my thing' but I can accept that they're objectively well-written and/or really connect with their target audience (which apparently isn't me). But such an easy thing to forget. After all, we always like to think our opinions are right 100% of the time :P

  2. Ha, so true. :) I think it particularly bothers me in the context of school and editing because those are the times when you HAVE to cultivate appreciation for work you wouldn't subjectively enjoy otherwise. It's kinda your job as an editor/a student to take something from that material.