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Can we judge writing objectively or is it always purely subjective?

What I mean by objective here is: can a piece of writing be evaluated beyond only your own personal tastes? Like, could you personally not like a piece of writing but be able to evaluate it as “good”?

If you can, then it seems like there are some objective criteria for judging writing. What are they? Could a writer hit all of the “technically good” markers and still produce a piece that falls flat of what it means to be good writing?

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I believe that classic literature for example has stylistic elements and content that supersedes the average novel. I think that there are incompetent texts, competent texts, and texts that are extraordinarily artistic. Sol, I’d say yes. Literature can be and should be evaluated from a critical standpoint as well as judged on artistic merits.

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Personal tastes can and do influence whether or not you’ll like a book or not. But even then, crap is still crap. I’ve read dozens of books in the Horror and SF field that were highly recommended and I thought they were not worth my time.
One that comes to mind is the Foundation Trilogy. It’s nearly 1000 pages long. To me, it didn’t get interesting at all until page 925. I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
There are a few that I could not get past the first chapter. A friend of mine gave me his favorite book. I read the first 20 pages and sold it on Amazon. Pointless did not come close to describing it. The words used and the new world that was created was not relatable to me at all and I lost all interest.
I read A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton, thinking that this might be an interesting Mystery series to get into. The books have sold boat loads. What a terrible Main Character. A lazy, not too bright woman who couldn’t figure out how to open a box of cereal is not someone I want to spend any more time with. File this one under Crap.

Interesting. @J.Jirout is saying, I believe, that there are stylistic and technical elements in writing that can be used to judge its goodness. And that these transcend mere opinion or personal taste?

And @AdmiralNemo’s examples seem to demonstrate that much literary judgement is emotional–bad works leave you frustrated and bored. What I find particulalry interesting here is whether you think that, despite your own personal feelings towards the works, you could say if they were “good” based on the kinds of elements that @J.Jirout suggests. Is it possible for us to be literary critics in this way, or are emotions too integral to our literary judgements? Can you be frustrated and bored by “objectively” good writing?

Of course you can be frustrated and bored with good writing. I’ve tried a dozen times to read Moby Dick, and can’t get past the third chapter. I would never say that this work is bad, just unreadable.
A lot of trashy novels are very easy to read because they are trash. Why do you think they sell so many to people heading for the beach?

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If it isn’t the level of difficulty - that determines the quality of a text - and if it isn’t necessarily the emotional quality - we can tolerate some element of frustration or even confusion to some degree - what is the criteria for judging a text? Maybe it is the level of engagement…

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Ease of readability too often lends itself to uninspiring and boring prose. Danielle Steel hasn’t had an original story in 30 years, but her books sell like they were giving them away.
I prefer stories with a bit more thought put into them. For contrast, try an early Dirk Pitt novel by Clive Cussler. These are not High Literature, but they are not thoughtless beach reads either. Dan Brown and Michael Crichton also wrote easy to read novels, but they are packed with thought-provoking ideas that enhance the works and put them into a higher level of Reading.

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Interesting Tom.
I find many classics to be easy to read. Heart of Darkness, for example, was smooth sailing for me, and Animal Farm, Dracula, Case of Jekle and Hyde, Hitchhiker’s Guide. Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea was easy too - but it was slow moving… like Tolkien or Dickinson… A quality text can move slowly or quickly, depending on the style. Writing style affects the quality of a text. Danielle Steel, I think, has both ordinary content and an ordinary style.

I am also curious about this. Preferences are one thing, like to prefer vanilla to chocolate for icecream. But is literature like this? Do you simply prefer one type to another?

For example, with Danielle Steel, can we say anything objective about her writing, apart from personal preferences, that assesses the quality? So far it seems one criterion could be a text must be thought-provoking in some way.

What was it about Heart of Darkness, Animal Farm, Hitchhiker’s Guide, Old Man and the Sea etc that makes them endure beyond that generation’s personal preferences?

Heart of Darkness, Animal Farm, Hitchhiker’s Guide, Old Man and the Sea are timeless works. Okay, maybe not Hitchhiker, but it’s really good anyway.
Steel’s texts will not stand the test of time. Think of the scene in Star Trek: The Voyage Home when Kirk points out the works of Jaqueline Suzanne and Harold Robbins as representative of 1986 Literature. Neither one of them sells today. That’s the situation Danielle is in today. But the money she’s earned is great.

The commercial angle is one thing. The quality of a text another. Clearly, the two can overlap, and commercial successes can also become classics. I enjoy stylistic texts the most. Texts that play with genre and voice - which constitutes experimental literature, really. Then, there is content. A person that reads for content first and foremost usually enjoys plot-driven reads. Right now, I’m teaching To Kill a Mockingbird (plot-driven) and The Catcher in the Rye (style-driven). Both are quality texts and both were commercial successes and both became classics. The quality of the storytelling resides in the plot, I think, for TKAMB and in the style, for TCITR. Danielle Steele’s texts have neither riveting plot nor a unique style. Like Grisham, for example, the storytelling entertains but fails to resonate.

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At my high school, Hitchhiker’s was included in the curriculum. High school students are a bit too young to appreciate the humor. I’d view the series as potentially surviving the test of time. LIke Monty Python for films, Hitchhiker’s originality resonates.

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Resonate is a great word for this context. Different people can have different levels of resonation. One person can get a rich read out of Great Expectations. Another can find the secrets of the Universe in a chewing gum wrapper.

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And why do you suppose that many works we could consider poorly crafted sell so well? @J.Jirout points out that TKAMB and TCITR are both classics and were both commercial successes–but this seems rare. It seems very often a commercial success is poor quality and that high quality works are either lost or only appreciated some length after their first publication, at times after the author has died poor. Why does poor quality do well?

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Selling to the masses is not about quality. The IQ level of interest is a low target and easy to hit. In order for the average idiot to understand something of quality, you have to dumb it down almost to 4th Grade level. Sad but true.

The fact that poor quality texts do well financially or commercially disturbs me. But, this is an excellent question.
My first thought is that there’s money behind them. Can you think of a poor quality text that was not marketed well? Maybe it’s the availability and/or the promotional aspects that succeed and not the product itself.

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Marketing is key to getting people to read bad books. Bad books by successful hacks always have great marketing.

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