Beyond Good and Awful: Literary Value in the Age of the Amazon Review

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(Lev Grossman writes about books here on Wednesdays. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)

The other day I was reading a book review on a blog. The review was of a literary novel by a well-known writer. The review made the argument that while many people believed that the book in question rocked, those people were wrong, because the book actually sucked.

I took some satisfaction from this review, because I thought it was true. I, too, thought that the book sucked.

But not surprisingly, the post had a lively trail of comments below it, and some of the commenters disagreed with the reviewer. They loved the book, it made them laugh and cry, it changed their whole lives, it did in fact rock.

These people were, of course, wrong.

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Usually at times like that I work up a nice head of righteous anger and superiority — because I’m so much better at judging the value of a book than those commenters are!  —but this time I just felt tired. I didn’t have the energy to get worked up. I could not actually reach into these people’s brains and prove that they were wrong: that they had not loved the book, that they had laughed and cried for reasons that were invalid, that their whole sucky-book-liking lives had not been changed.

Because of course all that stuff was true. They had loved, laughed, cried, etc. Their reasons were valid. They weren’t wrong, they were right. Or at least as right as I was.

It’s a basic but still weird fact about books that two people’s experiences of the same book can be radically different but equally valid. On the face of it it doesn’t seem possible. When we read a book and find that it sucks, that doesn’t feel like a personal judgment on our part, it feels like an observed fact that everybody else who reads that book should acknowledge — and if they don’t acknowledge it, that means that they suck. It goes against our instincts as a reader that two people can have opposite reactions to a book, and that both reactions can be true.

I’m not the first person to point this out, obviously, not by a long chalk. There are whole fields of thought built on it. Kant wrote about it in his Critique of Judgement in 1790he pointed out the weird way in which our response to a work of art, while intensely personal, feels like it’s universally and objectively true. Kant puts it better: “In all judgements by which we describe anything as beautiful, we allow no one to be of another opinion.” If Kant had lived just a couple of centuries longer, he would have had the Internet to show him just how right he was. (You can see the New York Times struggling with the same issue in this rather contemporary-feeling clipping from 1881. And then of course there’s the entirety of reader-response criticism. So yes: I’m not first to market with this brilliant insight.)

I only bring it up now because I actually think that before the Internet it used to be easier to operate as if all this weren’t the case. It was easier to pretend that literary judgments were stable and universal. Before the Internet opinions about books were a relatively scarce commodity in our culture, and they came from a relatively small group of sources. We didn’t have access to hot and cold running book reviews twenty-four seven, and therefore we weren’t exposed to millions and millions of passionately held, diametrically opposed opinions about books. The wild diversity of readerly responses was not all up in your grill all the time. You went to school, and somebody told you that The Great Gatsby was a masterpiece, and if you didn’t like it, well, something was wrong with you, not it.

Now we have the benefit of the 94 one-star reviews that The Great Gatsby has received on Amazon. (“I found this book to be very boring and not very informative.” “Honestly, he had it coming.” Etc.) Not to mention the 28,966 one-star reviews it has on GoodReads.

Not that things were better in the old days; in fact it was horribly oppressive. But post-Amazon and GoodReads, it’s much harder to maintain a stable, abstract idea of what literary value or greatness or what-have-you means — not in the face of all those stars. Personally I like The Great Gatsby, but if I wanted to make the case that my opinion about it was more valid or significant than those one-star reviews, I’m not sure how I’d go about it. “Personally” is about all that’s left.

It’s liberating in some ways, but it’s also a difficult thing to admit. The idea of some kind of objectively constant, universal literary value is seductive. It feels real. It feels like a stone cold fact that In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust, is better than A Shore Thing, by Snooki. And it may be; Snooki definitely has more one-star reviews on Amazon. But if literary value is real, no one seems to be able to locate it or define it very well. We’re increasingly adrift in a grey void of aesthetic relativism.

It’s also weird how little the way we talk about books reflects this. We tend to go on and on at each other as if GoodReads, and for that matter Kant, never existed. As Laura Miller recently pointed out in Salon, even judges of major literary prizes (and I’ve judged them too) rarely make a serious attempt to articulate their criteria for literary greatness. It’s just assumed to be out there. There used to be a lot more talk about that: such questions are, or used to be, part of a branch of philosophy called aesthetics (that’s the discipline that Critique of Judgement belongs to). But I’m not even sure if aesthetics exists anymore. In grad school I was informed, thunderously, by a philosophy professor, that aesthetics is now a dead field, and has been ever since Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, which was the last great work of aesthetics ever. (And yeah, that book would just about kill anything.)

I’m not completely sure that’s true — cf reader-response criticism, Roland Barthes’ marvelous The Pleasure of the Text, and a whole lot of books I’ve never read and have never heard of but which you probably have.

But either way I feel like there should be more talk about the criteria by which we make literary judgments. More and more books are being published every year, but we have less of an idea than ever (what with aesthetics being dead, or at least resting) how to filter and sort and organize and canonize them, or even whether we should. Presumably the canon-making machinery is continuing to grind forward, and certain books are being assigned in college classes and reissued by the Library of America and so forth, according to the whims and desires of the canon-makers, whoever they might be (for all I know I might be one of them). But we still don’t know much about why.

Short of resurrecting and solving aesthetics, the least we should do is consider trying to move beyond doing the sucks/rocks debate a million times a day on the Internet, and talk more about what it means to say that a book sucks.

Even when it totally obviously does.

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