Contemporary Literature Survey: Bases of Evaluation

There is some argument, so I’ve heard, about what bases literature should be judged on, with critics often using (God forbid!) whatever thought happen to come into their head at the time, so I’ve come up with a list of things with which I’m going to judge the books I’ll be reading in my survey:

  • Basic Style. Can the writer write adequate/good sentences? Does the novel flow? Or does it fail on this most basic of levels? Would an editor have helped?
  • Micro-structure. Does the author seem to have trouble constructing scenes, forcing information in where it doesn’t belong, or are they seamless? (Can be either scene by scene, or sentence by sentence). (If I’m only reading 50 pages, I’ll leave out macro-structure, which would be something more or less about being a coherent whole).
  • Paragraph Length. How long are the paragraphs on average? Is there any mitigating reason for their being so goddamn short?
  • Narrative Voice. Whether 1st, 2nd or 3rd person, does the narrative voice engage the reader? Is the reader drawn in?
  • Degree of Obliqueness. How disengaged is the narrative from the actual story it’s telling? Is there anything positive gained from such distancing?
  • Dialogue. If there is any, does it reflect how human-beings communicate with one another? How does it fit in with the surrounding prose?
  • Depth / Understanding of Humanity. Are any of the things the author has to say – even if they’re only off-the-cuff remarks –  interesting; do they engage my brain, as it were, outside of the text? (Obooki notes: literature need not be philosophy).
  • Abstraction. Are there many abstruse pages in the work where I have no idea what the hell the writer is on about? (A counter-point, perhaps, to the above).
  • Referentiality. Does the book make constant reference to other works, whether they might be other novelists, philosophers or “Maurice Blanchot”? Or does it rather have the courage of its own convictions?
  • Delight in language. Does the author appear to take any pleasure in the simple joy of using language? (An extension, perhaps, of style).
  • Symbolism. If symbolism is used, does it exist naturally in the text, or has it been forced in arbitrarily by the author? (Obooki notes: he only ever notices symbolism when it annoys him. Subtle symbols pass him by).
  • Authorial Vision. Does the author seem to have any sort of vision of life/the world? If yes, is that vision in any way interesting/compelling? Does the work constitute a coherent “world in itself”?
  • Inoffensiveness. Would the term “a light comedy” sum up the novel?
  • Fundamental Interest. (Perhaps we might call this plot, if that word didn’t seem to limit us). As I’m reading along, am I finding any of what’s going on interesting? Or has the author rather gone out of their way to write boringly about the most boring thing they could think of? Has the novel actually got anywhere in the first fifty pages, in terms of action, thought, development?
  • Irritating Factors. Is there anything about the work which irritates the hell out of me? (Usually, it’s using nouns as verbs – a common “poetic” effect, usually much applauded; but could include having a writer as your central character, or at any point mentioning 9/11). This factor is acknowledged as highly subjective.
  • Hope for Wholesale Massacre. (I guess this might usually fall under the name of “characterisation”). At the end of 50 pages, do I feel the novel would be improved if the entire cast were violently massacred? (Or, if you must, have I come to care for the characters?) One is minded of Hancock’s The Bowmans (@4:12, though probably doesn’t make much sense without the rest of the episode).

I think I shall actually use this structure for reviews. This may also be a useful way of distinguishing types of books from one another, for I notice I have some quite different books in this survey. Not all contemporary literature is the same, it appears: it can fail in many different ways.

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7 thoughts on “Contemporary Literature Survey: Bases of Evaluation

  1. In terms of fiction, I’ve never attempted to write anything more than a 66-word short story, but I feel almost challenged – OuLiPo-like – to forge a novel that defies all of these parameters.

  2. It would probably turn out something like the work of Tom McCarthy. Though even his individual sentences are passable in stylistic terms, I seem to remember.

  3. That made me laugh out loud. At least he massacres his own characters at the end of the one novel I read by him.

  4. Could I borrow these criteria for my own review at some point? They seem to be eminently sensible except maybe for the Maurice Blanchot one, which made me laugh (I believe I’ve seen him namedropped in Vila-Matas, an author I enjoy more than you do it would seem)!

  5. It doesn’t surprise me McCarthy put the massacre in the wrong place.

    The criteria may be borrowed, developed, ridiculed etc. – whatever one wishes. I just thought I needed some structure for my thinking, because last time round I ended up saying the same thing over and over again. Though I imagine it won’t stop me this time either.

  6. but could include having a writer as your central character, or at any point mentioning 9/11

    Talk about irritating! Love it. And the “fail in many different ways”–as can so, so many things.

    I think it’s interesting at bottom that we (you) feel we (you) need somehow “different” or “special” criteria for evaluating contemporary lit. I mean to say, I do too; why? For me, I think because much of it falls under that “inoffensive” label, and with passable style (i.e., decent writing), I feel “too likely” to say something is “good/okay” when it’s not really all that much to get yourself worked up about. (Man, sorry for all the quotation marks.)

  7. Hi Nicole

    Single word sentences – that’s another one.

    I think you’re right. From my last effort at this, I had to conclude that almost all the novels were written with “passable style” – you couldn’t say they were badly written, though some of the writers had quirks that personally I found irritating – but that really this should be a taken-for-granted basic assumption, a foundation on which the writer should then be building. And then I suppose, I’m trying to state what, in the absence of anything bad, nonetheless isn’t good about the novel.

    But I think it’s more than that too. What I want to get to the bottom of – and I don’t suppose I really did last time, or will this time – is why it is that I don’t really like contemporary literature. Lots of other people seem to – lots of other people seem to have a very high regard for it indeed. It seems to fulfill them in some way. Do I not like it because it’s badly written, as some of the above ideas try to demonstrate? Or do I not like it because of my own subjective preferences, which are not contained in the modern novel – as the above ideas also try to demonstrate? (Though, as far as I can see, those preferences certainly fit in with most of what is considered canonical literature). Or is it actually that I don’t like novels about the modern world at all – about, for instance, American middle-class life (which is certainly not a subject I find intrinsically interesting).

    The criteria are also are an attempt to set quite a wide net of criticism. I don’t expect any novel to succeed on every criterion; and it would not make it necessarily a better novel if it did so. I think one of the problems with setting objective criteria for the goodness of a novel is that there are actually many different way a novel can succeed (as well as fail). Pace both sides of the debate, a novel can be either avant-garde or an example of “c19th”-linear conservatism, it can use elaborate language or not, it can – to quote this nice essay by Franzen – include “sentimentality, weak narrative, overly lyrical prose, solipsism, self-indulgence, misogyny and other parochialisms, sterile game-playing, overt didacticism, moral simplicity, unnecessary difficulty, informational fetishes” or not. – But whatever approach is taken, at least some of these features have to be found worthwhile by the reader.

    A lie that is constantly stated about modern literature is that it’s difficult to identify genius, and that only time will tell. I don’t think this has ever been true of literature (or art in general) – it is a particularly modernist myth, a myth of the misunderstood artist. Great artists have always, it seems to me, been recognised and lauded as such in their lifetime.

    There – sorry for going on. It’s just, I’ve been thinking about these since writing them.

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