Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 28 September 2014

QUALITY – DOES IT MATTER? by Gill Stewart

How do you judge a ‘good’ book? Or a ‘really good’ piece of music? Is there some objective quality these can be measured against? Or is it purely subjective? 



Can we use something as a proxy for quality – being assessed by experts, or appealing to a great deal of people, or having a lasting appeal over time? I’ll consider each of these in turn.

The problem with arbiters of quality being The Experts, is that we first need to decide who the experts are. There are many people willing to put themselves up for this role – university lecturers, book reviewers, other writers to name but a few. The problem is, their views are subjective, and they often don’t agree with each other. And even more often, I don’t agree with them. If I did, I would have to consider the books that, say, make it onto the shortlist for the Booker Prize as ‘good’. And, mmm, I really can’t say I do.

Volume of sales doesn't really imply quality for me, either. I understand that very many (young) people enjoy the music of One Direction, but does that mean it’s ‘good’. Likewise the books of E L James. On the other hand, I do think high sales can be an indicator of something – J K Rowling and Nora Roberts didn’t achieve the massive following they have without producing a really good product. But then, not everyone likes either of these, so we’re back to subjective judgements again – just the subjective views of a whole lot of people rather than the individual ones of the experts.

Having a lasting appeal over time actually makes more sense to me as an indicator of quality. I’m not a fan of classical music but I can wonder at and appreciate Mozart, as I can many ‘classical’ books such as Austen or George Elliot or Shakespeare. Being popular over a long period of time does show that the work isn't just suiting a current fashion. The problem with this measure is we have to wait a very long time before we can decide if something is good!

Although I can find reasons not to agree with many judgements on what is good and what isn’t, I do at heart believe there is something to the idea of ‘quality’. I might not be able to define it, but I can recognise it when I see it. Bob Dylan has it, as does Beethoven. Jennifer Crusie has it, as does Margaret Elphinstone, and Graeme Swinson (I strongly recommend his The Rosie Project if you haven’t come across him).

You might say it doesn’t matter, and we should leave everyone to like or dislike what they wish. Which of course is their prerogative. But there’s still this little bit of me that wants to be able to define and classify this…

14 comments:

  1. Fascinating. How can I keep my comments brief? I do think there's such a thing as quality and, like you, recognise it in things I don't necessarily like (I don't enjoy Jane Austen, for example, but it's unquestionably great literature.

    Quality is something i aspire to. I'd love to think that one day I will write something that's genuinely 'good'.

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    1. I agree there is such a thing as 'quality' and it's soething we should all aspire to. I'd like us all to trust our recognition of it more, and that of others less. If that is possible.

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  2. That's a very interesting post! Many books that sell by the truckload leave me scratching my head wondering where the magic that I missed went, for example 'One Day', 'The Fault in Our Stars' ... will leave it there before the cries of disagreement begin. I also get a little grumpy at the assumption in the broadsheets that anything produced by the usual, largely male, suspects (Self, Amis etc) is automatically 'quality'. I guess it's because a lot of people need to be told what's good rather than trust their own judgement.

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    1. Thanks Chris. I so agree. Have never read any Self but have tried Amis and thought No! No! Trying to be clever does not make a good book! But of course this is only my opinion...

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  3. Interesting post, Gill. I'm just back from Wigtown Book Festival where I heard a fascinating lecture on S R Crockett, a writer who was a bestseller in his day with an output of over 70 novels including historical, contemporary and children's books. Why did he practically disappear? Tastes change. Politics. The literatti decided he wrote 'sentimental slop' yet he wrote about everyday people and issues including domestic abuse so hardly sentimental.
    I agree with your reply to Jennifer about trusting ourselves to recognise a 'good' book when we find one and not trust the judgement of others.

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    1. Thanks Mary. Now I will have to look out an S R Crockett book and read it to see what I think of it! Any suggested titles?

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    2. Gill - and anyone else who is interested - here's a link to the list of titles int he Galloway Collection: http://www.gallowayraiders.co.uk/the-galloway-collection.html
      Most people seem to start with The Raiders (much to Cally's irritation!) but there's plenty to choose from. She says try more than one before you decide you don't like him.

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    3. Brilliant! Those are now on my list.

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  4. I won't hear a word against Georgette Heyer or Enid Blyton and think the fact their books are still in print so many years after their deaths is testament to their ability to connect with readers.

    I'm glad SR Crockett was a bestseller in his time. One NZ writer said he hoped he wouldn't some poor bastard who became famous after his death - and that is exactly what happened!

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    1. If I had the choice, I'd definitely want to be a writer whose work people connected with, rather than a 'good' writer. And, yes, I almost put in a comment about being famour too late - I was thinking of the writer of Confederacy of Dunces. That's exactly what happened to him. And although it's great the book is out there, poor John Kennedy never got any joy from it.

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  5. What an excellent post, Gill! It really got me thinking. There are so many measures of 'good' aren't there? We all like reading different things, just as we all like wearing, eating, drinking, doing different things. And thank heavens for that. Hmm, I'm going to have to think about that one a bit more!

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    1. Thanks so much Jenny, glad you liked the post and yes, the more I htink about this the more I wonder... Always a good thing.

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  6. Goodness me, food for thought here! As a writer, I write to the very best of my ability, given my education and life experience. I like to think there is some quality in there but know I'm never going to make the 'classics' list!. As a reader I read to escape into another world. As one ages, time seems to go faster and I simply don't have time to read what others might deem 'quality' if I don't like it from the first page, or struggle with it, then I put it down and pick up something else. So yes....subjective, I'd say! Great post.

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  7. Thanks Linda. I agree about not battling through something you aren't enjoying. Life is definitely too short!

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