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Networking with Writers: Subjectivity is Poison

AeternisMar 14, 2022, 10:38:12 PM

While previous episodes of this series are the expansion of something I wrote a few years ago to explain why a writing group I was in seemed so inclusive to some new members but so hostile to others, this entry is new, based on several more recent experiences and conversations.

Click here to view the series index.

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While fashionable in artistic circles, the idea that artistic pursuits are absolutely subjective (that is, purely in the eye of the beholder) in all respects is a deadly poison to your ability to write well and engage your readers, and also to interact usefully with fellow writers.

All other things being equal, there are certain things that always make your text better, thus making them objective concerns. The simplest and most obvious of these are grammar and spelling, but they get more abstract than that while still remaining objective. I'm not here to tell you for certain where the objectivity stops, and it's not really in the scope of this series to provide a logical proof for what should be a pretty obvious concept (perhaps in another blog post I will). Instead, my purpose here is simply to point out that this line exists somewhere between the absolutes of universal subjectivity and universal objectivity. Some criticisms are absolutely not subjective opinion, and some absolutely are.

When confronted with this fact (and it is a fact), a lot of you artistic free spirits who are intimidated by the idea of making judgement calls about which is which retreat into the comforting but perilous absolute that everything is subjective. This attitude is seductive for a reason: it lets you avoid the judgement call altogether and just ignore the critiques that make you feel unhappy while acting on the critique that makes you feel good. The higher functions of the brain are never engaged in this process.

It's time to engage those higher thinking functions. Writing is as much a craft as an art, and it has a lot of objective concerns you have to learn and improve. You can't make that immovable fact go away by feeling particularly subjective, you can only make your productive peers avoid you.

Why should anyone answer your writing questions if your attitude is to reply "that's just, like, your opinion, man" whenever you get an answer you don't like because it requires more work than you were hoping? Why should anyone give you feedback on how badly structured your sentences and paragraphs are if they know you're going to assume that is just an opinion and that the next reader is as likely to see the same broken nonsense as pure genius?

It's okay to recognize when something really is subjective. Heck, it's even okay to have disagreements about whether a particular arguable element of criticism you got is subjective or not. I'm not saying I or anyone else has all the answers, or can always remain objective. We don't and can't. What I am saying though, is that you certainly don't have the answers either, and you certainly never will have any of them if your starting position is to declare satisfying answers impossible.

No, the universal subjectivity position doesn't make you intellectual or deep. It doesn't make you more sensitive or thoughtful. It makes you a poser who has admitted defeat, who isn't interested in honing their craft and can't be bothered to give their artistic pursuits (or anyone else's) the intellectual consideration they deserve.

Anyone who is getting anywhere in writing has determined that there are some things which are objective; they're standards you're held to by the very structure of language and communication regardless of what you or anyone else feels about them. This is doubly true in storytelling, even if the things you're held to - internal consistency, characterization, plot structures, and so on - are generally abstractions rather than easy, computation-friendly metrics. You might as well get with the program if you want to get anywhere with other writers or with readers.

I've seen some clever ways to weasel out of this. Some people define special terms like "artistic aspects" or "artist's expression" which are intended to quietly assign zero value to the objective criticisms of any piece of art or writing. In short, don't do this. All the aspects of your art matter, include the ones that are aspects of the craft as much as the art. In writing, that means the objective quality of your text at the low level and the objective skill with which the people, places, and events of your stories are presented to the audience's imagination. No matter how emotionally attached you are to a story's subjective elements, if you screw the objective stuff up, you won't be able to lead anyone else down that road behind you.

Absolute subjectivity is absolute poison. It'll prevent you from doing anything good with your writing talent.  Subjective considerations matter, but unless you can keep them in balance with the objective ones, you're going to fail as a writer.