The other day, someone threw back at me the idea that a reader can use whatever criteria they like when evaluating a work of fiction. They're right, of course, but I'm also going to call bollocks on this statement.
The Dark Tower movie might fail the Bechdel Test miserably, in my opinion, but I can't use that as the sole criteria to evaluate whether I think it's a good film (or not). (Or even whether it's a half-decent adaption of a Stephen King novel.)
But you see what the problem is here. We're not coming to any objective conclusion as to whether a work has any literary merit whatsoever. How are we evaluating a work?
Welcome to cultural relativism, where everyone's opinion is equally valid and we are incapable of gauging whether a cultural object is ... well ... good.
Before we go haring off into the hinterlands, let's just look at communication. Books are communication. You've got the author, the cultural environment in which the book happens to be published, and you've got the reader.
We'll never know what's really going on in an author's head when they write their masterpiece, but sometimes they'll be interviewed or we'll have access to their journal, or there will be some indication as to what the author's intention was when they were creating a particular work. So, I guess what I'm saying, is keep it in mind that the author may have had particular intentions when they wrote their story, be it to purely entertain or perhaps function as a way to convey opinions. A romance author might intend her story to evoke the feelings of falling in love while a literary author might wish to challenge her readers' opinions about something or the other.
Now a book doesn't just float around in a vacuum. It often relates to other media, is perhaps created in response to or borrows from other texts. (This is called intertextuality, a kind of interplay and understanding of the relationships that happen between works.) Look at Neil Gaiman's The Sandman comics – they discuss and comment upon the huge body of works in comic book culture and, by default, human culture at large. [You can read The Sandman without knowing much about comics, but the experience is going to be so much richer if you do have that background.] So you'd also look at when a book was published, and who published it. You will look at its content in context with other examples of media. You will try to understand a work's relation to all these. So, in essence, you'll look at the bigger picture to give you an idea of where the work fits.
Ask yourself this: Would a novel like Lolita by Viktor Nabokov be published today? Why not?
Now, let's get to the reader. That's you. You don't know what the hell the author was thinking when he wrote the bloody book. Your cultural milieu might be vastly different from that of old Mr Nabokov. Or you might simply never have read enough in a particular genre to gain an understanding of its intertextuality. And now you're reviewing a book. Let's make it a romance novel. A nice, bodice-ripping, breeches-busting rompetty-pompetty. You've never read this sort of novel before. You've only ever read literary novels that are completely embedded with nuance and metaphor, where there're rich, profound cultural references and ideas that make you gaze off into the middle distance pondering the nature of reality.
What's your first reaction?
To be honest, I wouldn't blame you if you tossed that high-octane romance novel across the room so fast it broke the sound barrier. Here's the deal, and it's going to save you a lot of heartache in the future. Evaluate a novel without putting yourself into it, without using your likes/dislikes as the sole barometer as to whether a work is good.
In literary criticism terms, this is when you judge a book based on your own emotions (they call it the affective fallacy and that's all fancy-like). So, you think a character is junk and therefore because you don't like the character, the entire novel is now rubbish. You don't like talking rabbits? Well, that's not the only reason why Watership Down sucks*, is it? What if the author had never intended for a character to be likeable in the first place? Can you see what I'm getting at here? You didn't like the book because there was just sex in it? In fact, more sex than plot? And we all know that only stupid people read sex books, amiright? [That was sarcasm, BTW] Well, how does it compare to other erotica out there? Is it a pulpy small press novel meant to be devoured in one sitting by readers who want to get their panties all squishy and stuck up their butt cracks? You cannot compare this novel to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. For the love of fuck, please don't. They're not even remotely the same beasts. You do yourself a disservice if you do.
So, what can you, as a reader do?
Firstly, read widely and read outside of your chosen genres. Read novels that are considered classics. Maybe take time to read according to theme – like 19th-century Irish authors or the beat poets. Find out what makes the cut-up technique rock. [Fuck it, go read William Burroughs.] Then go read a proper Gothic novel, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Try to paint a broader picture of literature. How does JRR Tolkien compare to Michael Moorcock? Don't just stay in your comfort zone because you're scared of big words. Hell, peaches, there's an entire interwebz out there. Improve your Google-fu if there're ideas or terminology that challenge you. Also, go read reviews for some of these novels. Ask yourself why you agree or disagree with what some of the reviewers say. Try to figure out why someone would come to a particular conclusion.
That's not to say you shouldn't read the books you love. Hell, I always have at least one epic fantasy novel's spine cracked at any given moment. But I do try to read stuff I wouldn't ordinarily dip into, like children's novels, dubcon erotica, military SF, classics, Afrikaans literature, historical...
Understand, mostly, that you have personal likes/dislikes that mean you'll never like a particular type of book. Hell, I'm not advocating that you suddenly develop a passion for political thrillers, but at least understand why a particular political thriller works as a piece of literature (good pacing, strong characterisation) as opposed to another book within the same genre that is poorly written and filled with cliché-ridden characters. Understand why a romance novel may be excellent within its genre even though you're not going to hold it up next to an intense literary masterwork.
I may loathe JM Coetzee's Disgrace with the fury of a thousand rabid camels, but I cannot deny that it's an excellent work of literature, for various reasons that I'm not going to go into now because they'll probably bore us both to tears. I'd sooner get my jollies reading the next Mark Lawrence, in any case. (However I have an idea what books Mr Lawrence has been reading, based on educated guesses related to intertextuality, which makes me quietly smile as I turn those pages.)
So, get to know all sorts of genres. Gain an understanding of what the objective values are that make good literature and how that varies between genres. When you evaluate, keep that bigger picture in mind. Look at the technical and aesthetic reasons why a particular work may be successful (or not), and go from there.
A book isn't just rubbish or a paragon of literary greatness. There are reasons why, and they're often way beyond your own personal likes and dislikes. Granted, you can use your own criteria as a guide, but try to dig a little deeper than, "I think Mr Joe is a horrible person and this book is sucks great big hairy bollocks."
In fact, what you hate about a novel often says a lot more about you than it does about the stupid sod who wrote the blighted thing. Just keep that at the back of mind when you start putting on the hate.
* Okay, I don't think Watership Down sucks, but some people might. In fact, I've cried every time I watched the fucking movie, okay? I just have to hear the song "Bright Eyes" and the waterworks begins.