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Sanderson's First Law

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Kelise, Apr 22, 2012.

  1. Could you give a specific example of such a technique (in writing) that is measurable, and what exactly the metric is by which it is measured?

    Again, I'm interested in how exactly this measuring is done. Mostly I ask because I've never actually come across any description of measurement systems for genius before. What's the unit of measurement for genius?

    Can you give an example of a piece of substance that other works contain, that (for example) Harry Potter doesn't? Having read all seven HP books, I think they say a lot about responsibility, sacrifice, and friendship, so I'm not sure it's reasonable to say they contain little of substance.
     
  2. Phin Scardaw

    Phin Scardaw Troubadour

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    This is an excerpt that I think proves my point. It comes from John Crowley's book The Translator:

    "We look now at a famous poem by English poet A. E. Housman," Falin said, turning the purple mimeo sheets to find the little thing, one of the few in the packet familiar to Kit. He looked down on it, nodded slightly as though in greeting, and then looked up. Kit wrote famose boym in her notebook. "What does it say and how is it made.

    "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
    Is hung with bloom along the bough
    And stands about the woodland ride
    Wearing white for Eastertide."


    Two couplets, he pointed out, in a meter also favored by the Russian poet Pushkin and others writing in that language. Kit wrote in her notebook D'Roshin boyt. The stanza is very simple in form and thought, and has a figure only in the last line: the cherry trees are girls in white clothes, for church at Easter.

    "Now the poet does some arithmetic," said Falin.

    "Now, of my threescore years and ten,
    Twenty will not come again,
    And take from seventy springs a score,
    It only leaves me fifty more
    .

    "Arithmetic is hard to do in verse without clumsiness," he said. "So poets sometimes like to see if they can do this. And I have learned, though I did not know this when I first read this poem in Soviet Union, that the poet was professor of Latin, and worked for many years on a Latin poet who wrote about astrology, a poem filled with arithmetic in verse. So."

    Kit wrote Sov yetchunion. Then she tore the page from her notebook and crumpled it, looking up to find all regarding her, including Falin; and she lowered her eyes.

    "Now see how he ends this small poem," Falin said. "He has said that he is young, but even so he knows life is short; here is what he now says:

    "And since to look at things in bloom,
    Fifty springs are little room,
    About the woodlands I will go
    To see the cherry hung with snow.


    "Now do you see," he said to them with great strange tenderness, as though for them but also for Housman and the young man in the poem as well, "do you see: the only other figure in this poem is very last word, and it compares white blossoms to tree in winter, covered with snow. With snow, when all blossoms and leaves will be gone. In the very moment of his delight the poem reminds him, and us, that time will pass, blossoms will fall." He leaned forward toward all of them. "And it may well be that it was not Housman's thought but the poem itself that produced this meaning; that the poet reached next-to-last line and this rhyme arose of its own accord, with all these meanings. Yes I am sure, sure it did. A gift that came because of rhyme, came because rhyme exists. Because poetry is what it is. And because this poet was faithful."

    They were all immobile in their chairs before him, stilled maybe (she was) by that word faithful. Kit would remember it: the word he used that day.



    Please note all in this thread that I am not bashing any author's work, nor am I claiming that there is no substance in the popular books which many have enjoyed. I have read enough of them to recognize them for what they are, and I did not continue because I felt they do not have the quality to sustain my interest. Most stories that merely entertain do have themes of value; of course they do, otherwise they would be entirely vacuous.

    Crowley is a literary genius. It's a shame so few have celebrated his work.
     
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2012
  3. That was a nice passage, but I'm not sure how it proves anything. And it doesn't really answer my questions about how exactly you quantify genius, or particular writing techniques.

    Quantifying something means describing it with quantities, that is, numbers. You can quantify mass, distance, volume, intensity, and time; you can quantify the number of words in a piece of writing, or the number of sentences, or of each part of speech, or the number of metaphors, or the proportion of dialogue to narration. But I'm still not sure how you can objectively quantify writing in a way that distinguishes "good" writing from "bad" writing.
     
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    You can't. The closest you're probably going to get is application of the rules of grammar. A great deal of what one might considered good writing versus lesser writing is subjective. It depends not only on the writer's goals, but also the reader's goals (i.e. some writing may be better for one purpose, other writing better for another purpose).

    The thing that interests me the most whenever these discussions come up is the psychology involved. Why is it that there is a need to attempt to elevate one's own subjective judgments to an objective level. Why not simply be content with the idea that there is a large degree of subjectivity involved and that reasonable people will differ? Take it one step further, and you get the stating of an opinion on a series of seven books by someone who hasn't read them (OK, he's read enough to form an opinion. Given the work as a whole, how much is sufficient to form an opinion - one page? Ten?). Again, it is the compulsion to be objectively "right" that drives one to characterize a work based on what is in all likelihood an insignificant sampling. And I don't mean to sound like I'm picking on Phin - this is a rather common circumstance, in my view, and it just so happens that it has come up in this thread. I mean to be speaking more generally, but given the thread I know it goes in the context of the discussion.

    So - does this mean Phin, or anyone else, should like Harry Potter? Certainly not. Nor should anyone like a work simply because it is popular, well-reviewed, or held in esteem by literary types who look down at their noses at the groundlings reading common work.

    A book may have a variety of purposes. It may be to enlighten, or to entertain, or to inform. In some instances, maybe a book does all three. Your goal as a reader, at any given moment, may be all of these things, or it may be only one of them. If you pick up a book and it serves the purpose you expect from it, then the writer has done her job. Whether it serves that purpose is likely to hinge on many more subjective factors than objective ones.

    Lastly, I've read Twilight and A Brief History of Time. So what? I read a lot of fiction, and I read a lot of science books. Am I somehow elevated above the person who has read Twilight and not A Brief History of Time? I think not.
     
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2012
  5. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

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    As Fantasy writers, our job consists in capturing the imagination and the hearts of our readers, take them out of the real world and plunge them deep into the worlds that we create... That's the most important goal that we shall seek, not a perfect grammar or a more elevated content, and if we manage to do that well, we have a better chance to be truly successful in the world of Fantasy literature.
     
  6. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    Very true. And the whole taste and preference thing muddles the issue even further. I'm sure that Crowley passage was well-written, but I got bored after the first paragraph. I'm not much for poetry.

    I think in theory you could categorize writing on a plane or sort of biaxial continuum or sliding scale. On one axis you have "good" vs "bad" and on another axis you have "fun" vs "boring". This gives you four extremes: totally epic, good-but-boring aka "the classic", so-bad-it's-good aka "the farce", and utterly worthless, aka "OMG WTF IS THIS I DON'T EVEN".

    The problem with this is that everyone skews those axes differently, and it's extremely difficult to find a truly objective viewpoint from which to relativize all others.
     
  7. Shockley

    Shockley Maester

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    I think you can judge the quality of writing skill and the ability to convey points. Whether a story is good is subjective because you're dealing with a whole, but you can tear apart the pieces and tell whether each of them is 'good' or 'bad.'
     
  8. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    It would be pretty expensive, and I don't know if there's enough precedent with books, but the right combination of market research could objectively determine the quality of a book by any standards I can think of. K-Means clustering and focus groups can pinpoint a book's appeal, to whom, how much, and why pretty accurately and give you several metrics to evaluate.
     
  9. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    Steerpike has a point here. The closest thing there is to a rubric of objectively good writing is this:
    A. Is the writer clear about what purpose they intend to serve?
    B. Do they serve it in a satisfactory manner?

    If condition A is met, then any criticism of a "pop fiction" book being shallow are irrelevant, because the writer (should have) made it clear from the start that this was not intended to be a deep and philosophical treatise on the human condition. You can call a spade a spade, but you can't criticize it for being a spade unless it claims to be something else. Thus, even shallow writing can be considered "good" as long as it makes it clear that it's shallow from the start. Now condition B is the tricky one, because that word "satisfactory" is what opens the door for multitude of opinion. We've narrowed the definition of good a little, but not by much.
     
  10. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    Yes, but that makes the assumption that "X group likes it" = "it's good". Can we make that assumption? Does mass appeal and financial success equal quantitative "goodness"? Consider Transformers 2 for example.
     
  11. Shockley

    Shockley Maester

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    Well, if we're going to argue that writing is subjective as to whether or not it's good or bad, we also have to apply that logic to Transformers 2.
     
  12. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yes, I think this is right. I like to read deep books. At time, I also like to read shallow books that I expect will be light, quick reads that are entertaining and little more. Both types of books can be "good" writing if you keep the purpose in mind. By the same token, if I watch an episode of The X-Files versus a documentary on insects, my goals are different. I'm going to learn a lot more from the documentary, but if I enjoy the X-Files episode, then it too is "good" in that sense.

    @Devor - I think with the marketing angle you are talking about, you are still ultimately measuring people's subjective reactions to the product. You can quantify those reactions and establish metrics by which to gauge them, but it seems to me the underlying data are still subjective by and large.
     
  13. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    That's exactly my point. Trying to objectively categorize writing as "good" or "bad" creates the "Transformers 2 Paradox". Is Transformers 2 good or bad?

    Many people paid to see it. Many people hated it. Some people enjoyed it, but even those people will say it's a bad film. So is it good or bad?

    This is the "Transformers 2 Paradox".
     
  14. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Only to an extent. You can objectively measure appeal, and why, but then you would have to make a value judgement as to which audience and which reason can be determine that the work was better. For instance, you could measure appeal to well-read fantasy critics (just one K-Means group), and then determine how many of them felt the work was original. Hypothetically, you could even measure how that viewpoints changed over time or across regions, and determine which works survive scrutiny. You could find, "Well, these people didn't like it, but only because it was too dark for them. That's not determinate of quality. Another group consistently felt that the protagonist was irrational in making key decisions. Does that reflect quality?"

    The result would be an argument about which standards you consider determinate of quality, but you would have clear and objective metrics to make that decision if you knew how to analyze them.

    The fact that the objective metrics are derived from subjective answers is actually immaterial; that's the case of all the social sciences. Objective statistical conclusions can be made from subjective data.


    That's not a paradox. A lot of people just saw a bad film. That can actually be objectively determined by Market Research.

    A bad film is not the same as a bad decision to make the film. That's another question.

    The success of the next piece in a series is often influenced by the one before it. A great episode of House may have lousy ratings, but the following week the ratings pick up because people were talking about the show. Transformers 2 was a terrible film, but it sold well because the first Transformers was mostly pretty good. Transformers 3 is generally considered "okay," but it suffered in people's minds from the drag of T2 and performed the worst so far.

    It's not really a paradox, or even confusing, if you understand the industry.
     
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2012
  15. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    No, no. You missed my point entirely. Not only did a lot of people see this bad film, but they enjoyed the bad film. Thus the film is both good (people enjoyed it) AND bad (those same people call it bad). THAT is the paradox, or rather one variation of it.
     
  16. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Okay. That's a much more legitimate question, but it can still be resolved pretty easily. You can differentiate the experience of seeing a film with an appreciation of the actual elements of the film, if you know how to approach that distinction.

    It's not the subjective nature which is the problem in a social science so much as the ability of the researcher to accurately sense and target the properties of what's being tested. But that's a problem which can be overcome in any given case.
     
  17. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    Isn't that a bit reductionist?
     
  18. Shockley

    Shockley Maester

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    At your basic point though, you're accepting (even forcing the idea) that it is a bad film.

    I think that establishes a basic rule for literature, as well. People who are exposed to a great deal of literature (especially what we might qualify as 'good' literature) are the primary arbiters of what is good and what is not, with the majority of people just being mere observers.
     
  19. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    So what you're saying is that the unwashed masses are incapable of telling good from bad? That creates another conundrum. Is that true, or are we just being elitist? Or both?
     
  20. Shockley

    Shockley Maester

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    I wouldn't break it down in those terms, but essentially.

    If you're trying to find out what defines good food, do you go to someone who eats exclusively at McDonald's or Anthony Bourdain?

    If you're trying to find out what defines good film, do you ask Michael Bey or Frederico Fellini?

    That also goes for people who just experience things. I have a friend whose favorite movie is Prince of Persia and another friend who is a film major. One of them, obviously, has more experience in dealing with cinema and is more qualified to determine good from bad.
     
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