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Judging Fanfiction: Subjective vs Objective

Discussion in 'Fanfic Discussion' started by Mr. Mixed Bag, Oct 11, 2021.

  1. Mr. Mixed Bag

    Mr. Mixed Bag Sixth Year

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    This is something that I've been thinking about from time to time after it was briefly touched on in the thread about slash.

    When judging a fanfiction story, where do you draw the line between objective and subjective quality?

    My initial thoughts, based on sporadic bursts of considering the topic, is to define three categories.

    First, things that are indisputably objective:
    1. Grammar. Misuse of their, they're and there, for example, is clearly wrong and cannot be debated.
    2. Linked to grammar but slightly separate is what I like to think of as the flow of writing. This means repetitive word choice, robotic dialogue, run-on sentences, and anything else that keeps the work from running smoothly.
    Then there are topics that blur the line:
    1. Characterization. There's a certain level below which characterization is objectively bad, such as when it ignores motives or basic human nature for the sake of convenience. Basically, bashing and that sort of thing. But there's also a subjective aspect. A lot of readers tend to enjoy characterization that reminds them of themselves, but that criterion is anything but objective.
    2. Plot. Again there is a floor here for quality, beneath which are objectively bad plots. There are also certain features, such as unpredictability and shock factor, that seem to be universally considered as making a plot better. But readers also have their hang ups. I've never been able to stomach stories in which the protagonist is framed, and my mom has said many times that she "hates it when the good guys fight each other".
    3. Most things not in the first or third categories fall into this one, so I'll leave it at these two examples for the sake of concision.
    Finally, it's matters that are entirely subjective:
    • What character a story follows. I know, I know, you're already booing. But while dodging stories from Snape or Hermione's perspective is a reliable way to dodge bad stories (and keep your sanity, considering how bad they can get), there is nothing in the choice of protagonist that means the story must suck.
    • I can see how some would put this in the middle section, but I put perspective here. First, third, even second can tell a story that is not objectively bad. Sure, certain perspectives may alienate a lot of readers (looking at you, second person) but I don't think any perspective is actually, in a vacuum, objectively bad.
    What I'm curious about, is how others would shift around the items on my list, and what they would add and where. I don't really think there is a completely correct answer to the question, which honestly makes me more interested in how different people see it differently.

    (This seems like the type of topic that would've received a thread in the past, but I did a few searches for each similar title I could think of, and nothing came up, so I think I'm in the clear. I'm still fairly new to the platform however, so my search bar wizardy may not yet be sufficiently cultivated, and it is indeed a repeat. If this is the case, I apologize in advance and beg mercy.)
     
  2. haphnepls

    haphnepls Seventh Year

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    I think a good story consists of many little writing concerns that I'd fit in your second category such as characters' growth, worldbuilding, balanced levels of power (so the protagonist has an honest shot), characters' voices, consistency, strong introduction etc.

    I'd even argue it's the only category that matters because even if grammar and vocabulary are nothing to write home about, I can in most cases soldier through it if plot elements of the second category are up to my tastes. With a simple engine, you can turn an unreadable scramble of words into a readable story.

    As for the third category, it's something the author cannot work on and therefore is unfair to be judged on so I really never thought about it, nor criticized it seriously. It's basically a preference and well, the author can never make everybody happy without ruining the story.

    Anyway, I know I steered away from the topic but I want to stress that if we are talking quality, we are almost certainly looking at the second category because those are the things every writer can work on, and make them better with consistent writing and acting on constructive criticism they've got.

    For what it's worth, I agree with the categories, but I'd add a sense of importance to distinguish more between them since you never really judge story category by category, but rather as a whole, for many different reasons.
     
  3. Eimim

    Eimim First Year

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    I wonder if this is a productive way to look at the divide we saw in the slash discussion thread.
    Maybe a better way to look at this would be 'good vs. enjoyable'.

    There are plenty of books that I consider both objectively and subjectively good, but I don't personally enjoy reading them. However, I don't deny that they are good stories, because I can judge a book without only considering my personal enjoyment.

    On the other hand, if I judge a book on enjoyment only, I can disregard what you categorize as indisputably objective. I might then recommend that book to a friend with similar taste, as something fun to read but nothing more.

    I don't see why we should judge fanfiction any differently. See whether or not it's a good story, even if you don't find it personally enjoyable. Judge subjective matters on whether or not they are good for the purpose of that particular story, not on whether they bring you enjoyment.
     
  4. Steelbadger

    Steelbadger Death Eater

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    It's a tricky area, to be sure. With the exception of technical grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word choice, everything falls into a subjective camp. Or, rather, it falls into either a subjective camp, or a contextually objective camp.

    Contextually objective is my (made up right now) name for where the really difficult feedback lies, but it's also the area that is most helpful to a writer looking to improve beyond the basics.

    What I mean by this is, at the most simplistic, that certain 'types' of stories have a different set of inherent expectations. While it is attractive to imagine that my preferred story-telling methods are objectively better than others, it's not really something I can defend. Stories don't exist in a vacuum, and a lot of their meaning comes wrapped up in the context of why they are written, and the authors' (and readers') historical context.

    To give a more concrete example, slash has been a topic of discussion recently, like you say. The 'slash style' as it has been dubbed is something which I personally do not enjoy reading. It tends to involve overly emotional and tactile characters, and includes a narrative which is often very internally focused. It tends to emphasise thoughts and feelings, and actions have importance because of the thoughts and feeling they might evoke. It is too prescriptive for me to really enjoy it, which is why I dislike it, the characters feel inauthentic to me because they act and think in ways which feel strange, and which pull me out of the narrative.

    But it is the slash style for a reason. It is an integral part of how the target audience for such fics interact with their stories, and I think you would find that writing a slash romance which does not conform to those expectations would leave many in its intended audience feeling unfulfilled.

    It is so easy to come in to a story with deep-seated expectations of how such a story should go. Ultimately, though, unless you share the same expectations as the author (and the target readers) any advice you give or judgement you make is faintly irrelevant to the author.

    So when judging a fic as objectively as possible (the 'is it good?' question, rather than the 'did you like it?' question which many people conflate together), I first try and work out what the author wants from the story. Sometimes this can be tricky, if the story is a long way outside my existing experiences for example, but usually I can reach some level of understanding. This is where I think the subjective-objective split really comes.

    Objective: Can they spell, and construct meaningful sentences?
    Contextually Objective: How well did the author achieve what they were looking to achieve?
    Subjective: Is what the author wanted to achieve (or did achieve) a good/enjoyable story?

    This does lead to an obvious pitfall: When you don't understand what the author was 'going for'. Perhaps the author wishes to deconstruct some idea or trope, while the reader assumes they're playing it straight. This often renders all but the most basic feedback unusable for the author as they are approaching the story from a completely different direction.

    The the thing is that while stuff in the 'objective' category can be 'fixed' fairly easily by a reader (simply proposing corrected spellings or punctuation for example), I don't think it's anywhere near as easy for a reader to propose a solution to the contextually objective issues. A reader can tell the author if they felt what the author wanted them to feel in that moment, but they are generally not going to be able to offer much helpful advice on how to achieve that feeling if it isn't currently working.

    Criticism at the level of the subjective, the 'did I enjoy it' level, is really not for the author at all. It is for the benefit of like-minded readers. The author may also be like-minded, but they also probably don't need to be told if they've written a story which is fundamentally unattractive even to themselves.

    Generally, when judging the writing of a stranger, I'll stick to the basic objective stuff. If I'm doing a proof-read for someone I know a little better, or have spoken to about their intentions for the story, then I may offer some thoughts in the contextually objective category if I feel comfortable enough with what the author wanted to achieve. I will almost never offer critique at the subjective level beyond 'I liked this', or 'I don't think this was for me'. That's a discussion for pointless reddit threads about how evil Dumbledore is.
     
  5. Skeletaure

    Skeletaure Magical Core Enthusiast ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    I'd say even correct grammar and spelling is subjective. There are some barely coherent stories on FF. Net with endless pages of glowing reviews from devoted readers. Many people just don't care if something is written in broken English or not. The shit spelling and grammar is no barrier to their enjoyment of those stories.

    The best you can say is that within a community of people who agree that Standard X is important, within that community compliance with Standard X is functionally objective. It just so happens that the community of people who think correct grammar is good is rather large. But it is by no means universal.
     
  6. Ched

    Ched Da Trek Moderator DLP Supporter ⭐⭐

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    I always try to explain these things in my reviews so that anyone reading my thoughts on DLP knows why I rated a story as I did.

    But if it's technically decent I'll acknowledge that and give it at least a 3/5 even if I didn't like it. Loads of these, but in particular I'm not into stories that go heavy on romance (doesn't

    If it's technically poor but I had a lot of fun with it, same thing. Stages of Hope is a good example of this. Fairly shit writing in many ways but I've read it about three times in full.

    5/5 requires that it knocks everything out of the park for me personally. There's not that many of these and all 30 or so are in my C2 (unless I missed a few which I'm sure I did).

    And everything in between is a range from 3-5. (I wish we rated out of 4 or 6 personally!)

    It's very rare that I give stories 1-2/5 because people don't often put those up for review here imo.
     
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2021
  7. Mr. Mixed Bag

    Mr. Mixed Bag Sixth Year

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    I'd argue that just because many don't care - or even enjoy more - stories with grammatical errors, doesn't make it subjective. People read what they enjoy and more power to them, but unlike things like characterization or tone there actually is a "right" answer. Confusing 'its' and 'it's' isn't a stylistic choice but an unequivocal error, albeit a small one that could be looked past.

    Although if you define quality and enjoyment as completely synonymous in Fanfiction then you'd be correct. Which you may, in which case we just view the concept differently.
     
  8. A Lightning

    A Lightning Seventh Year

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    Spelling, grammar, and to a lesser extent prose, can be measured objectively, but how much they add to or detract from a story's overall quality is still very much a subjective decision. I'd say they're extremely important, but I have friends that read honest-to-god machine translated Chinese and Japanese novels in which half the sentences are borderline incomprehensible.

    Originality/reliance on tropes is another factor that can be discussed objectively, but people will disagree on if a trope filled story is necessarily lower quality than a trope-free one.

    So, I understand the desire to separate quality from enjoyment, but how do you do it? Let's assume your goal is to give a single score representing the quality of a story -- is there an objective answer for how much incorrect spelling and grammar detract from an otherwise perfect score?
     
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