Can’t sleep at all, might as well blog!

How to define and discuss quality and maturity or lack-thereof in writing (comics, novels, films, tv, whatever) is something that has always fascinated me and caused me endless frustration. It’s almost impossible not to drag in personal opinion and tastes, and of course, I (along with most everybody else) just happen to think that the things I enjoy most are the things with the most quality and creativity.

I really get a kick out of sharing entertainment I love with people I like, so it can be especially disheartening if something that I consider to be of really high quality is met with a lack of enthusiasm. It makes me question both my taste, and my definition of what “quality” really is. It’s always with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation that I recommend a story to someone! So, with all this turning over in my mind as usual, I posted on a thread on Whitechapel about Sci-Fi TV shows, and found some thoughts coalescing in a far more coherent way than usual! I’ll try and put it down here before it leaks out.

I guess to start with, we need to establish what exactly is being measured when we talk about “quality” or “maturity”. I think the first thing that occurs to most people is whether they found the story enjoyable and engaging, and this is a good starting point, since most disagreements seem to spring straight from it. It’s pretty obvious that everyone enjoys different things, and that some incredibly popular pieces of entertainment are also disliked by critics, whilst less popular things can be branded as incredible storytelling. It’s easy to have a disagreement with someone about say, whether Harry Potter is actually well written or not, and give up all hope of ever establishing what “well written” actually means beyond the ability to string a sentence and a plot together coherently. Some people like Harry Potter and think it’s well written, some people hate it and think it’s poorly written, some people have never read it and still have an opinion, and I’ve even met a few who have read and enjoyed it, but openly call it poorly made. They can’t all be right, so it’s tempting to stop right there and say that there’s no such thing as “quality” in fiction beyond the ability to master the basic tools of the trade to the level required to satisfy the majority of non-professional consumers.

But this grates at me, as do all forms of total subjectivism, there’s got to be a better way of looking at this…

It occurred to me that everything’s going to depend on what you’re looking for in a story and how good you are at looking for it. Ursula Le Guin points out in her collected essays Cheek by Jowl that a story can be both carelessly written, and carelessly read. Readers can just as easily miss the aspects of a book that define its quality as writers can forget to include them! The counter-argument to this would be that it’s the author’s job to make every aspect of their work visible to any reader, but I think this is unfair. Every reader has a different level of comprehension, interest and life experience – it’s literally impossible to cater to all.

Given this, I find that I lean towards valuing stories that require lots of life experience, lots of thinking and lots of interest to enjoy fully – after all, if all those layers are there, but as a reader you don’t have all the tools you need to experience every single one, you’ll appreciate those levels that your current experience means you can access, and every re-read will be rewarding because you’ll have changed and grown in the meantime. I’d refer to this multi-levelled aspect of a story as “maturity”, but this is a bit of a loaded term, so I want to take a moment to address it.

It’s obvious that a lot of young adult (YA) and kid’s entertainment has less seriousness and general darkness of tone than entertainment for older people. Plot convolution/complexity, violence, grittiness, sex and death are all regularly trotted out examples of things that get left on the cutting board when YA fiction is created. Because of this, I notice a lot of people assuming that adding those things to a story elevates it beyond or above kid lit in some way. An example argument is “Harry Potter is great because it gets really dark as it goes on, it ages with its reader” (the inference being that a darker tone is more suitable for an older reader).

Regardless of whether Harry Potter is good or not, this assumption seems too casual to me, it just doesn’t always add up! We all know a kid can appreciate pretty much any type of experience, even if that experience is considered inappropriate for them – what exactly any given child can appreciate in fiction just depends on what their short life has shown them and how they’ve reacted to it. We’ve all been 13, and we all know that sex and violence and death can be, if anything, more appealing and tantalising at that age! If a kid can come by (almost) any experience prematurely, what no kid can come by pre-maturely is breadth of experience and understanding. The contextual and subtle forms of observation that show us what lies at the depths (and the surface, and everything between the two) of human beings and human societies can only come from having both the time and the interest needed to encounter and learn them.

So, regardless of what the literal content of a book, film or comic is, I’d argue that it’s stylistic features like subtlety, quality of observation, depth of character, internal consistency, authenticity of dialogue, lack of comfortable allegory, diversity of cultural influence and layers of meaning that make writing mature or not – and ultimately define the enduring quality of a piece of entertainment. It’s precisely because these things require wide reading, wide life experience, keen observation and thoughtfulness to spot that they’re easy to miss, hard to define and near impossible to argue about coherently. Everyone’s experiences are different, everyone filters out different aspects and quantities of the life they live, and furthermore, everyone’s reasons for becoming attached to a story are just as situational and emotional as anything else. A story might have a contrived and narrow range of characteristics, but if every aspect of that narrow range strikes a chord with your life and mind as it stands, you’re going to love it! It’s only years down the line that you might discover it has no merit when experienced from a wider perspective – assuming you’ve allowed your perspective to widen in the meantime!

This causes no end of problems… I might find a book boring because it lacks this wider maturity, or because I didn’t have the prior experience or level of attention required to notice it was there, or just because I don’t seek it or value it when I find it. I might also have an over-active imagination that fills in the gaps for an author, placing layers and shades of my own experience where they weren’t intended and where other readers would never see them. There’s also the emotional side of things! It feels upsetting when a friend doesn’t enjoy the same things you enjoy, especially if they’ve got forceful opinions – it feels like the implication is that you don’t get what they like, and what you like is less mature than you think. It can be easy to react by simply shutting off and saying “I just like what I like”, or even by actively avoiding this maturity under the assumption that people who parrot on about it are just pretentious.

However, I’d hope to maintain that none of this slipperiness means that maturity and quality aren’t real and definable aspects of storytelling, just that in order to discover and discuss them, we need patience, open-mindedness and the willingness to see beyond our own experiences, question our own tastes and especially our justifications for those tastes.

As much as it frustrates me as a topic of discussion, this is also why I love fiction. I feel that I can expand my own breadth of experience by seeking out as many different stories as I can, introducing myself to new and alien concepts when life-as-usual doesn’t always take me to new places or confront me with new people.


  1. Jen says:

    A very interesting post and concept. My approach has always been to try to avoid far-reaching concepts like “quality” and focus on the detailed concepts (like those you listed as components of quality). I agree also with what you touched on (or what I read between the lines perhaps) about something being able to be “good” (or enjoyable) without being “quality”. It’s very interesting to get underneath these concepts.

    A side point as well – being upset by your friends not sharing your tastes is one way to look at it. Depending on your friends, it can be very exciting to disagree (in a non-judgmental way). I recently read a book that was critically and otherwise acclaimed that I loathed that was someone’s strong recommendation. The reason they loved it had to do with their own life experiences and it was fun to break it down.

  2. sarah says:

    ahh, to this post i don;t have a lot to say, because I feel you said it all, and so well! All I feel I can give is an understanding serendipitous nod, but I just want to express it’s a fascinating subject and something you really struck upon-

    As all art is entirely subjective (maybe not even art but just, life!)it totally makes sense that the reasons you might not find a book/film/comic interesting is that you may have not yet expreinced something in life that touches you with that experience, or that indeed you may have grown beyond that experience. when my tastes are questioned, i always question ‘what is good taste’ and I feel this is a better more open way of thinking about it, interesting =)

    also, this- ‘However, I’d hope to maintain that none of this slipperiness means that maturity and quality aren’t real and definable aspects of storytelling, just that in order to discover and discuss them, we need patience, open-mindedness and the willingness to see beyond our own experiences, question our own tastes and especially our justifications for those tastes.’ <– I just think in the end relates to everything in life, and i think is why as an artist or just as a person you can if you think in that way possibly enjoy everything you watch (well maybe not everything, but at least appreicate a wider variety of things!)

    I find it interesting that i feel you should apply what you said there to life, and when i think about it life directly applies to all forms of narrative/story telling too, what a nice way of thinking about things =D thanks for this!

    sorry to babble! this is ‘denji’ or ‘3os’ btw! LOL!

  3. Kate Holden says:

    Interesting post!

    I agree that ‘mature’ themes do not necessarily make for a mature story. Comics particularly make this apparent. A comic with heavy swearing, nudity and violence may in effect come across as adolescent and trashy, heavily dependent on how it’s used. Compare Jane Austin’s gentle comedies, which have no explicit sex or violence or any particularly dark themes, yet are incredibly sharp, smartly observed social commentaries.

    With regards to Harry Potter, I wouldn’t say it’s badly written, but it’s not high lit either. The prose is not the most inventive ever, it’s pretty utilitarian. Not embarrassing or purple, but it doesn’t have superbly written, quoteable lines either. The plots are well set up with good twists and excellent use of foreshadowing and setting up elements like a good mystery, but they’re not always well paced. The characters are fairly well-rounded and complex by standards of a children’s book (they’re certainly more complex and believable than say, the kids in ‘Narnia’), but they don’t have depths that will make an adult reading he books feel like they’re plumbing the depths of the human psyche. Overall, I would say that the Harry Potter series are superior Children’s books, but they’re not aiming to be clever adult literature. Not like say ‘His Dark Materials’ where the third book I feel is working so hard to be adult literature and an epic retelling of ‘Paradise Lost’ it sort of forgets sometimes that it’s a children’s adventure story.

    There are many qualities which can make a story ‘grown up’ and one that I feel is very important is the ability to separate oneself from one’s characters. An immature writer writes for their own gratification, with characters who are mouthpieces for that creator’s own ideals being put on pedestals within the text, and an inability for those characters to be made to seriously question themselves. Good literature is able to present the reader with a story where the characters have their own opinions, with bias in their own way, and unreliable narration from their point of view and allow the reader to come to conclusions without ever having to prop any of the arguments up with narrative bias. ‘Frankenstein’ for example, is told by a structure of nested letters and narratives, entirely told from the point of view of the characters. Shelly herself never jumps in and says ‘Victor is a horrible man, he abandoned the poor monster and he shouldn’t have!’ but instead gives the account from the point of view of these characters and allows you to come to a conclusion of your own from this. The way the story is told makes it likely people will sympathise with the monster, but you’re never explicitly forced or told to, he’s just written sympathetically. If you can write a character who is frequently proven wrong or acts in a selfish or irrational way, especially if you, as the writer, do not agree with that person’s actions or philosophy, and still present them as a sympathetic character, that’s a key element of good writing, I think.

  4. @Kate Holden
    Indeed, much agreed! I think you can sum it all up quite succinctly with the phrase “show, don’t tell”.

    Yeah, I know what you mean, I find the fiction I read reflects heavily on my life and the way i think about/live it.

    I think I might be a little over-sensitive in that regard, and being opinionated doesn’t help! I find with certain people I can relax and chat with interest about differences of opinion, and with others it feels more confrontational. In fact, perhaps it depends on my mood and how personally I feel about the writing in question rather than the person I’m talking to!

  5. nana says:

    Very thought-provoking! While aware that you’ll appreciate different things at different stages in life, I must admit that I’ve never given much thought to the finer aspects of this.

    Someone said “People who don’t read live only one life, people who read live a hundred”. I’m reading GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire right now. I realised that I wasn’t paying enough attention when listening to the audiobook while working and was missing out on many of the subtleties that require you to be then and there in order to get the most of it. I think the Song of Ice and Fire will be a book that I’ll be able to come back to many many years in the Future.
    I’ve re-read Eddings many times in the past but the last few reads made me feel that the story was rather simple. Sure, the characters were still loveable, but also rather predictable once you know them. Conversely, I never know what unexpected action the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire will take next, which can be intriguing but also rather frustrating. Every unexpected turn shows you a new aspect of a character though, so it’s a constant peeling off of layers of complexity.

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