Not too long ago, I read a book called The Flight of Gemma Hardy, mostly because I wanted to try something new. It was a retelling of the Charlotte Bronte classic, Jane Eyre, set in the United Kingdom of the mid-20th century. It had a whole fleet of sparkling reviews, too. The Wall Street Journal called it absorbing. An original, fresh homage, said The Boston Globe. Publisher's Weekly raved it was captivating and moving, full of vibrant prose. Unfortunately, they neglected to mention that it was also awful.
Don't get me wrong. The author has an impressive grasp of language. But in Gemma, all that towering skill was used to create an intensely unlikeable heroine, surrounded by a plot that was (at its best moments) baffling.
Obviously, not everyone agrees with me. That's fine. That's just art. A work of art is supposed to speak to the emotions, to inspire happiness or sorrow, hope or introspection, laughter or anger. It's really hard to measure that kind of thing objectively. I mean sure, you can talk about a writer's grasp of language, the way they construct sentences, settings, symbolism, and themes. Though even then there's wiggle room, depending on how exactly you're defining "good" writing. In the end, the truest test of successful art is whether it speaks to you.
All of this got me thinking about whether art can ever be objectively good or objectively bad. Is it even possible? I know I've read books that I thought were terrible, books that made me angry at the senseless slaughter of innocent trees for thoroughly frivolous reasons. But those books exist because someone, somewhere (generally a lot of someones, actually) thought they were pretty fun.
Everybody has different tastes. So when a person talks about some book or movie that they loved, even if you think it was the stupidest thing in the universe, neither of you is objectively wrong. It's just that you're different people, who experience the world in different ways. I think Batman is awesome, but maybe the next guy I meet disagrees. Maybe he thinks Batman, and comics in general, are stupid. Is he wrong?* Am I? Of course not. We just have different opinions.
Which brings me back to Gemma. I didn't much care for the book, but I know a lot of people out there did. We read the same words, the same story, and came away with completely different reactions because we are different people.
Could we discuss our differences? Perhaps have a respectful debate over the divergent perspectives each of us was bringing to this work? Sure.**
Could I argue that the other person's opinion was somehow less valid than mine? That the fact that they held such an opinion at all suggested a fatal stupidity on their part? Again, sure... if I wanted to be a dillweed, objectively speaking. Not that that stops a lot of people from making that particular leap these days.
About the only thing I can say for sure is that for me, The Flight of Gemma Hardy was a disappointment. An educational, interesting, thoroughly frustrating, piece of art.
** Unless you have negative views of Batman, in which case you are wrong. And a stupid-head.