Are These Eggs Rotten? Personal vs. Critical Perspective

This may not seem directly related to science fiction, but a fair number of us are involved in review blogs of one sort of another, and there are always critique opportunities through the list. While I've been working my way through books for upcoming book tours, a question has bounced around in my mind.

What Makes An Egg Rotten?

Or, what makes a story good or bad? I have very definite opinions on that, but they are my opinions, reflective of my personal philosophies, my background, and my reading tastes. Given those subjective factors, do I really have the right to assert that a particular story is good or bad simply by whether it aligns with my preference?

Unlike the current post-modernist theories of literature, I don't believe that fiction is entirely subjective, or in the eye of the beholder. You'll never convince me that a Harlequin romance on sale at the grocery store can match the literary quality of Jane Eyre. Great books in any genre or time period, whether we're talking the Aenid, Dickens, Hemingway, or Lewis, have a quality about them that other books, even merely good books, lack.

Defining that quality is a bit stickier. Things are even more complicated given the shifting definitions of a "good" book; Moby Dick or a Tale of Two Cities would have difficulty making it out of the slush pile in most modern publishing houses.

When you start to distinguish the good eggs from the rotten, the first level of criteria seems straightforward. Generally recognized principles of character, plot, style, and theme set the standard to a degree, and when a story fails in one of these areas, it's obvious. The gray area begins once you've gone past the mere components of the story to the story as a whole. Many books, in both the Christian and the secular markets, may have a technical grasp of each aspect of a story but something else is lacking. They've fleshed out their characters, paid attention to plot logic and narrative arc, developed a smooth writing style, and even pointed to an overall theme.....but they're bland and generic. What's missing?

To me, the crucial ingredient is resonance.
Resonance in fiction isn't just a mastery of the mechanics or the components of a novel, but the way these components are woven together. If one area of the novel is out of sync, then every other area is jarred. If all areas are correctly done but lack a central harmony, the story still comes across as lacking. The best stories, in my mind, are those that not only excel in writing character, or plot, or theme, or language, but that build these areas like notes in a musical chord. When the right literary "chord" is struck, we feel it in our very bones like we feel a beautiful piece of music, and the impression lingers long after we close the book. I seek out works with that resonance and I get a little frustrated when most of Christian fiction is content just to produce mass-market entertain-lit.

That's what makes it difficult for me at times to write a review that can deal with a work critically and not personally. It's the equivalent of going to McDonald's after you've had a lobster and steak dinner.

So my question to you all is-- how much should we expect from the fiction we review? How much do we allow what we believe personally, even passionately, to influence our evaluation of another's work? What, in your opinions, separates the bad from the good, the good from the great? Are these eggs rotten?

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