Subjectivity, subjectivity, I’m just loaded with that

September 16, 2011 — Leave a comment

As someone who makes a living grading creative writing (so many -ings!), I have some sensitivity to the notion of subjectivity.

This month I have an article at Talking Writing about why we need tough grades in creative writing. The subtitle of my article is “The Myth of Subjectivity,” and I suggest that assumptions about subjectivity are among the reasons that grading in creative writing classes is so anemic.

Since writing that I came across this blog post by Robin Black: “The Subject is Subjectivity.” She writes eloquently about subjectivity in creative writing, and about the inherent issues in the creative writing workshop, reminding us that only half of a group will like Virginia Woolf and a third Faulkner. Subjectivity, indeed!

Everyone likes different kinds of art and literature, so how can it be graded? There’s a difference between subjectivity in liking and subjectivity in grading.

Woolf and Faulkner? We’re talking about two “A” students! Whether they like them or not, most creative writing teachers would objectively give them A’s.

I’ve had students accuse me (usually on final evaluations, where I can’t reply – awesome!) of “liking” certain writing more than others, which I do, and of grading it better as a result, which I don’t. I may love a particular student’s voice and humor, but if the piece doesn’t work according to the criteria we’ve discussed all semester, it will not get an A. Likewise, I may have zero interest in a spring break in Panama City story, but if it’s nearly publishable, even in a journal I’d never read, it will get an A.

Last year I was a judge for the Best Books of Indiana contest, for which I read and ranked a number of novels. There were two other judges, and I could tell from our email exchanges that we would have very different preferences as readers. But I also knew, as I read through my piles, that we three judges would choose exactly the same top 3-4 books. And those books were books I subjectively dislike – two Christian historical romances and a Western – but objectively recognized as superior in criteria such as storytelling, pacing, and character development. I had no problem ranking them as the best because they were, objectively, the best. And I was not surprised in the least when my fellow judges also ranked them the best.

[Yes, people, this is the second post in a row that takes its title from a showtune. From Once Upon a Mattress (Princess and the Pea): “Sensitivity, Sensitivity, I’m just loaded with that…”]

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