Judging Writing: The Wine Tasting Analogy

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Is it possible to tell the different between good writing and bad writing? A lot of people certainly think so, but isn’t it all just subjective?

Consider wine tasting. Many expert wine tasters think they can tell good wine and bad wine apart. However, several studies show this isn’t the case. When given the same wine multiple times, experts will give it different scores. If experts are served expensive wine in a cheap bottle, they won’t like it, and if they’re told a cheap wine is expensive, they’ll love it. They can’t even reliably taste the difference between red and white wine if you put dye in it. Experts even liked a wine better if a powerful piece of music was playing at the time.

This has got me thinking if a similar blind taste test would be possible with regards to writing. Perhaps have critics read a short story from a famous writer, but tell them it’s an unknown author. Or have them read an unknown author and tell them it was written by someone who was famous. I suspect the critics who think they’re reading a famous writer’s story will like it more.

There could also be a pricing experiment. See if people enjoy a book more if it has an expensive price tag, or less if it has a cheap price tag.

There could also be a test to see if people judge a book by its cover. Have two groups of people read the same book. One group gets the book with a professional cover and the other group gets the same book with a low quality cover and see if that affects the reader’s enjoyment.

There could also be a study in which some critics read rave reviews before reading the book while others read disparaging reviews first. Or a study in which music is played while the critic reads. I’m sure pleasant versus unpleasant smells will also affect a reader’s enjoyment.

I’ve personally noticed that I tend to enjoy movies less if I walk into the theater with high expectations and I enjoy movies more if I start out with low expectations. There are so many different things that can sway our opinion including the opinions of friends, whether we are sick or not, if we were having a bad day or not, etc. I bet even the color scheme the room you’re in has an impact.

I don’t think judging writing is the same as judging wine, though. Wine doesn’t present controversial ideas for example. It doesn’t challenge anyone’s world view. It’s purely a matter of taste, whereas writing is more complicated. You may like the style something is written in without liking the message behind it, for example. Wine’s purpose is to taste good and sometimes to intoxicate the imbiber, while writing can have multiple purposes such as escapism, education, presenting a message, inspiring a certain emotion or feeling, etc.

Still, though. Is there an objective way to judge whether a piece of writing is good or bad? When I write book reviews, I try to be as objective as possible, but I know my subjective opinions will always play a role. Is it all just subjective? Do professional critics and English teachers know better than the rest of us? Should a book be judged based on how many copies it sells?

Some books get a lot of awards and praise from professional critics, but don’t sell very well, while other books are hugely popular, but get snubbed by the critics. Which is the better standard? Should there be a mixture of the two? Is there a checklist of things we could come up with listing what things a good book should and should not do? I guess I don’t have any answers to these questions. Just something to think about.

 

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