What we mean by ‘subjective’, January 2017

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the TS Eliot prize readings at the Royal Festival Hall. As with all readings, I liked some poems better than others. Often people will say that this is because poetry is ‘subjective’, which it clearly is, but it got me thinking that we use the term subjective in at least two ways and that the difference between the two is important.

I think the first way we use subjective is when we talk about whether you like red better than blue. When we say that, we’re not trying to use any external standard to assess the difference between red and blue, it is purely a personal preference. The second way we use subjective is when we talk about something like whether climate change is the biggest issue humanity faces today. There is no ultimate way of assessing whether that statement is true or false, it’s subjective, but it’s also not just an expression of personal preference. We can muster a range of arguments and facts to support the argument that it’s true and likewise to argue against it.

When it comes to poetry, I think we use subjective in both ways, though we don’t always distinguish which one we mean. When we say we don’t like a poem, we can mean either it doesn’t appeal to us or that we don’t think it is very good. Often the two things coincide – things we don’t think are very good don’t appeal to us – but sometimes they don’t coincide. I thought The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown was a terrible novel, but I quite enjoyed it, certainly enough to finish it. In contrast, I though a Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James was very well written, but I didn’t enjoy it and didn’t finish it.

As a writer I think it is important to be aware of both kinds of subjective – there may be lots to learn from things you don’t like but think are well written, but you need to be careful about the influence of things you like but aren’t very good. However, the other thing I think is important is to be accepting of your own thoughts and opinions. That sounds like a terrible, new-age kind of thing to say, but I found not accepting how I felt about some writing held me back for a long time.

There are some very successful writers and poets whose work I don’t like and/ or I don’t think is very good. But I used to put myself under pressure to try and write like them because everyone says how wonderful they are. These days I try and avoid that. Despite the fact that I completely accept that my taste might be suspect and my judgement faulty and that in some years time I may change my mind and think this or that author is as good as everyone says, but the truth is that I don’t feel that now. And trying to write like someone whose writing you don’t like or don’t think is very good is a recipe for disaster. It is likely to sound hollow and insincere or even worse, it will be successful, but you’ll dislike it yourself, and you’ll feel hollow and insincere.

So my advice to myself, and to anyone who would ask me, is to focus on reading the writers you love and feel are great, even if they aren’t the ones everyone else is raving about and even if you suspect that in some years time you’ll think your younger self a bit of a fool. At the same time, I tell myself not to close myself off from new and different voices. Which is why something like the TS Eliot prize reading is such a good event, because you hear people who you might never be inclined to pick up and read. Just don’t feel obliged to like them or think that they are good just because they’re in line for the richest prize in poetry.

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