Quality is Always Subjective

(Author’s note: While the facts of this story are true, I don’t fully remember the order in which they occurred, so I’m taking minor dramatic license in the retelling of the events).

The feud began when the semester was just a few minutes old.

With just a year left until college was in the rear-view, I had finally managed to nab my dream schedule: Nothing before 3, and Mondays and Fridays off. Two film classes, photography, journalism and “The Novel”. Capitalization, quotation marks and snooty accent all required, as you’ll see shortly.

“The Novel”, taught by Loyola’s poetess (for reasons passing understanding) met on Thursday nights – often immediately preceding a trip down 95 for home (I never really settled into on campus life). Professor Snooty (not her real name) and I had done well in the past. I took her for intro to creative writing two years prior, and though we both acknowledged that I couldn’t write poetry as well as a drunk senior on a bathroom wall, I managed to nab an A- in her class. Since “The Novel” focused on prose and writing the first few chapters of a novel (something I had wanted to try anyway), I was looking for a hard-work A in this class, and a portfolio piece to boot.

Alas, I would gain neither.

Snooty’s question was innocent enough: What was the most recent novel you’ve read?

Of course, many of my sycophantic classmates threw out the standard please-the-professor answers: Dickens, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. Though my tolerance of bullshit was much higher then than now, I eventually got annoyed and put up my hand.

That was my first mistake. At least it would be in Snooty’s view, 10 seconds after she called on me. Because my answer was “The Rainmaker, by John Grisham”.

You might have thought I had admitted to brutally murdering her cat. Snooty just stared at me, when another student (unprompted) jumped in and mentioned a Stephen King book. Let’s call him Ben.

Snooty shook her head and questioned how Loyola writing students – seniors, no less – could waste their time with such trash. (Loyola, mind you, is the same writing program that failed Tom Clancy, one of the most famous writers of the late 20th century).

Ben and I took this for a moment, but then got annoyed all over again. We got on a pretty good riff, reminding Snooty about how Dickens’ fiction has been seen as populist trash in its time, published as serials in London rags. How Shakespeare himself had been seen as low brow and common.

Then we took it further – I can’t remember which one of us mentioned it first – but arguing that in a 100 years, the world might consider King and Grisham (you could have hardly picked two more populist writers in the 90s) to be the highest brow literature, while the writers that Snooty would force on us through our syllabus would be largely forgotten.

Let me pause at this point and even the playing field a bit. Ben and I did make these arguments – but in the way of two 21 year old college seniors. As in, sarcastically and assuming we knew everything. Though representing the masses as we were (and though the discourse was a hundred times higher than that of the ongoing Presidential Election in the United States), there was little question that Snooty saw us as insolent little shitheads, and some of this was well deserved.

Which is why Ben and I were given homework (and no one else was). We were to go home and look up some words in the dictionary. At least one of them was literature. Then, we were to bring the dictionaries with us back to class the next week and show her the words in the dictionary. We then commenced reviewing the syllabus.

Now, Snooty made a lot of mistakes in the feud that followed for the coming weeks, but none were as big as that. I believe she assumed we’d forget about the assignment altogether, she could berate us from a position of strength and the argument would cease.

But, if you know me, that didn’t happen. Without consulting about it, Ben and I each proceeded to locate the most obnoxiously large dictionaries we could lay our hands on. Ben won in this respect, as his clocked in at around 30 pounds.

We both arrived early to class, with our volumes hidden in large bags and sporting shit-eating grins. Snooty let us into the room, then before she could even begin the proceedings, Ben and I pulled out our dictionaries (I mean this literally, it’s not a euphemism) and dropped them onto the square table we all shared. They hit with a large THUNK, and actually caused the table to shift a little bit.

Snooty took a bit longer than expected to process this, and meanwhile the class giggled nervously (they appreciated the giant books as much as we did, but sycophants as they were, couldn’t admit it. I would later catch one of the girls reading The Rainmaker). We then proceeded to show her the definition for literature:

written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.
“a great work of literature”
synonyms: written works, writings, writing, creative writing, literary texts, compositions

This set off another discussion, one which played itself out for the next few weeks. Snooty arguing that Grisham and King were not considered “superior” or “artistic”, Ben and I arguing that no one person or group could make that determination and ultimately if the paths of Shakespeare and Dickens were any indication, Grisham and King would be taught as great works by Loyola in the 22nd Century (that one didn’t go over well).

After a couple of weeks of this, Snooty canceled a class. And then another. When we reconvened a few weeks later, we work-shopped some assignments, and class discussion was (rightfully) limited to our work, not the works of Charles Dickens and Stephen King. My work was considered (by Snooty) to be some of the best in class that week. Proud of impressing her (despite our continuing feud), I still thought I had a shot at that A. Maybe she’d ultimately come to appreciate our discussion – hell, at least we were engaged.

But I never found out. That was the last time “The Novel” would meet in the Fall of 1999.

There were only strong rumors, but word had it that Snooty had been committed to an institution after a mental breakdown. The remainder of the classes were cancelled, and everyone in the class was given an A.

That is, except for Ben and I. She gave us each a B.

That B kind of ate at me for years. It was another example, in my view, of how the Loyola administration failed its students. With virtually no work accounted for, the administration had allowed two students to get lower grades because of a subjective disagreement of supposedly objective quality.

I’d thought of challenging the grade with the administration, but then the school suspended me and cancelled my Spring 2000 registration because of non-payment of a “senior gift fee”. That’s right – we were required to “give” the school a gift on the way out the door. I was on a payment plan, and because the fee wasn’t included in the payments, it never got paid, and we assumed everything was all good because we made these payments. I was locked out of my dorm upon return to campus after winter break, and it took me several days and many visits to the administration building to work out what had happened. Ultimately, my father FedExed me a check, and I walked it into the bursar’s office – 15 minutes before registration closed for the semester. Had I not have done that, I would have had to wait an entire semester before graduating. Long story short – I was so apoplectic over this, I kind of forgot about Snooty’s B until it was too late.

As you can imagine, I played out my senior spring semester, and quickly put Loyola in the rear-view, leaving campus for good 10 minutes after my final class ended (no final exams as a senior writing major). I quickly lost track of Ben, have no idea what happened to him, and I don’t even remember his actual name. I did hear though that Snooty eventually returned to campus.

Ultimately, our argument was that quality was subjective, and superior and lasting could only be determined by time and perspective, and not by the immediate literary criticism of the day. This is an argument I still support, and one that has guided me throughout the years, even now into my foray into film. It’s why some argue that the Oscars should be given out 10 or even 20 years later. Would Forrest Gump still get Best Picture over Pulp Fiction? How about Crash over Brokeback Mountain? Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan?

With time and perspective, I now see that B as a badge of honor. It’s an argument I made and (I believe I) won and a lesson worth learning, especially for those of us in the business of creating. A small knock on my college GPA was a small price to pay to gain that piece of perspective.

Programming note: The blog be on hiatus until July 11.