Evaluation of Fiction_
When we evaluate a story we do two different things. First, we assess its literary quality; we make a judgment about how good it is, how successfully it realizes its intensions, how effectively it pleases us. Second, we consider the values the story endorses or refuses.
An evaluation is essentially a judgment, an opinion about a work formulated as a conclusion. We may agree or disagree with the father's forgiveness or the elder brother's complaint in "The Prodigal Son". We may confirm or deny the models of behavior illustrated in stories. However we evaluate them, though, we invariably measure the story's values against our own.
Although evaluation is partly an unconscious process, we can make it more deliberate and more fully conscious. We simply need to ask ourselves how we respond to the values a work supports, and why. In doing so we should be able to consider our own values more clearly and perhaps discuss more sensibly and fairly why we agree or disagree with the values a story displays.
When we evaluate a story, we appraise it according to our own special combination of cultural, moral, and aesthetic values. Our cultural values derive from or live as members of families and societies. These values are affected by our race and gender and by the language we speak. Our moral values reflect our ethical norms - what we consider to be good and evil, right and wrong. These values are influenced by our religious beliefs and sometimes by our political convictions. Our aesthetic values determine what we see as beautiful or ugly, well or ill made. Over time, with education and experience, our values often change.
As our lives and outlooks change, we may change the way we view particular literary works. Just as individual tastes in 1iterature change over time, so do collective literary tastes. Literary works, like musical compositions and political ideas go in and out of fashion.
Our evaluation may also be linked to our first experience of the story, to first impressions based on unconsidered reactions. If our initial reaction to a story or a character is unsympathetic, we may be reluctant to change our interpretation later, even if we discover convincing evidence to warrant such a change.
Of the kinds of evaluations we make in reading fiction, those about a story's aesthetic qualities are hardest to discuss. Aesthetic responses are difficult to describe because they involve our memories and sensations, our subjective impressions. They also involve our expectations, which are further affected by our prior experience of reading fiction. And they are additionally complicated by our tendency to react quickly and decisively to what we like and dislike, often without knowing why. Our preference for one kind of fiction over another complicates matters still further. When we evaluate a story, we should judge it against what it attempts to do, what it is, rather than against something it is not.
How we arrive at an aesthetic evaluation is no easy matter. We develop our aesthetic responses to fiction by letting the informed responses of other experienced readers enrich our own perceptions, by determining the criteria for what makes a story "good", and by gradually developing our sense of literary tact - the kind of balanced judgment that comes with experience in reading and living coupled with thoughtful reflection on both. It comes only with practice and patience. What we should strive for in evaluating fiction is to understand the different kinds of values it present and to clarify our own attitudes, dispositions, and values in responding to them.
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