Thursday, January 08, 2009
The Best Way To Tell If Something Is Truly Great.
Is The Dark Knight the greatest superhero movie ever made?
Is Tiger Woods the greatest golfer ever?
Is Revolutionary Road the greatest book written in the 60s?
The answers to those questions are not subjective. Not anymore. I have hit on a way to answer questions like that, to answer any questions about whether someone is great and whether they are the greatest and to do so in a totally objective manner.
And using that method, the answers are:
Not by a long shot.
This is a debate that started when Some Guy At Work mentioned to me that Kurt Vonnegut, maybe, or some other writer who wrote in the 60s had said that Revolutionary Road was the greatest book of the 1960s. That surprised me because I had never heard of Revolutionary Road-the-book; I had only just heard of Revolutionary Road-the-movie-people-will-talk-about-but-not-see, and didn't know much about it otherwise.
So I told Some Guy At Work that it was impossible for Revolutionary Road to have been the greatest book of the 1960s, because I had never heard of it.
Right on the spot, I formulated what will from now on be known as The TBOE Measure of True Greatness, which is the simplest, most objective means why which humankind can measure greatness. This is the test:
The more people who have heard of something, the greater it is.
It's that simple and easy.
Since I propounded that theory a few weeks ago, Some Guy At Work has occasionally tried to challenge it and has not yet successfully found a flaw in it, and you readers won't, either, because it is a flawless theory.
Here's how it works in practice. Something, anything, comes into existence. It has a category -- much as everything here on TBOE has a category -- and in that category, it is greater or worse-er than other things in that category.
Now, to define what is good in that category, people who are knowledgeable about that category are sufficient. If you want to know who is a good football player, or what is a good sandwich, or what might be a good book about domestic troubles in the 1960s, then people who know about football or sandwiches or books about domestic troubles in the 1960s can tell you. They can say this is good, that is good, this other thing is good, that other thing is not. I'm fine with subjective criteria defining what's good or not in a given category. I'm okay with people subjectively deciding that the Harry Potter books are good books about a kid going to a wizarding school and not quite ever doing well, while "The Worst Witch" is not a good book about, coincidentally, that same exact subject, only written about 15 years before Harry Potter.
I'm also okay with people not drawing any conclusions whatsoever from the use of those two examples.
But if you want to know whether something is truly great, then experts are no good anymore, because, to be succinct, experts suck at determining what's great.
Ever read a movie review or book review or record review and try to figure out if the movie, book, or record was actually good or bad, but you can't because the reviewer is going on and on about things that you don't understand/care about? Ever read a restaurant review and think to yourself "Yeah, but how does it compare to a Big Mac?" I do, and you probably should.
Experts look at things that people as a whole don't care about. Experts look at things that people as a whole don't need to care about, because greatness is not determined solely by technical brilliance, which is what experts are concerned about. Experts look at cinematography, or the sound mix, or the texture of a food, or the technique of a golf swing, and they rate those based on criteria that may matter in their worlds, but don't matter as much when mixed into the larger scheme of things that determines greatness.
Let me take a concrete example: Football quarterbacking. If we're trying to determine who's a good football quarterback, then I'll let the experts give me some guidance on that. And the experts will tell you that good quarterbacks have certain techniques and attributes and qualities, and that the more they exhibit those characteristics, the better the quarterback is.
Which is all well and good for determining what's well and good.
But experts fall short when it comes to determining who is a great football quarterback because they can't let go of that expertise and step back, see the forest for the trees, put the technical attributes of goodness into perspective, and measure greatness by the only measure with which greatness can be measured, and that is greatness itself. Experts keep falling back on technique and qualifications, and so experts cannot recognize true greatness.
That's why experts can tell you that Donovan McNabb is a good quarterback. But they are no good at telling you that Brett Favre is a great quarterback, and they fail miserably when measuring who is the greatest quarterback -- because they fall back on "science" and technique and get all hung up on how many Superbowls have been won or games won or passing yards or touchdowns or teams played for... all measures that tell you if someone's good, but not great, and they miss the boat: Brett Favre is greater, not by statistical measures or technique or Superbowls, but because more people have heard of Brett Favre than have heard of Donovan McNabb.
Why have more people heard of Brett Favre than Donovan McNabb? Because Brett's played longer (demonstrating that he is greater) has won more Superbowls (demonstrating that he's greater) won more awards (demonstrating... you get the drill), all of which serve as indicators of his greatness, but which are only partial measures -- they are evidence of the greatness but not a measure of it -- but mostly people have heard about Brett Favre because he's been talked about more than other players, talked about for playing so long and winning so much and being so fun to watch, and talked about because when people see him play or hear about him playing or see him or hear about him, they talk about him more and spread the news of his greatness.
If Donovan McNabb was as great as Brett Favre at quarterbacking, as many people would have heard about him as have heard of Favre. But they haven't, and so McNabb is not as great as Favre. Technically speaking, he may be as good as Favre is, but he's not as great as Favre.
When it comes time to make that leap from which of these is good to which of these is great, experts must be left behind, and instead, greatness must be measured differently as I said. Greatness can only be measured against itself, and there is only one measure, then, of greatness, and that measure is how many people have heard of that thing?
Greatness is measured by how many people have heard of the thing you are questioning. How many people have heard of the Big Mac, or Michael Jordan, of Revolutionary Road? The more people who have heard of a thing, the greater it is.
It really is that simple.
Want to know who is a greater actor, Cary Grant or Tom Hanks? Whose name is more known to more people over more time? Want to know which is greater, a Big Mac or the Whopper? Which is recognized by more people over more time? The greatest president ever? The one who more people have heard of over time.
It really is that simple.
Here's why: Greatness expands and lives on. The expression I know it when I see it is a truism in human existence for so many things, greatness among them. Greatness can not be defined objectively other than to say we know it when we see it and because we know it when we see it greatness never dies out, it never goes away... it continues expanding and moving and rippling through the firmament for as long as it can, and the longer it can, the greater the thing is.
That's why Shakespeare can be comfortably said to be a greater playwright and poet than the others of his day -- without reading his poems, without analyzing his plays, without debating his word choice and structure, we can know that Shakespeare is the greatest poet and playwright of his day because there is no other poet or playwright from that era as renowned as Shakespeare.
It's that simple, really. Because ask yourself this: Why do we remember Shakespeare and teach him and talk about him and why does pretty much every person who's ever spoken English know at least a little something about Shakespeare... and know NOTHING about any other poet or playwright of that era?
The answer is because Shakespeare was heads and shoulders above the rest of them. He has to be, because there were countless other writers of plays and poems in that era. One source* (*my imagination; I just made this figure up) estimates that there were over 15,000 poets writing poems in the year in which Shakespeare wrote most of his works. However many there were, there were other poets and playwrights writing poems and plays when Shakespeare did, but most of them have been long forgotten, some almost immediately, some later.
So Shakespeare must be better than those other writers, objectively better, because why else would his work have lived on? Why else would we remember William Shakespeare but not, say, William Jones, 15th Century playwright? If Jones' plays were every bit as good as Shakespeare's, why haven't they survived? Why do we see Leonardo DiCaprio starring in William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet but not William Jones' Todd+Shawna?
It's because Todd+Shawna is inherently, objectively, not as great as Romeo + Juliet.
Don't fall back on publicity or marketing or anything like that, either. If publicity or marketing could guarantee exposure over time, then we'd know it. Publicity and marketing can get 50,000 people into a theater on opening week -- but it cannot get another 50,000 there the next week when people realize the movie sucks. For publicity and marketing to work over time, the product has to be good. And who is marketing Shakespeare's works now, anyway? Why would they still survive, when they are not being actively marketed?
No, there's no trick to it, at all. The more people know about something, the greater it is. Lots and lots and lots of people, over the centuries, have heard about Romeo and Juliet, making Romeo and Juliet one of the greatest plays of all time.
That's so because the greater something is, the longer it will live and the more other people will hear about it. When you read something, taste something, hear something great, your first instinct is to find someone else and tell them: read/taste/hear this. That spreads. That continues. That ripples outward, and the greatness carries it as far as it can before petering out. Now, if the thing you like isn't great at all, it probably stops pretty quickly. Your wife doesn't like the dessert, or your coworker puts the book down half-finished, and so on.
But if it is great, then that person, too, will like it and pass it on and tell someone else, and that process will continue until millions of people have eaten a McDonald's hamburger, or gone to a Rolling Stones' concert, or something.
And if it is truly great, then the legend will spread for years, decades, centuries -- which is how you can tell that The Odyssey is a truly great poem, why Edgar Allan Poe is a greater horror writer than Dean Koontz, and so much more.
I understand that this formula is not without controversy. The TBOE Measure of True Greatness says that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever, because by now pretty much everyone has heard of him. That makes him the greatest, ever, period: Greatness propagates itself and the debate is over. Michael Jordan is greater than Larry Bird, greater than Magic Johnson, greater than Dr. J, greater than any other basketball player. But there are some who will say sure, but they've heard of him because he was in commercials and movies and tried to play baseball.
Which just goes to show how truly great he was. Was Larry Bird so great that he could, at the height of his career, quit to play baseball and have that be covered obsessively by the media? Was Dr. J so great that merely putting him on TV meant that people would want to buy t-shirts with the tags printed on them? No. Michael Jordan's greatness on the basketball court led him to greatness off the basketball court. His greatness transcended mere basketball skill and carried him on and on and on to the point where it is simple to say Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever because more people have heard of him than have heard of any other basketball player. It's that simple, really, and that objective: I have heard of Jordan, my grandma has heard of Jordan, people living in Lithuania and Tanzania and Brazil have heard of Jordan and he is, because he is better known, more great. Any qualms you feel about that are qualms you feel because you are not willing to embrace the objective and accept reality, reality being the more people have heard of something, the greater it is.
It is controversial, because The TBOE Measure of True Greatness also posits that the McDonald's Hamburger is the greatest hamburger ever -- and may be the greatest food ever. That's true because so many people have, in the past 50 years, heard of the McDonald's hamburger. It doesn't matter if they like it or hate it. They've heard of it, and greatness under this test merely requires that people have heard about it. When I was in Morocco, I met people who had never been to McDonald's -- there was, at the time, only one McDonald's restaurant in that country-- but they had heard about the McDonald's hamburger. They hadn't heard about the Whopper, or pizza, or corn on the cob or braunschweiger, because those foods are not as great as the McDonald's hamburger.
This, in turn, causes people problems because they don't want to accept that a fast food burger might be the greatest food ever. But that's just snobbery. Why can't a fast food hamburger be greater than a complicated French meal? Why is complexity celebrated over simplicity? The French meal may be harder to make (I don't know, though -- try cooking a McDonald's hamburger at home, and try cooking a French meal, and see which turns out more exactly like the source material) and may be more involved and all, but does that make it better? And if you say yes, why? Because of the technical expertise required to make it? Because of the flavors? That's just snobbery. You like the flavors better; but the rest of humanity doesn't because if they did, then the rest of humanity would eat McFrench Meals prepared in a complex manner at restaurants and the McDonald's hamburger would be an isolated blip.
The rest of humanity prefers the taste and simplicity of a McDonald's hamburger, and over 50 years more and more people have heard over and over and over how great a McDonald's hamburger is, while over that same time, fancy French cooking has failed to catch on in any significant way -- even though there have been innumerable cooking shows and cookbooks and fancy restaurants and the like pushing fancy cooking on people and celebrating it. Afer all of that, if you polled the entire world and asked them this:
Which of these have you heard of: creme brulee or the McDonald's hamburger?
I'm betting the hamburger would win 10 to 1, if not 100 to 1 or more. Why? Because it's great -- in its simplicity, marketability, mix of flavors, readily available-ness, in everything about it all amalgamated, the McDonald's hamburger achieves a greatness that is recognized by and measured by its fame.
We know it when we see it.
The TBOE Measure of True Greatness takes into account time, too. Some Guy At Work asked me if The TBOE Measure of True Greatness wouldn't mean that Titanic was the greatest movie ever. I don't know, I said. It would be, if more people in history had heard of Titanic than any other movie, ever... but think about it. Casablanca came out in 1942. Titanic came out in 1997...
... and, as an aside, if you Google "Casablanca," the movie's page is the number one hit -- above the city that the movie was named for. But if you Google "Titanic," the movie's page is number two, below the boat that the movie was named for. That probably means something...
So Casablanca has a big edge; it's got 55 years advance time. To determine which is greater using The TBOE Measure of True Greatness I'd have to know how many people since 1942 have heard of Casablanca (remember, not have seen or have liked the movie, but simply have heard of it. Greatness is not about whether people liked it; greatness isn't subjective. It's objective. The more people have heard of something, the greater it is) versus how many people have heard of Titanic.
There are about 6.7 billion people alive right now. Those 6.7 billion people could have all heard of Casablanca and could have heard of Titanic. If that were the case, the two would be equally great.
But then, factor in the billions of people who lived and died before 1997 and who could never have heard of Titanic at all. Those are people who can only be in Casablanca's side, while everyone who now exists or who exists in the future could hear about either, or both. Or neither.
In that way, The TBOE Measure of True Greatness accounts for historical bias -- it gives an edge to the earlier work to offset the greater population and greater communications that later eras have over earlier eras. The 1940s didn't have the Internet to spread the word about Kate Winslet's nude scene; but Titanic doesn't have access to that 55 years of people talking about it.
So is Titanic greater than Casablanca? I don't know-- poll the entire world and find out. Then do it again in 100 years to see what people remember. If 100 years from now we've forgotten all about Casablanca and people still talk about Titanic, the way we now talk about Edgar Allan Poe but don't talk about the others who were writing mysteries and horror stories then, people like Guy de Maupassant. Who? you're saying. Exactly, I'm saying: de Maupassant was not great, like Poe was. That's why you've heard of Poe but not de Maupassant, a century or two later: Because Poe's greatness carried his works forward, far beyond the reach of de Maupassant's not-as-great works.
We know it when we see it. There is something inherently recognizable about true greatness, something recognizable and also translatable. When we are in the presence of greatness, we want to memorialize it and pass it on, sometimes without knowing why we want to do so. Whether or not we know why, the fact that we recognize and celebrate and communicate greatness provides us with the only objective measure of greatness: whether people have heard of it, or not. So the TBOE Measure of True Greatness, how many people have ever heard of the thing is The Best Way To Tell If Something Is Truly Great.