Problems of Perception

In Slate, Why Chris Anderson’s theory of the digital world might be all wrong appears:

In the 1960s, sociologist William McPhee argued that obscure cultural fare faced a further hardship in attracting an audience. McPhee said that for any product category—books, movies, songs—there are generally two kinds of customers: those who buy a lot and those who buy a little. Or, if you prefer, there are buffs, and there are boors. Boors flock to the popular stuff. The buffs, too, like what’s popular, but they’re more willing to try obscure fare. It would be a mistake, however, to consider buffs open-minded; if you’ve ever audited an undergrad film class, you understand that such people are often insufferably critical. Here’s the hitch, then: The customers who are most likely to try an obscure book, movie, or song are also the most likely to pan it.

This jibes my post about “entertainment” being an artistic metric:

Entertainment also seems to drift with experience: what I found entertaining at 12—like Robert Heinlein—I can’t or can barely read now, and what I like now—such as To The Lighthouse—I wouldn’t have accepted then. For me, entertainment involves novelty in language and content, and the more I read, the harder that becomes to achieve, and so for prolific readers (or, I suspect, watchers of movies), one has to search harder and harder for the genuinely novel. Demands grow higher, perhaps helping to open the supposed rift between high and low, or elite and mass, culture.

People who consume a lot of something, whether it’s food or a particular kind of art, become more discriminating in that subject. It ties in with a recent post on Freakonomics about wines; it features a hilarious anecdote about would-be oenophiles at the Harvard Society of Fellows that will ring true to academics, followed by a rigorous research study:

Their conclusion: fancy people with lots of training can tell cheap wine from expensive wine, but regular people cannot.

Wine isn’t the only area; in art, food, computers, economics, or whatever, those who are intensely involved develop stronger taste that is often at odds with those not so involved, leading experts to disdain the tastes of the masses, who can’t tell how canary yellow is different from sunflower yellow like a specialist. The taste of the masses isn’t so much bad as it is random. In books, you have natterers like me who deride the garbage on the bestseller lists and the extremely popular books of indifferent quality like Harry Potter. Although we have lots of justifications, especially if you read The New Yorker, to the average person who, if they read fiction gets perhaps reads a few books a year, the difference between Janet Evanovich and Ian McEwan isn’t obvious or important. They might have guides through reading blogs like this one or newspaper critics (to the extent any still exist), but probably not through direct observation. Instead, people without a great deal invested rely on others to make judgments, whether critical ones through expert reviewers or popularity ones through sales rankings and the like. Of myself, I wrote:

Although I quote poetry sometimes, I almost never analyze it here because I’m like the person without a real sense of what great visual art is: not having read widely and deeply enough in poetry to have developed my sense for what makes it bad, mediocre, good, and great poetry, I’m mostly silent, though appreciative.

Many others, I suspect, are the same but don’t acknowledge it, or do so only inchoately. And so we have groups talking past each: academics and critics aghast at what people actually read and the silent majority who buy authors like brands and like crime thrillers.

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  1. Pingback: Books and Magazines Blog » Archive » Problems of Perception

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