If someone is angry you may be doing something right: Alain de Botton edition

Early negative reviews of his work [How Proust Can Change Your Life], by Proust professors and philosophy dons, devastated him, admitted de Botton. “It was very surprising and upsetting. Then my wife, who is very wise, said to me, ‘It’s obvious, this is a fight.’ This is a turf war, and the battle is about what culture should mean to us.”*

If you’re a) doing significant work and b) making people angry, then you may c) be doing something right. I think the first component is particularly important because it’s easy to needlessly or cruelly piss people off—through rude remarks or punching someone, for example. We’re taught that making other people angry is a bad thing and in most contexts it probably is, but in some it isn’t and may actually be a sign of importance.

Anger is a powerful response and a common one to someone who feels threatened: suggest to a public school teacher that teachers shouldn’t be granted de facto lifetime employment after three years, or that teachers’ unions are serious impediments to education, and you’re not likely to get a reasoned discussion about policy. You’re likely to be treated as someone who violates taboo. To most of us discussions about education policy are benign, but to teachers they’re often sacred (the “benign-violation theory” of humor is similar, as discussed in The Humor Code).

I’ve gotten weirdly vituperative responses from English professors about this blog. Usually those responses are couched in language about being unprofessional or low quality or a waste of time that could be better spent advancing my career. In that worldview, having anyone read your work doesn’t matter. At first I took those responses at face value, but now I’m not so sure: they might have been unhappy that I think most English journals bogus and, worse, treat them as such. It’s dangerous to have people work outside the system they’re highly invested in. If you don’t have the apparatus of peer review and journals and so forth, what separates paid professors from blogger rabble? Some answers to that question may be terrifying.

Philosophers probably guard their jewel basket carefully because there is nothing inside.

To return to de Botton, I also think he calibrates his work towards accessibility. It is easy for a normal person to understand what he says and to judge its truth value. Many philosophers seem to take pride in doing the opposite. In addition, de Botton reaches for a relatively low-knowledge audience; I found his book about architecture charming, for example, but How to Think More About Sex was inane, mostly because of it lacked any familiarity with evolutionary biology. Over the last couple decades, that’s been where the action is. Writing about sex without reading evolutionary biology is pointless, and I know enough to know that. Alternately, even compelling writers produce some bad books, and this could be de Botton’s off book.

* From “The empire of Alain de Botton.”

Links: Movies, critics, Franco Moretti, love and sex, peak oil, and other affairs of the mind and soul

* Why do so many movies feel formulaic? Because they’re using a formula: “Save the Movie! The 2005 screenwriting book that’s taken over Hollywood—and made every movie feel the same.

* The case for professional critics.

* On Franco Moretti: “Adventures of a Man of Science,” which is about the effort to apply statistical methods to literature.

* “Role Reversal: How the US Became the USSR.”

* “Love, Actually: Adelle Waldman’s Brilliant Debut;” though I feel like I have read the book after reading the review.

* Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is both interesting and painful; it brings to mind Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 – 2010, much like the movie Rust and Bone. In the backstory to Lost Girls, there are many moments like this, when Megan, one of the eventual victims, “found out she was pregnant. The father was a DJ, thirty-two, with one child already in New Hampshire. Megan met him at a club in Portland—a bathroom hookup, nothing more. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ she said softly” {Kolker “Girls”@53}.

If you’re going to get pregnant from a stranger, a random DJ seems like a bad choice, but it’s the sort of choice that millions of women appear to be making (which may explain why millions of men are responding by learning game, so they can be more like the DJ and less like the guys playing Xbox and watching porn at home.)

* “Has peak oil been vindicated or debunked?” A little of both, but mostly vindicated.

* “Difficult Women: How ‘Sex and the City’ lost its good name.” I especially like this:

So why is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior.

* Wealth taxes: A future battleground.

* “Let’s shake up the social sciences;” the humanities could also use a strong shaking as long as we’re at it.

The critic’s temperament and the problem of indifference: Orwell, Teachout, and Scalzi

In “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” George Orwell points to an idea that almost any critic, or any person with a critical / systematic temperament, will eventually encounter:

[. . . ] the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash–though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment–but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about.

He’s not the only one; in 2004 Terry Teachout wrote:

[. . . ] I reviewed classical music and jazz for the Kansas City Star. It was great fun, but it was also a burden, not because of the bad concerts but because of the merely adequate ones–of which there were far more than too many.

Teachout uses the term “adequate.” Orwell says reviewers are “INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.” Together, they remind me of what I feel towards most books: neutrality or indifference, which is close to “no spontaneous feelings.” Most books, even the ones I don’t especially like, I don’t hate, either. Hatred implies enormous emotional investment of the sort that very few books are worth. Conventionally bad books are just dull.

Still, writing about really bad books can be kind of fun, at first, especially when the bad books are educational through demonstrating what not to do. But after a couple of delicious slams, anyone bright and self-aware has to ask: Why bother wasting time on overtly bad books, especially if one isn’t being paid?

That leaves the books one loves and the books that don’t inspire feelings. The books one loves are difficult to praise without overused superlatives. The toughest books, however, are Teachout’s “merely adequate ones,” because there’s really nothing much to say and less reason to say it.

Critics may still write about indifferent books for other reasons; John Scalzi describes some purposes criticism serves, and he includes consumer reporting, exegesis, instruction, and polemics among the critic’s main purpose.* Of those four, I try to shoot four numbers two and three, though I used to think number one exceedingly valuable. Now I’ve realized that number one is almost entirely useless for a variety of reasons, the most notable being that literary merit and popularity have little if any relationship, which means that critics asking systematic questions about what makes good stuff good and bad stuff bad are mostly wasting their time. Polemics can be fun, but I’d rather focus on learning and understanding, rather than invective.

* Scalzi also says:

there are ways to be negative — even confrontational — while at the same time persuading others to consider one’s argument. It’s a nice skill if you have it, and people do. One of my favorite critiques of Old Man’s War came from Russell Letson in the pages of Locus, in which he described tossing the book away from him… and then grabbing it up to read again. His review was not a positive review, and it was a confrontational review (at least from my point of view as the author) — and it was also a good and interesting and well-tooled critical view of the work.

All of which is to note that the act of public criticism is also an act of persuasion. If a critic intends a piece to reach an audience, to be heard by an audience and then to have that audience give that critical opinion weight, then an awareness of the audience helps.

I think that one challenge for most modern writers, and virtually all self-published writers, will be finding people like Russell Letson, who are capable of producing “a good and interesting and well-tooled critical view.” Most Amazon.com reviews default to meaningless hate or praise, both of which can be discounted; getting someone who can “give that critical opinion weight” is the major challenge, since most people are lightweights. Even the heavyweights don’t waste their energy on weak opponents who aren’t even worth engaging.

Max Jamison — Wilfrid Sheed

Really good and really bad books often announce themselves early: in the case of the former, you find that moment of shock and astonishment that propels you forward. In Max Jamison, that moments hits on page 7, when Flashman is described not as “a theater critic at all, but a maid-of-all-work gossip columnist and second-string reviewer who scooped up free tickets like a mechanical crane and prowled the lobbies for carrion.” Status and aesthetic contempt intermingle: Flashman doesn’t appreciate art because he’s “like a mechanical crane,” and yet at the same time he feeds on the dead—dead plays, dead reviewers, dead everything.

Max, on the other hand, sees himself as an antidote of sorts to that: he’s a theater critic with, if not heart, then at least acerbic taste, which is better than no taste at all. But he’s not terribly happy and is too aware of his own faults to let something like sentimental happiness buoy him; in another early scene, he thinks that “The actors he talked to were dull as ballplayers and degradingly anxious to please.” Or, more likely, the actors are worried about angering critics on whose fancy rides their career. But if that critic is sufficiently cantankerous, their actions simply won’t matter, and Max is holding the line against—what? Not the cavalry charge, certainly, but against something, even if he’s not sure what.

In the two paragraphs above, I’ve utterly failed to convey how funny Max Jamison is, perhaps because explaining the joke also kills it. Max is funny to himself but to few others; his estranged wife says, “I wish you wouldn’t attend so much. I wish I could split an infinitive with you sometime, or have a really silly discussion.” If Max worries about split infinitives, he truly is a nasty pedant, since split infinitives are a problem in Latin, not in English. Pedants who half understand their problems and are trying to remedy them are sometimes the most amusing of all, since they’re in the joke enough to be aware of their situation but not so much that they can remedy it.

Saul Bellow frequently exploits this metaphysical, intellectual, and sometimes sexual state; so does Mordecai Richler in Barney’s Version. It also might lend heft to a novel that could otherwise flutter—what’s most fascinating about Max is his sense of infinity within a confined space, which avoids the flutter problem. He’s a theater critic, unlikely to change professions, and stuck (if one can ever use the word “stuck” with this city) in New York by virtue of that profession. He’s confined, like so many of us, by those proverbial silk chains, given that he makes enough money, gets to sleep with admirers if he wants to, doesn’t have to worry about food, and only carps about status—which is difficult, since he’s at the top of his pyramid. But the pyramid is too short for him, and there’s probably none tall enough for him, and seeing him try to climb is hilarious without being mean.

(Note: I read Max Jamison thanks to D.G. Myers’ post on The Hack, which says that Sheed wrote “… perhaps the best novel ever written about a critic. Max Jamison (1970) is about a Broadway theater critic who no longer believes in what he does for a living.” It used to be that we thrashed when we no longer believed in God. Now we thrash when we no longer believe in ourselves. What will we thrash about next?)

Life: Critics and artists edition

Stolen from Terry Teachout:

“A man who tells me my play is very bad, is less my enemy than he who lets it die in silence. A man, whose business it is to be talked of, is much helped by being attacked.”

Samuel Johnson (quoted in James Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides)

More words of advice for the writer of a negative review

Nigel Beale quotes Helen Gardner:

“Critics are wise to leave alone those works which they feel a crusading itch to attack and writers whose reputations they feel a call to deflate. Only too often it is not the writer who suffers ultimately but the critic…”

Beale asks: “Which is great and poetic and all, however, is silence enough?”

To me, the chief function of the critic ought to be explore a work as honestly as possible and to illuminate to the best of her abilities. This means openness and it means being willing to say that a work is weak (and why), as well as showing how it is weak. In other words, you should be able to answer the who, what, where, when, why, and how on it, with an emphasis on the last two.

One should squelch “a crusading itch to attack and writers whose reputations they feel a call to deflate,” if you’re attacking merely to attack, or merely because someone’s balloon is overinflated. For example, Tom Wolfe seems a frequent and, to my mind, unfair object of ridicule among critics. But if you’re rendering a knowledge opinion that happens to be negative, you’re doing what you should be, and what I strive to. Often this means writing about why a book fails—perhaps too frequently.

Good reviews and Updike

Every attempt at review and criticism ought to be good—but that doesn’t mean positive. A review should be “good” in the sense of well-done and engaging might be a negative one. In an ideal world, the book should decide that as much as the critic.

John Updike’s rules for reviewing are worth following to the extent possible. I would emphasize three of them:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

In the end, I think such rules are designed to keep the reviewer as honest as the reviewer can be. I keep coming back to the word “honesty” because it so well encapsulates the issues raised by Beale, Updike, Orwell, and others.

I especially like the “direct quotation” comment because there are no artificial word limits on web servers, meaning that you should give the reader a chance to disagree with your assessment through direct experience. Quoting of a sufficient amount of material will give others a chance to make their own judgments. Merit can be argued but not proven: thus, a critic can avoid silence and unfair attack.

As the above shows, I like Beale’s answer—”no”—which seems so obvious as to barely need stating. I’d rephrase Gardner’s assertion to this: “beware of relentlessly and thoughtlessly attacking.”

The Aeron, The Rite of Spring, and Critics

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he quotes Bill Dowell, who was the lead researcher for Herman Miller during the development and release of the now-famous Aeron in the early 1990s; I’m sitting in one as I type this. The Aeron eventually sold fantastically well and became a symbol of boom-era excess, aesthetic taste, ergonomic control, excessive time at computers, and probably other things as well. But Dowell says that the initial users hated the chair and expressed their displeasure in focus groups and testing sites. According to him, “Maybe the word ‘ugly’ was just a proxy for ‘different.’ ”

That’s a long wind-up for an analogy that explains how Helen Gardner might be telling us that when we instinctively dislike, we might be reacting against novelty rather than its real merit, as critics and listeners notoriously did during Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. She’s wise to warn us about that danger, because it’s how people who pride themselves on taste and knowledge become conservative, stuffy critics. If we’re saying something is “bad” merely because it’s “different,” then we’ve already effectively died aesthetically because we’re no longer able to expand what “good” means. One thing I like about Terry Teachout’s criticism and his blog, About Last Night, is that he has strong opinions but still very much seems to have aesthetic suppleness.

But the Aerons and Ulysses of the world are exceedingly rare. Dune and Harry Potter aren’t among them. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland at least might be, which I concede obliquely in my post about it.

Most works of art are, by definition, average.

The question is: to what extent is that a bad thing? Maybe none at all: an average novel doesn’t cause the death or disfigurement of children, or propagate social inequality, or do any number of other pernicious things. Its chief ill is that it wastes time for the person who reads it and perceives it as average (as opposed to the person who reads it and judges it extraordinary, which many Harry Potter readers have evidently done).

Milan Kundera thinks otherwise—in The Curtain, he writes, “… a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.” He gives himself a key out here: the word “consciously.” I doubt many writers consciously set out to produce commonplace books, or do so with that intent, and so may be rescued from the burden of Kundera’s scorn. Like the criminal justice system, Kundera separates those who knowingly commit a crime from those who do so accidentally.

You need to have read widely, however, to be capable of knowing the average from the incredible, and those whose effusive praise for Harry Potter and Dan Brown splatters the web show they haven’t. Hence, perhaps, the hesitance many Amazon reviewers show toward low scores, which one of Beale’s commenters observes.

The Aerons of Art

I now look at the Aeron as beautiful, and to me the over-stuffed office chairs that used to symbolize lawyerly and corporate status look as quaint as black and white photos of Harvard graduation classes without women or minorities. If we’re open to seeing the new, I think we’ll be safe enough in condemning the indifferent and pointing towards the genuinely astonishing works that are very much out there.

Edit: The Virginia Quarterly Review weighs in.

On books, taste, and distaste

Jason Fisher made this astute observation in an e-mail:

One thing I will say, as now a fairly regular reader of your blog, is that you don’t seem to read very much that you actually like. You seem, in some ways, doomed to be disappointed either by your tastes or the bar you’ve set up. Do you do any reading purely for non-intellectual pleasure, I wonder? I, for instance, read Palahniuk novels, Crichton novels too, and pulpy fantasy and science fiction, and so on. I know this isn’t great literature, but because I know that, and don’t expect it to be, I can enjoy it for what it is. I suppose it’s a bit like cleansing one’s palate after watching a Masterpiece Theatre miniseries (Middlemarch, say), by tuning in to several ridiculous half-hour sit-coms. Do you do anything like that? Some people, very stuffy and high-minded people usually, like to say life’s too short to waste precious time reading anything less than the most serious, intellectually stimulating challenging works of literature, but I think this is rather missing the point: that’s not necessarily wasting time so much as just spending it in different ways. I personally cannot keep up a constant level of serious intellectual stimulation at all times; I need some pure entertainment, pure diversion. What about you?

There are some very fine and accurate observations here: I am disappointed by a lot, as a cursory examination of recent posts will show, although I would also say that some of what comes across as disappointment is analysis. For example, I liked Richard Price’s Lush Life. Even within that praise, however, I discuss the off notes:

Imperfections in Lush Life are minor: Tristan is flat, which is perhaps appropriate given his youth and the cruel environment in which he lives. Some allusions are improbable; would Eric or the third-person narrator mention the dancing of Tevye? Maybe, but despite Eric being Jewish I’m skeptical.

Occasionally I do find the excellent novel, and I had Fisher’s e-mail in mind when I took Wonder Boys from the shelf and reread it in a great gulp, like a full water bottle after a long run. The last paragraph of my post says:

This is the kind of novel that reminds me why I like to read so much, and why I find bad books disappointing out of proportion to their menial sins: because those bad books suck up the time, space, and energy, both mental and physical, that could be devoted to the wonderful and extraordinary.

Knowing how wonderful writers can be makes those who don’t rise to the challenge of their predecessors and contemporaries rather disappointing, like spending time fixing random and unimportant errors rather than focusing on systematic issues that could prevent them in the first place. Although I don’t think my taste stuffy necessarily—I like the whimsical and humorous far too much—I don’t like to waste my time on the high-, middle-, or low-brow. Faulkner’s weaker novels are of little more interest to me than The Da Vinci Code, and the hysterical realists (see more on them here, in a walled garden).

In How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, Daniel Mendelsohn says of the critic:

What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.

I might quibble with the words “anxiety” and “fragility,” both of which strike me as close but not precisely akin to those ephemeral qualities Mendelsohn is trying to describe, but the idea is fundamentally right: why it is that so many works of art are off just enough to cast them from the great to the good, the good to the mediocre, the mediocre to the atrocious. It’s that initial passion that propels us, and me, forward, however, and as one does move forward, one’s knowledge of what makes good and bad becomes steadily more refined and one’s taste further develops. When I began reading adult books around the time I was 11 or 12, I devoured innumerable pulpy fantasy and, to a lesser extent, science fiction novels. My taste then was much coarser, and as I’ve developed as a critic and person, I’ve become more aware of the—not fragility, exactly, but the very tight rope suspended over a wide chasm, and how difficult it is to stay on that rope and not to fall in. Now commonplaces are more apparent, patterns become clearer, and ideas that seemed vivid the first time I encountered them have become stale. The quest for novelty evolves, and the initial passion becomes more discriminating, and as it does, disappointment becomes common in a way that makes one almost in danger of enervating.

Such discrimination also makes the highs all the higher, and what I before had perceived as the difference between good and bad novels was the difference between a boy evaluating on a mound he just dug to the hole from where the dirt came versus an adult evaluating the difference between the Himalayas and the Grand Canyon. Perhaps that is somewhat overblown—the Himalayas? Really?—but it nonetheless helps express the contrasts in scale that I’m describing. The wonderful and extraordinary don’t necessarily have to be Melville or Tolstoy, and that’s where I’d distinguish Fisher’s point:

I suppose it’s a bit like cleansing one’s palate after watching a Masterpiece Theatre miniseries (Middlemarch, say), by tuning in to several ridiculous half-hour sit-coms. Do you do anything like that? Some people, very stuffy and high-minded people usually, like to say life’s too short to waste precious time reading anything less than the most serious, intellectually stimulating challenging works of literature […]

I’d count Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado among my favorite recent novels. If they have elements of being half-hour sitcoms, it’s their devotion to humor, but they are all far deeper than most sitcoms—or novels—and have a core of meaning if one wishes to find it underlying their jokes. In some ways, such novels are my favorite: they’re intellectually stimulating but lighter than a perfect souffle. The best sit-coms are like this too: some early episodes of Sex and the City had this mixture of the profound through the banal and vice-versa. But a show like Friends never seemed to have that depth, at least to judge from my relatively limited experience: it was melodrama without the drama, all surface and nothing beneath. Art like that doesn’t usually appeal to me, but I don’t think it a requirement that serious precludes being funny, or that serious is an absolute virtue to be worshiped. For more on this subject, see James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel.

In humor we might get at the deepest truths; I can’t remember who said it, but someone noticed that comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else. But I don’t go for empty vessels in reading or watching. In pop songs I listen to while driving, sure, but very seldom elsewhere. A corollary of that might be that I don’t like a lot of novels, or books in general.

[…] I think this is rather missing the point: that’s not necessarily wasting time so much as just spending it in different ways. I personally cannot keep up a constant level of serious intellectual stimulation at all times; I need some pure entertainment, pure diversion. What about you?

I might be driving toward the same point and might have also misrepresented Fisher’s meaning if not his exact words in responding, above. But I would say that I’m not convinced pure entertainment or pure diversions exist: art needs to have some depth (or height—I’m forced into using these relative positions to average without specifying really whether they should be up or down) sufficient to be genuinely entertaining and diverting in the first place. Failing at that task means they can’t be diverting. To me, greatness in fiction starts with entertainment and diversion, though diversion from what I’m not entirely sure. Maybe the real—whatever that is.

To summarize, Fisher is right that there are many novels I don’t like, but I would also say that those I don’t like throw those I do into sharper relief, and that there is little if any place for a mediocre novelist in this world. Different people have different standards for art and greatness, and I don’t deny those standards exist. Nonetheless, Philippa Gregory and Tom Clancy will never rise to them. The latter is writing speculative nonfiction most of the time, whether he realizes it or not, and the former doesn’t write skillfully enough to distract me from anything because her stylistic and other mistakes are so common. I’ve also noticed that I’ve tended to write more about nonfiction over the last month or two, and perhaps that’s partially because one can still derive something from bad nonfiction; bad fiction, on the other hand, might be a total deadweight loss of time, money, and thought.

I have to quote from Kundera’s The Curtain:

(Hermann Broch said it: the novel’s sole morality is knowledge; a novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral […])

and, later:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

Kundera is perhaps overly grandiose here, but he is more right and wrong. And too many novels are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional, and I usually try to point those novels out and point out why and how they have those qualities. Sometimes I succeed better than others, and I often feel too aware of my own deficiencies in expression, which I try to remedy even as I fear that I am like a short person trying to grow by wishing for height. Fortunately, that analogy is imperfect because intellectual growth is possible, I believe, for all people who are open to it, but I’m not so sure that becoming an intellectual giant is. Nonetheless, I think there are worse quests in this world than the quest for knowledge and for representation.

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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