Monday, January 25, 2010

America's Next Top Novelist

I like this painting.

I like White Castle hamburgers.  I like Cinnabons.  I like the TV show Carnivale.  I like the chocolate waterfall in the Bellagio hotel.  I like toy dogs wearing clothes.  I like the rinky-dink kiddy rides at Disneyland, and unlike David Foster Wallace, I actually had a great time at the Illinois State Fair.  I only recently kicked my Mountain Dew addiction, and that's because I moved on to Red Bull.  I've seen Mars Attacks half a dozen times, and you know how I feel about the Kids in the Hall.  I'm going to be frank: I love William Shatner.  It's not an easy thing to admit, but there it is.

Oh the humiliation.

Now don't get me wrong.  With the possible exception of the Kids in the Hall (whom I'm going to discuss again in the near future), I don't regard any of the above as considered opinions.  In fact, if someone argued with me about, say, White Castle hamburgers, I would have to concede every point: yes, they are nutrition-less.  Yes, they are made from horse meat and fingertips.  Yes, their restaurants resemble public bathrooms, with more french fries on the floor.  Yes, I will take a Crave Case, please.

When I started this blog, one of the things I promised to talk about was the fallibility of taste, my own included.  I appreciate it when people say that they don't believe there's such a thing as a guilty pleasure; in theory, I agree that I shouldn't be ashamed of anything that brings me joy.  But those folks clearly do not have the same relationship that I do with objets d'art from Urban Outfitters, or even the worst episodes of Fraggle Rock.

I own this lamp.

I recently re-read Susan Sontag's essay on camp, a classic piece of analysis and beautifully written besides.  However, as much as I'd like to excuse all my bad taste as a "way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon," it's more complicated than that.  Although my feelings on say, Santa vs. the Devil easily fit this bill, there are, to my chagrin, a whole slew of inferior artistic products that have moved me, unironically, in one way or another, and it would take a lot of thought for me to properly explain why.  To pick a random example: in the mediocre 2007 indie flick Year of the Dog, Molly Shannon's beloved pooch dies in the first fifteen minutes; to show the character's grief, the filmmaker treats us to a montage of images of the now dearly departed being cute and generically doggish.  Reader, I wept.  And not just a little bit, either.  Oh no, I was sobbing uncontrollably.  In the theater.  At a Molly Shannon movie I didn't even like.  To paraphrase the Pixies, where was my mind?

In the aforementioned essay, Sontag writes, "Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason. They allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art. But this attitude is naïve... Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion - and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas." 

I emphatically disagree with Sontag's statement that morality is merely a kind of taste, and I think her claim that intelligence is also simply a "taste in ideas" is absurd, possibly even facetiously intended.  But I am intrigued by what she's suggesting here about the arts.  She goes on to say that, far from being ineffable, as is commonly supposed, taste has a logic all its own -- "the consistent sensibility which underlies and gives rise to a certain taste" -- which can, in fact, be articulated, commented-upon, explored.

In popular culture, it seems to me that there are two basic schools of thought on criticism of the arts (especially books and movies).  There's the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down school, which holds that criticism is a kind of product recommendation, an all-or-nothing or graded scale of merit.  For them, the fundamental question is, "Is it worth the money?"  Thumbers evaluate pieces of art alongside one another, often in direct comparison, regardless of differing aesthetics; to them, prizes, awards, rankings make sense as a way of navigating any landscape of creative endeavor.  This is the school of thought behind "Top 100" lists of books and movies, the "Must See" inserts amid Time Out New York's event listings, and even behind a television show like Top Chef, where cooks from widely different traditions and with vastly different aesthetics are pitted against each other with the assumption that someone will emerge from the contest as the "Winner," the "Best," and will then be rewarded financially for his efforts.  (I'd imagine this also applies to American Idol, though I've only ever seen this show once, in a bar with the sound on mute while waiting for a drag show to start.)  And this way of thinking spills out beyond the realm of professional critics: I find it telling that has user reviews in the same format for both books and vacuum cleaners.

Then there's the even lazier school of thought, which holds that "whatever floats your boat -- it's all just subjective."  This is the school of thought replicated through the cruel brainwash machinations of the worst suburban book clubs, where novels are valued for how much their readers can "identify" with the characters.  This makes artistic opinions personal to such a point that they can only be discussed in terms of autobiography.  If you dislike a film that someone else loves, then why try to argue with him?  You can't change who he is.  And similarly, if a book doesn't "work for" a certain reader, well, what can you do?

On the surface, these schools of thought appear to be opposed: the Thumbers see the quality of a work as an objective property to be measured, while the Boat-floaters regard it as entirely subjective, truly in the eye of the beholder.  But both of these schools of thought are, I think, deeply rooted in the capitalist system, because both see the piece of art as a product.  In both schemes, the audience's taste is immutable -- a market to be tapped.  The only difference is that according to the Boat-floaters, saying a film that's grossed a billion dollars is still a failure is absurd (it "worked for" so many!), whereas the Thumbers see success in one particular market (among "sophisticated," meaning educated, savvy viewers/readers like themselves) as more inherently valuable than success in others.  Yet, like the book club frau who requires her novels to feature victimized women springing back from adversity, this "sophisticated" market still has "standards," pre-existing expectations that must be met: generally, in the narrative arts, a "good story" with "developed" characters and "serious" themes, something that's "challenging" without being "offensive," "complex" without being "confusing."

I'm using the scare quotes here because I think these terms represent critical assumptions that are so common they've become nearly invisible to us.  We anticipate that any new book or movie will be evaluated along these lines, as if each reviewer is issued a rubric to score the work in each category.  These tacitly agreed-upon terms make it easier to shrink reviews to a paragraph, or even a pithy sentence or two: convenient, considering the decreasing availability of review space in popular magazines and newspapers.  Strictly descriptive terms acquire positive or negative connotations: "dense" is worse than "lean" but better than "bloated," "shocking" is better than "disgusting," but has nothin' on "haunting."

I'm not faulting reviewers; for the most part, and with the exception of the truly insensate, they're doing the best with the space they have.  But I wonder what would happen if those same critics turned their analytical gaze not on a new work, but on the critical assumptions themselves, attempting, as Sontag does, "to snare a sensibility in words." 

One effect would be that readers would be empowered to correct for the taste of their reviewers.  For example, I only occasionally agree with Roger Ebert.  But since I've been reading him since childhood, I am now able to gauge, with a high degree of accuracy, what I'll think of a film based on the way he describes it.  I don't mean that I only read his reviews for what they reveal about a film's content; his evaluative statements also contain valuable information about what the movie is like.  But now, when he says a film is "deplorable" or "inexplicably riveting," I know what he's getting at, what it means when he makes that statement.  I can see through it.

The second, and perhaps even more important, effect of reviewers laying bare their critical assumptions would be the reviewers beginning to correct for these assumptions themselves.  But, you might argue, if reviewer corrects for her taste, what will be left?  "Objective" standards?  Whose are those, and why shouldn't they be corrected for too?  For the sake of argument, let's agree that Sontag is right and that, in the arts, there is no higher authority than taste.  Even so, the "tentative, nimble" work of explicating one's sensibility would force a reviewer to think harder about the standards she's using, and at least try to apply them more consistently.  Working out a theory in writing has a funny way of opening one's mind, too.  It can start a dialogue, with others or even within oneself.  Far from setting a reviewer's sensibility in stone, I think that more often than not, it would lead to her questioning -- and perhaps ultimately rejecting -- the most knee-jerk of her received ideas.

This is what I'm working on, anyway.  And the more honest I am with myself -- and you, dear reader -- about my weird proclivities and turn-offs, the more meaningful any criticism I offer will be.  At least I hope so.

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