On Taste

I’ve been thinking a lot about taste and taste-shaming, thanks to Romanceland discussions (I mentioned this post of Natalie’s before, and the comment thread has only gotten better). As is my wont when a topic gives me uncomfortable feelings, I intellectualized it and went off to do a superficial brush-up on aesthetic theory. But even a superficial refresher of Kant and Hume proved more than I was up for (links to relevant entries in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). So, some pseudo-intellectualized ramblings. Keep in mind that I’m not a philosopher and have forgotten most of what little I once read on this topic:

In a lot of Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment aesthetic theory, judgments of taste (essentially, judgments that something is beautiful) are somewhere between subjective and objective. They establish or appeal to a universal standard; they’re cognitive as well as emotional. We expect others to share them. This idea has real problems: it often depends on the judgment being made by the right kind of elegant, educated mind. Despite claims of universality, standards of taste are class-based (among other things). People who don’t share “our” refined tastes are lesser beings. The appeal to universal standards of the beautiful/good/valuable that led to things like the Western canon of literature has been under attack from a number of angles, and rightly so.

I don’t think you have to have read any of this philosophy to see some of this at play in debates over taste and reader-shaming in genre fiction communities. The idea that there’s such a thing as “good taste,” that taste isn’t purely personal, has legs way beyond a philosophy classroom. And if I believe my good taste is a mark of my superior, elegant, refined, educated mind, well, aren’t I belittling those who don’t share it? Is it surprising that in this wider cultural context some people feel shamed and judged by criticism of their taste?

I think genre fiction discussions are caught somewhere between the “vegemite” idea of taste Kaetrin discusses in her great post (everyone likes different things) and the “high art” idea of taste (there’s a universal standard of “the good book” and if you don’t share it, you need educating). Wine might be a good parallel. There are people who just drink what they like (I’m one). They educate their individual taste: that is, you have to drink enough wine to learn what you like (oaky chardonnay isn’t really my thing). But there are also wine-tasting classes and an expert vocabulary of taste; many people accept the idea that one can be educated about wine in a way that combines personal, subjective taste and more objective standards, or where personal taste is shaped by what one learns about objective standards. And, of course, there are wine snobs who judge the taste of others (see, for instance, Sideways).

In some philosophical and critical thinking, judgments of taste are bound up with moral judgments. That may be because both are judgments based on our feelings rather than on some empirical quality in what we’re judging. Or it may be because the critic believes art has a didactic purpose, so good art is art that teaches the right lessons. You can see this tangling up of taste and moral judgment in some Romanceland discussions: the idea that a “problematic” book might be harmful.

I’m going to be teaching Children’s Lit in the fall (I’ll talk more about this, since I’m finally teaching something interesting to the general public again), and today, looking for some secondary readings to put in my coursepack, I came across this comment from editor Hazel Rochman:

The poet Katha Pollitt says that it’s because young people read so little that there’s such furious debate about the canon. If they read all kinds of books all the time, particular books wouldn’t matter so much.

Rochman’s view (which is part of discussion of historical fiction for children) is that giving children good, engaging stories is more important than giving them books with the right “lessons” about the past. Women aren’t children, of course. And we’re exposed to a very wide variety of stories all the time–stories in books, TV, movies, the news, the stories of the lives around us, the stories of our own lives. We read any given romance novel with and against all these other stories. I don’t worry too much, then, about the effect the “moral” of any given novel might have on us, especially since different readers find different meanings. By that I don’t at all mean that books aren’t up for criticism or that we can’t say we find elements of them problematic.

As someone who teaches literature, I’m caught between the idea that there’s a standard of taste and the idea that taste is purely subjective and personal, though I tend towards the latter. I just read John Cotter’s review of Terry Eagleton’s How to Read Literature, and I was brought up rather short by Cotter’s suggestion that “Good literature . . . cultivates taste” and his quotation of this line of Eagleton’s:

There comes a point at which not recognizing that, say, a certain brand of malt whisky is of world-class quality means not understanding malt whisky.

I don’t really think of my classes as cultivating taste, as being like wine- or whisky-tasting classes (if only). I think of myself as teaching my students to approach books analytically, not evaluatively; we aren’t judging whether the book is “good,” but understanding how it works. Increasingly, I ask students to interrogate the distinction between high and low art. And yet . . . I teach survey courses that cover the canon of British literature, even if an expanded canon. And in choosing books for my Children’s Lit class, which I am frantically trying to do right now, I’m looking not so much for the popular as for books that will reward a certain kind of reading, books that will help students form (their own? I’m not sure) understanding of what makes good malt whisky literature for children. Many of the texts I’ve taught in this class are beloved as well as “good,” that is, they appeal to many individual tastes, not (just) some universal standard. But I think I’m still “cultivating taste” in the classroom far more than I usually recognize or acknowledge.

Hey, I ran out of room for my uncomfortable feelings and where my own reader-shame lies. Excellent! Intellectualizing goal achieved.

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44 Responses to On Taste

  1. Erin Satie says:

    I have a metric for this. It goes like this: you can cultivate breadth or depth, but not really both.

    On the one hand, the more you like…the more you like. You get a net gain in pleasure from appreciating more things. High, low, everything in between. There is a real benefit to being indiscriminate.

    On the other hand, the more you discriminate the more depth there is to your feelings of aesthetic appreciation. When you like one thing more than another, you begin to build a stairway that climbs and climbs. You create the possibility for a sharper, more intense feeling of pleasure…and simultaneously ensure that you are creating a greater and greater quantity of things that you dislike, that give you no pleasure at all.

    Taste was my idee fixe as an art student, where taste is everything. That’s where I ended up. You can’t have it all. Not really.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s really interesting–and more or less encapsulates my history with romance-reading. When I first started (and honestly still thought of it more or less as “trash”) I enjoyed almost everything, on some level. I didn’t have high expectations or any kind of standards, not even standards of personal taste. The more I read, the more seriously I took it, the more I formed a taste for certain types of books. I’d absolutely say that my pleasure now is deeper and narrower. I was feeling bad about not having/being open to it all (this is really where my shame lies) but this perspective helps me see why that is. I’ve made a trade-off–and one that, for me, is probably unavoidable.

  2. Amara Royce says:

    LOL! Achievement unlocked! (I’m guilty of the same intellectualizing of uncomfortable feelings/thoughts/situations.)

    Great and thoughtful post! When I teach Intro to Lit, the foundational question I use to frame the course is “What is ‘literature’?” I want students to see how the definition of literature is fluid (and has been a function of control)…so, while they learn the literary concepts that help them “unlock” and (I hope) appreciate “literary texts,” they also consider whether traditional definitions of literature really make sense. I also point out which “classics” I personally adore…and which I don’t…and why. (I tend to amuse students with a rant about Williams’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” but then turn around and explain how it is part of a bigger effort by him and the Modernists to challenge notions of what lit is supposed to do and focus on.)

    Taste and reader response are such complex issues, obviously, that they make my head spin. And they’re so tied up in the perceived purpose of reading. Is one reading specifically for escapism? For entertainment? For improvement?

    I agree with what I think you’re saying about a middle ground…I think that not all texts are equally “valuable” but that notions of a universal standard are simultaneously useful AND dangerous.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this so I’ll just stop here. Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I try to ask some of the same questions, and I also talk about how I don’t like everything we read, but I think it’s all interesting to talk about. For me the middle ground is understanding that there are not (and should not be) universally-imposed standards of taste, but that we can develop standards for ourselves that we can explain, that have reasons, and these are often communal on some level–partly learned from and shared by others. So, for instance, I can’t explain why I like vanilla ice cream; I just do, it’s purely subjective. But I could explain why some kinds are better than others (real vs. artificial vanilla, eggs and cream, lack of weird gum filler ingredients). Not everyone would necessarily agree with me on “better,” but there are reasoned and explicable standards there that would help them understand my taste judgments.

      • Ros says:

        It’s like chocolate. I can understand why high-percentage cocoa chocolate made by artisans is ‘better’. But when I want chocolate, I still want Dairy Milk.

  3. pamela1740 says:

    I love that you have added Taste — value judgments and all — to the discussion of reader shame. Even young children want to be seen as having “good taste” in things, from books, to friends, to ice cream. So if we like books that we are aware are somehow culturally determined as being in questionable taste (even leaving aside the issue of problematic themes or dynamics), we are starting from a position that feels defensive, and I sometimes wonder if this is one of the reasons we find such solidarity among romance readers, authors, & bloggers.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think you’re right about a shared, despised taste as a bond in the romance community–and I think this is part of why, when our tastes sharply diverge, there are sometimes battles and hurt feelings. It feels like a betrayal by our own.

  4. Great post. I hadn’t been thinking about it in terms of taste, but what you’re talking about is very much what I’ve been mulling over as well. If I were still blogging I’d write a post on the concept of toleration. I feel as if we’ve moved from practicing toleration in the sense of incorporating respect and even esteem, to the minimal version, where we grudgingly put up with someone else’s preferences, which we don’t respect, because we feel we have to. That shift in emphasis creates a much less vibrant community, in my opinion, and it offers many more points of friction and contact, because when we grudgingly put up with things, generosity tends to go out the window (on all sides).

    The wine example is a great one for highlighting the objective and subjective aspects of taste. If you educated yourself across a wide variety of wine styles, you’ll find that you like some styles more than others. but liking a fruit-bomb Syrah over a structured, long-lasting Burgundy doesn’t necessarily make you undiscriminating or uneducated. It’s the interaction of what you learn (objective differences in grapes, winemaker choices,and terroir), and what you wind up liking. And you can find both styles in $100+ bottles and in $10 bottles. They won’t be the same at the different price points, but you’ll recognize them as part of the same family.

    Did you see this post at the philosophy blog, The Stone, at the New York Times a few days ago? I thought it was fascinating.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks for the link. That’s a great post.

      Years ago I went to a multi-faith event and one of the panelists (South Asian) talked about how immigrant groups don’t want their culture and religion TOLERATED, they want RESPECT. Tolerance didn’t mean full inclusion or equality, it was grudging. There was a great debate about whether there are elements/practices of minority religions and cultures (this should go for Christianity too, of course) that a liberal democracy could not or should not tolerate or respect, but the basic point has stayed with me ever since. When it comes to books, I don’t think we have to respect the book to respect the person who likes it, although I’ve been lucky to find many readers on line who help me understand and respect their taste for things I dislike, and who have given me respect for things a book I might think is “bad” does effectively. I really appreciate (and respect) their willingness to discuss their taste and the reasons for it, sometimes in the face of a lot of disdain.

  5. Amara Royce says:

    I absolutely agree with the wine analogy…but I also think reading (perhaps especially reading romance) tends to end up being a ground for moral judgment. I’m not saying that’s a good or bad approach…just that it’s there.

    So, for instance, yes, some people make enjoy cheap wine (I love a certain $12 Riesling…but I also love a certain $60 Poully-Fuisse). But no one is going to make judgments about the wine drinker’s morality because of their preferences.

    And this may be one of the grounds upon which romance reading gets particularly problematic…
    –people make assumptions about what “romances” are
    –if they assume all romance is “mommy porn,” they may find the idea amusing…but they may assume romance is morally equivalent to porn
    –hey, not all people consider porn (or at least some porn) as immoral…but many people do (And here’s yet another layer…Personally, I’m not a fan of even soft-core porn…I accept that some consenting adults enjoy adult porn and may even use it as a way to connect within their relationship so I wouldn’t dream of judging them for their personal choices…BUT I would absolutely judge a fan of *child pornography* very harshly…and I think I would expect such judgment to be a universal standard.)

    So when moral judgment comes into play…it seems that all bets are off. People are going to get upset. People are going to get defensive if they feel they are being labeled as immoral. And the question of a universal standard gets really, really murky.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes. There are sometimes moral judgments associated with food, certainly, but these aren’t taste judgments, they’re mostly to do with the politics of production. So someone might think eating meat is wrong, but they probably don’t feel you’re immoral because you like the TASTE of bacon. Stories are another matter, far more complicated, because they reflect and shape our culture and, I think, our identities. It’s harder, perhaps impossible, to separate taste from other values here.

  6. Isobel Carr says:

    I’m wondering if having an art background doesn’t bring a different perspective to the subject of taste, because I think Erin is spot on. Studying art (whether it’s fine art, craft, or writing means that you spend a lot of time thinking about good/successful vs. bad/unsuccessful and learning how to express your thoughts on the subject). When someone has cultivated depth in a subject, their opinion is likely to be based on something different than someone without that experience (like the way I respond to historical books: I can’t just let the history go and enjoy the story for the story). But I don’t think I’m “shaming” readers who enjoyed an ahistorical book when I point out why I find that book “bad” any more than Wilfred Wong is “shaming” me when he pans a wine I like. His depth of knowledge in the field gives him a different perspective and a different toolkit for making his evaluations.

    • While I do think that having a background in studying art or a craft can help one develop one’s taste, I don’t think that’s the whole story.

      I don’t have an MFA, but I studied Creative Writing (fiction, poetry and a little playwriting) both in and out of college, which included taking classes with an author who was a Pulitzer finalist. She, like the majority of my instructors, had disdain for romances, but though I looked up to her and learned a lot from her, I didn’t let her bias against the genre color my view of it.

      I also had a romance reading friend (we’ve drifted apart) who like you, had an MFA in poetry, and this friend told me that her fellow MFA students didn’t get her enjoyment of the romance genre. Yet my friend continued to read romances — and so you and so do I.

      Also, my friend was a fan of Mary Balogh’s early trads, which if I’m not mistaken, don’t appeal to you on account of historical inaccuracies. So, both of you with MFAs in art, but somewhat different tastes in romance.

      On another, but related topic — I’ve seen you say that you don’t understand the appeal of Extreme Romance, but I’ve also seen you say you love Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series. To me, those books are a textbook (if we had one, LOL) example of Extreme Romance.

      Raphael is much older and more powerful than Elena when the series begins with Angels’ Blood, so much so that she is terrified of even meeting him.

      And with good reason. At their first meeting, he controls her mind and forces her to cut herself. But she stands up for him, which he admires, and eventually love becomes the great equalizer (although outside the relationship, they never do equal each other in power).

      So I think there is also a difference in how we look at a category of books. We both loved Angels’ Blood — the issue isn’t whether or not we think it is a good book. The issue is how we look at Extreme Romance as a subgenre.

      You say “I don’t understand the appeal of Extreme Romance” which I think means you exclude books that appeal to you from fitting that definition. I look at Extreme Romance as a subgenre like any other — one that includes good (IMO) books and bad (IMO) books.

      I think that also makes a difference to those who feels shamed — if they feel an entire category of books is being dismissed or even just misunderstood.

      • Isobel Carr says:

        I said I enjoy the Guildhunter series for the world building, but that I have issues (major issues in fact) with the behavior of the heroes. I’ve never been comfortable with the power dynamics in the books and I’ve never enjoyed them as “romances”. They’re very much UF for me, where I’ll put up with more than I will in a romance. Putting it in context as Extreme Rom makes my problem with the books click into place and if I was reading them as romances, well, I probably wouldn’t.

      • Thanks for clarifying. But I read Nalini Singh in large part for the worldbuilding too (though in my case, not for the worldbuilding alone). The power dynamics make me uncomfortable too. I still enjoy the books though. I don’t know how true that is for most readers of Extreme Romance but it’s certainly true for me — though I have loved some books with huge power differentials. Uneasiness doesn’t preclude enjoyment, and we can’t know how many readers of Extreme Romance feel the same way.

  7. Ros says:

    I love that quote about reading all kinds of books all the time. Something that I find it hard to articulate but that I think is relevant to the shaming/taste debates is the difference between the impact of one book and the impact of a whole genre. If one book portrays a particular perspective on poverty/disability/race/gender, so what? But if all the books we read all the time have the same perspective, then that probably does make a difference to the way readers think about that issue.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, and I think this is a big issue in discussions about “problem” books in romance. There’s more variety in the genre than is often recognized (and this also depends on what books are popular/getting attention/being read by the people in the conversation), so sometimes when someone says “romance has an issue with X” and the other person is reading totally different books, there’s a defensive reaction. The basis for those claims needs to be clear. On the other hand, there are trends and undying, common tropes that we can recognize and discuss as being common to a lot of romance, and that may well influence us. I think that link of Sunita’s is great–we just don’t KNOW what effect reading has on people, for the most part, so we really shouldn’t make assumptions.

      • With regard to that link, for me, whenever literature has had an impact on me, it was because it resonated with something I already felt or believed. Sometimes I hadn’t articulated that feeling or belief as well as the book did, but still, even then, it wouldn’t have had the same impact if that feeling had not already been there, deep down.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I was thinking the exact same thing. The books I feel have shaped or influenced me the most were not those that challenged my beliefs, really. I wonder if this is true of most people. . . .

  8. Ridley says:

    If saying that someone who thinks Ke$ha is an example of good music has poor taste is wrong, I don’t ever want to be right.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well, I certainly make these statements all the time, and I think most of us belong to various “communities of taste.” I mean, I was raised to condemn “tacky nouveau riche” displays in home design and decor, among other things, and I haven’t exactly given up those attitudes. I think this depends on what kind of “right” we want to be, and what kinds of conversations we want to have with whom. “Record store clerk taste” (TM Meoskop) taste conversations bond us to like-minded thinkers and exclude others. And sometimes that is exactly the community we choose. It seems to be part of human nature, and I don’t know that I think that’s “wrong,” exactly, especially when those Ke$ha-loving outsiders don’t hear our conversation and aren’t hurt by it. I often enjoy being that kind of right (I’m totally an elitist and think my taste in many things is superior) but I don’t think I want to be it when I’m part of a broader conversation with many tastes. I would never want to say to someone’s face I find her interior decoration tacky.

      When I was newly-married my mother in law offered us a lamp they weren’t using, which I thought was, well, hideous and tacky. I whispered to my husband “I’d rather sit in the dark” and he turned around and repeated it to his mother. She thought it was funny, mostly, but she also had to explain that they’d bought it when living in a small town with few choices, and it wasn’t really to her taste either. I felt horrible and I still haven’t entirely forgiven my husband. But I did choose to say it in the first place. I guess that’s not a place I want to find myself again.

    • joopdeloop says:

      Ridley, I love you and wish I could have your babies (b/c my 8yo -and therefore my 3yo – adore Ke$ha and I cannot escape!)

      speaking more broadly on the topic of shame and taste: its funny what being a mom can do to your sense of taste. I hear music and lyrics with a different consciousness, I read and select books differently [esp those book covers, held in the hands of my curious kids], I read fashion choices critically (esp since my older daughter is all about tight, tight, form fitting clothes, already super body conscious) The Katha Pollitt quote is giving me a lot of comfort – I feel like I need to blast my kids with a wide variety of body images, world views, genres, books of course… and vigilantly discuss the stuff that i see sticking out like a sore thumb now, when pre-kids I would just shrug and chalk up to different strokes.

      coming at it from another angle – It’s fascinating how certain blog entries+commentary seem to open up conversation and hold within them room for fairly divergent opinion and personality, while other instances just generate trainwreck. I guess I haven’t achieved that pinnacle of lurking to pinpoint exactly what that is.

      Liz, thanks for this post (and all the others I’ve lurk though)

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        This is kind of the approach I take as a parent. I don’t censor, I do offer/encourage variety, and I discuss things.

        Comments are the best part of blogging for me. I think things go well with commenting here because my readership is small and many of us interact with each other elsewhere (e.g. Twitter, Goodreads, other blogs). I’m glad you felt comfortable de-lurking!

        I am so grateful for this wonderful discussion.

  9. victoriajanssen says:

    Have you ever read this? Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progression, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative by James Phelan – it gave me a lot to think about, though I don’t think I got all there was to get on a single read.

  10. willaful says:

    “The poet Katha Pollitt says that it’s because young people read so little that there’s such furious debate about the canon. If they read all kinds of books all the time, particular books wouldn’t matter so much.”

    That is one of the most ill-informed statements I’ve ever encountered. When kids become readers, they read and read and read — and they become readers by having the freedom (and opportunity( to find books that they love. And if someone only reads a small amount, all the more reason they should spend that time in enjoyment.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I see what you mean, but what about the many kids who don’t become readers, who never develop real fluency or a love of reading? They’re out there. And I also suspect that the “young people” in this comment are more high school/college-age young, where debates over the canon are more relevant, though we do certainly see fighting over what books “should” be read and taught at younger ages.

      I think in context Pollitt is not endorsing a canon, but saying that the debate matters so much to some people because the stakes seem really high to them. I know some of my colleagues feel a real obligation to assign certain kinds of books that they believe students may not otherwise be exposed to.

      • willaful says:

        Of course they’re out there, but I’m not sure how that’s relevant. Does forcing them to read something not to their taste help anything? But I see what you mean about her not necessarily endorsing it.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          No, I don’t think so. That’s basically not how I understand the importance of kids learning to read. So I totally get your point on that.

  11. This is a great post. It seems very true that, as Pamela says, romance readers feel attacked by an overarching outside view that the genre is worthless, and perhaps feel the need to defend our right to take pleasure in it. Taste does play a role in this, calling out as it does distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow, with all the inherent value judgments that carries. For example, given the choice between hearing an NPR segment or an Eminem song on the exact same topic, my personal preference would be to hear the Eminem song. That’s my taste. I prefer plain language and the expression of strong feeling over measured academic speech. Believe me when I say this preference is derided by many of my friends.

    However, I still see Eminem songs as texts that are open to interpretation, evaluation, analysis and critique. They are texts just as surely as that NPR segment, or literary classic, or famous painting. I can simply enjoy them if I want to, without thinking too much about it, and often I do. But speaking of problematic? That dude is problematic. When I do look closely at his work, I see appalling misogyny and homophobia, but I have to say it’s actually kind of enjoyable to look at that too – to think about the ways he’s both resisting and reinforcing social structure.

    I also realize that while I have a “taste” for Eminem, there’s a lot of variation among the other people who have a taste for his music, and that what we want/see/expect/enjoy about it is going to vary widely. I don’t see why we can’t hold that as a given, and then those of us that feel like talking objectively about the content of the text on any given day – what we like, and why, what he’s saying, and why and how, what that says about our culture, etc. – can do so. Or not. It’s not a personal attack against what anyone else likes or doesn’t like. I myself like it, and for good reason. It’s just textual analysis. I’d like us to be able to do that in romance without so much rancor.

    In the case of Eminem, I would argue that his music is terrific. But I also want to hear music on similar topics by black musicians, and LGBTQ musicians, and women, and I want to hear perspectives that are drastically different from his, and that drastically critique his worldview. I can like and appreciate all those voices for different reasons simultaneously and I can see them all as texts that interact with, inform and challenge one another. And I can enjoy the conversations! Without getting defensive. Because I feel very confident that despite what outsiders might say, Eminem (and romance) have value – both on the level of enjoyment and on the level of textual content. As long as we remain civil and friendly with one another, it seems fair that we could do this without shame.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I love this comment, which basically describes my ideal world (and I’d probably choose the NPR segment 9 times out of 10). I try, in these discussions, to do what I can to bring this kind of discussion into being, though for sure I don’t always succeed–I’ve been known to say hasty, unkind and judgmental things.

    • Emma says:

      I wrote a paper when I was an undergraduate on Marxism, proletarian popular culture, and persona in the music of Eminem. Thirty pages of pretentious goodness such as only a 21-year-old bound for grad school can generate. ; )

      Today, I’m a different kind of scholar, but one who still feels under attack in the academy because I don’t believe that taste or artistic value are permanent, immutable values transcending time and place. In an American context, it’s pretty clear that “taste” emerges in the mid-nineteenth century and is very related to the rise of the middle, managerial class. Taste is and always has been a weapon aimed at keeping some people lower on the totem pole. (And it also has a complicated relationship to the earlier American culture that emphasized plain speaking, so there’s something there.)

      Great post and great comment!

      • Emma, I want to read that paper! I once wrote a thirty page essay on Queensryche, and even made my sociology professor a mixtape to go with it. 🙂 Ah, those days…

        I’m glad you brought up the question of class, because that certainly is the subtext in discussions of taste. Romance is reviled not only because it’s read by women but because it’s perceived to be read by working class women.

        • pamela1740 says:

          Yikes, I messed up the threading – apologies. Just adding that I do recognize how difficult it is to have discussions that have meat on the bones without creating some divisions and thus there will always be a natural inclination for people to group themselves with like-minded consumers and critics. And I agree completely that a difficult subtext in many of the discussions around taste and “quality” which fragment (and occasionally polarize) the romance community is class and how to openly include it as a vector in the analysis.

    • pamela1740 says:

      WORD to what Liz said in response to Rebecca’s wonderful comment. You are describing my ideal blogosphere – diverse forms of cultural production, whether “high” or “low,” canonical or marginalized, are all open texts available — and subject to — diverse discourses of celebration, criticism, interrogation, conversation, etc. In my ideal vision, there is plenty of space for blending critical discourse with sheer enjoyment, and hearing from voices representing many different approaches to cultural commentary. I like the idea of an inclusive conversation that welcomes everyone who cares to throw their ideas into the mix — obsessed fans, novice writers, author experts,publishing or artworld wonks, recovering (and/or practicing) academics, etc etc. I probably shouldn’t be trying to make a list here because I will undoubtedly leave out a constituency which should be represented, but will trust you all know I mean this in the broadest sense. It’s about freedom to choose what we like to read (or see, or listen to) and trusting ourselves to know when to just enjoy, when to ponder and analyze, when to seek discourse and shared reactions, when to get riled up and debate something, etc. Annndd…. now a refrain of To Every Thing There Is A Season… sorry if this sounds too kum-bay-ah!

  12. “The poet Katha Pollitt says that it’s because young people read so little that there’s such furious debate about the canon. If they read all kinds of books all the time, particular books wouldn’t matter so much.”

    Could this be taken to mean that if we encouraged more reading for pure pleasure, young people would read more and that inherently would be a good thing? My children hated most of what they were assigned in high school (our joke: “the dog always dies”) and yet read for pleasure on their own. Interestingly enough, my two that are in college have had few complaints about the lit they’ve been assigned. My middle son was just assigned “A Good Man is Hard to Find” which he found astonishingly good.

  13. Erin Satie says:

    There’s something else that I struggle with. Because I thoroughly believe that taste is subjective. If one person likes apples and another likes oranges (or Eminem and Mozart, or E.L. James and David Foster Wallace, or Michelangelo and Ad Reinhardt), I am not interested in hearing them fight about which is better. No good will come of that discussion.

    But I also believe that it’s easy, after agreeing that taste is subjective, to imagine that quality is also subjective, and that ‘better’ and ‘worse’ only exist in our minds. And I think that is completely false. A crisp, flavorful apple is better than a mealy, flavorless apple. A ripe, juicy orange is BETTER than a green, withered one.

    I could go on and on, but in the end I don’t know how to reconcile both of these beliefs. I am happy to see silverware and video game art in the MOMA. I believe in leveling along those lines. But I don’t think all things, or all tastes, are equal.

    • Ros says:

      I think that’s also an important point, but it becomes harder to work out where the lines come when you’re not talking about apples and oranges. Are a particular author’s books better than another’s or just of a different kind?

      • Erin Satie says:

        I don’t have anything like an answer to this problem.

      • Isobel Carr says:

        Wouldn’t that be comparable to a fight over what kind of orange you prefer? Juicy vs withered is kind of a given, but blood vs navel vs valencia is a matter of pure taste (kinda like do you take your juice with or without pulp).

        When it comes to things like historical accuracy or depth and consistency of world building I can make cases for some authors being “better” than others. Same with issues of grammar and vocabulary, but once you’ve moved past the “is it ripe and jucy” (the quality issue as Erin brought up) it’s hard to say that one is better than another.

  14. Miss Bates says:

    Miss Bates thinks this discussion is so interesting. I’m not sure she’s been able to follow the subtleties of the various arguments, but her loquaciousness insists on one humble comment to the Katha Pollitt quotation about young people not reading. I teach HS, a girls school actually, & our students love to read & read voraciously from Pretty Little Liars to Sylvia Plath. (You haven’t known joy until you read “Daddy” with a roomful of 16-year olds discovering the line, “every woman loves a fascist” for the 1st time.) I can only speak about what my classroom experience has been with readers of various abilities; the most important things a teacher can offer a student vis-a-vis reading are: the first is not to judge, but to encourage students to become readers of what they enjoy; never to distinguish between “good” and “bad” books, to include both on reading lists & in the classroom; also, as much as our “taste!” and education allow (as HS teachers) to put texts in their way that might be unfamiliar or out of their comfort zone (like Plath’s) and to ensure lively and open debate about them. Young people want to understand themselves and the world around them and they want to feel deeply; in a book, they can do so. I’m not sure how I’d define, or even if I understand “taste,” as anything other than a predilection developed over time and experience. Education plays its part, but not a very good one when it’s judgemental or shaming.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      You sound like an excellent teacher. My own best moments in the (community college) classroom have been when students connected with texts they did not expect to, when they ask for more like book X or tell me they’ve sought out more by an author. A lot of my students are not big readers, though some certainly are. And a lot of them have not had positive experiences of reading for/in school, at least since early elementary days.

  15. Miss Bates says:

    Thank you for the kind words! I guess only my students can attest to what kind of a teacher I am! However, young people ARE unfortunately having discouraging reading experiences in elementary and high school and not because their peers; I have this discussion often with my dept. members, librarian, and other colleagues. (And you have to broaden your definition of text too, teach a film, or a song, etc., link it to a book, or story thematically.)

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