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.