[ExI] Objective standards?

Dan danust2012 at gmail.com
Sat Sep 26 06:48:04 UTC 2015

> On Friday, September 25, 2015 3:52 PM William Flynn Wallace <foozler83 at gmail.com> wrote:
> ​> I would never apologize for my taste.  I cannot imagine
> saying 'I know it's great but I don't like it.'  ​ ​I could> say "Others think it's great but I don't", but would only
> say that if asked. I would not try to knock another
> opinion with that.

Note my point:

'And I think one can still say, while not being ashamed or trying to do psychological surgery on one's tastes, "I like this, but I know it's not great" -- along with "I think that's great, but I don't really like it."'

You seem to think that admitting this is apologizing, but I'm saying it's not. Also, I would separate between what others think is great and what is great -- at least conceptually. When it comes to actually figuring out what is great, it might be the two coincide or it might come down to the latter having no meaning other than merely what some person or group of people believes. (I doubt the latter, but I'm not going to present an actual case for this here.) I reckon we'll just have to disagree on this.

> A friend not on this list thinks there is something to
> like in classical music for everyone, and I agree, but
> cannot agree with him that classical is all we need.

I'm not sure what your friend meant, but it seems like you might be getting at "it's great because the cultural elites say it's great." This is how many people approach serious works in all fields: What do the experts say? I'm not going to say it's the worst starting point, but it begs the question of why they think so. I know people, e.g., who listen to the local classical radio station (though online, of course:) because classical is supposed to be "good for you." And when I'm around them I have to put up with some Holst, some Bach, some Dvorak. They find it pleasant, and I'd be lying if I said I despise this stuff. But this sort of passive listening seems more like something they're doing to expose themselves to the good stuff, but then they'll put on some death metal or europop which they seem to enjoy more.

To me, this sort of "check box approach" to art is funny and a little strange. It's like they have some sonic wallpaper classical music to check the box for high art for themselves. You know, like everyone has to see an opera once. And once you've seen one, you've done it so you'll now be closer to getting into heaven, but thank the Lord that's over now. :) (To be sure, they seem to enjoy the dash of Holst, Bach, etc. It's not like they're sitting through 
Messiaen "Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus." If there ever were a piece that earned you credit, that might be it. I sat through it once. Free tickets, and I didn't realize what I was getting into. Once was enough.:)

> I doubt that anyone's tastes are predictable.

I don't know, though my experience, as I've stated makes me think they're not.

> The rational approach to taste is to teach it in junior
> and high school - visual arts, architecture, music of
> ALL sorts.  I would put home economics back in school,
> esp. home finance, and it could include some tasting of
> different cuisines.

I believe most people would benefit, at any age, from exposure to different cuisine, arts, and so forth. I've noticed a lock-in effect with some things: if one isn't exposed to X by a certain age, one is likely not to ever try or like X. This is especially so with foods. I know a few people who simply won't try anything outside of a very narrow range. One guy I know somehow managed to avoid Thai and Indian food and when we go out to eat seems to stepped out of the past: he wants some sort of meat and potatoes dish and that's it. He won't even try anything beyond that.

> There are a few poets I like but mostly I don't like poems,
> making me a lowbrow to many, I suppose.  Doesn't bother me.​

Not sure where this is going. Do you consider all poetry high brow? I can think of poetry that's fairly low brow -- probably most of it. :)

Where would you place this poem by Wendy Cope:


High brow? I'm not so sure it matters.

Or how about this one from Philip Lopate:

> Why do I like a given work?  If it's classical music, then
> mostly I just don't know.

That's an honest answer, but have you ever tried to analyze your tastes?

> One reason I like fantasy and scifi is that I am practically
> guaranteed a happy ending, or at least not a tragic one.

Well, that's a lot of literature -- not just fantasy and science fiction. Even some "high brow" literature has happy endings. Consider _Wuthering Heights_ or just about anything by Jane Austen.

> Hard to find haut literary critics who like books with happy endings.

I'm not sure about that. The usual thing for literary critics is that they believe the ending, whatever it is, has to be earned -- i.e., can't simply be slapped on. In real life, of course, all the endings, so far, are not happy.

> Has to be tragedic to qualify for high art.  Hogwash and sheep dip.

Who are you getting this from? Maybe we're familiar with different literary critics here, but I don't know a single one who says that _only_ an unhappy or "tragedic" ending qualifies as high art. I'll name names of critics I've read: Harold Bloom, Wayne Booth (probably my favorite overall), Kenneth Burke, Charles Baxter, Frank Kermode, C. S. Lewis, Robert Scholes (he's done influential work in science fiction criticism), Meir Sternberg, James Wood -- to name a few. None of them follow the formula you mention. Maybe I've misread them or am mis-remembering.

> I will even turn to the end of a book to see if I want to finish it.

Wow! That's definitely something I don't do. I almost always prefer to read the book in strict order -- figuring there's probably a good artistic reason the author didn't present it in a different order.

> Often the quality of the writing takes second place to content.

Do you mean you do for quality of writing over content or the opposite here? There are various things people go for in literature. Some like a good story over all else. I think James Patterson's work -- though this is secondhand; I haven't read anything by him -- is popular because of this. Others want rich characterization. (Someone pointed out that when people recall movies or stories, they are more quick to recall a character -- Han Solo or James Bond -- than all the particulars of plot.) Others want got for the setting. Think of people who like historical novels set in Anglo-Saxon England or Medieval Japan. Others go for the ideas or themes. Still others like writing style and are very particular about that.

And so forth. And people mix and match these things too. (I definitely don't mean only extreme cases exist -- like someone who will read and love anything with zombies in it no matter what. Zombie addicts I know will say this story or movie is better than that one because it had better characters, a less cliche plotting, an interesting setting, sharper style, etc.)

> I just don't want to read about marriage problems, and those
> books are very fashionable now.  I don't care if Shakespeare
> or his equal wrote it.

I haven't done a tally of what's "very fashionable" now. Science fiction and fantasy sell quite well, so they seem very fashionable, if you ask me. (Of course, if you want to make money in the field, there's plenty of competition, some of it pretty top notch, IMO.) It seems like you're turning this into a plaint against all literature or against literary stuff based on a narrow sampling. To be fair, it's hard to get a representative sample. Even in an area you're familiar with, I doubt you've read more than 1% of the work. (I mean a broad area like science fiction. Of course, you can narrow things down to something like novels about Mars. I once tried to read all the novels I could lay my hands on about Mars. I think I got up to a dozen before I gave up. My favorites? _Moving Mars_ and _Mars Underground_. I enjoyed those. That famous Mars trilogy was too long for me. Did make it through the first one, but the second one got annoying. Those kids in the opening especially. For me, that was an unhappy beginning.:)

> There a case to be made for standard tastes, since we have
> computers that can write pop music that is listenable, and
> Thomas Kinkade, who had a formula for his art works that
> millions loved.

If you're going to use the "millions loved" standard, then won't you be forced to admit millions love Shakespeare and other things you decry as "high brow." Remember, the Bard sells -- books, theater tickets, movie rentals. That's not all, IMO, people just pretending to like him because he's considered (rightfully, IMO:) great and they want to not be seen as philistines.

The funny thing about Shakespeare is his work spans the brows. (Don't believe me. Read the Porter's lines in Act 2, Scene 3 of Macbeth: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/macbeth.2.3.html Isn't that rather low brow humor? If not, what would be for you?:) In fact, many classics tend to do this with the high, low, and middle brow thing being partly a modern creation. Partly because there was a tendency before the 19th century to view literature as going from poetry to drama to that shit-pile called prose fiction -- with poets being on top. Write an epic or a lyric poem and you could be doing great art. Of course, there was light and comic verse -- most of which was not viewed as great. But, on the whole, if you wrote novels or romances, you were entertaining people -- even the elites -- but you weren't making great art. And this pecking order usually put epic above tragedy -- and note that some epics have happy endings, including _The Odyssey_ and Dante's _Divine Comedy_. Note that the latter is a comedy.

Some of this pecking order remains, for better or worse. (Yes, I know by now that you're going to play curmudgeon and say it's force worse. No need to share that.:) I know a few failed poets who write novels. In other words, their first love was poetry and they settled for the lesser art of prose fiction. I think John Updike was one of them. (Don't read Updike. He does write about marriages and stuff and his endings aren't all happy.:)

> I even like some formula things, like detective Nero Wolfe and
> Sherlock Holmes.

No crime in that.

> But those carry some originality most others don't.

Again, my fear here is you might be drawing too much from a tiny sample. Raymond Chandler seemed to do some brilliant and original work in detective fiction. Maybe I've not read a big enough sample either, but I wouldn't start from a position of scolding all writers. I realize, too, below, you've lived longer and probably read more than me. The problem, though, is Google tells me there are about 130 million books in print and about 600,000 or more new ones are printed each year. (About 2,000 of them are science fiction. So there's no way right now for any mere mortal to keep up with the fire hose streaming out. And it's only likely to increase with self-publishing really taking off.) Until we have real AI or real IA humans capable of reading a good chunk of them, I want to avoid making too many generalizations.

This even, again, applies to areas where you or I are well read in. Even my earlier comments about literary critics. I've read quite few of them, but I might not have read the ones you've read. It's quite easy to imagine people reading entirely different sets of works in the same area or genre yet never reading the same work or only having a tiny overlap. Of course, there are classics and founding works, such as stuff by Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allen Poe in detective stories. (Okay, there was William Godwin before them, and many others too, but these precursors are usually ignored.:) Many people might read them, then try a few others and settle on, say, that Yrsa Sigurðardóttir who's churning them out.

> I am 73 and have been reading some books I read as long as 65
> years ago, and nothing is the same.  Not surprised.  I also
> tend to read more slowly than I did once and thus notice
> things I skipped before.

Your comments don't come from lack of experience, but I'm guessing, even with 65 years of reading under your belt, you haven't read more than a few thousand books. Even if you've read 10,000 books or double that, it's a tiny percentage of the total number of books in existence. Maybe if almost all your reading were SF, you'd have a good chance of a representative sample of that in your reading life time, but only just. (10,000 books would be astounding in itself. It would mean an average of reading over 150 books read a year during that span. By comparison, I'm an avid reader. But I range from about 20 to 40 books a year.)


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