On Taste: You and Society (part one)
You and society
Mt. Olympus Syndrome and Literary prizes
Taste as Franchise
Your taste, at the level of broad society, will take on characteristics from a pressure to conform, not to a group’s passing fancy (or your own passing membership within a group), but to an ideal of social order. To be anti-taste within a culture means to have accepted, thus to react against, the culture’s standards—in art, education, merchandizing, charitable giving, etc. Society also enfranchises the arbitrating powers of curators and archivists, librarians, panels that confer fellowships and awards, city planners; but also corporate influencers (fashion designers, housing developers, sports teams). These franchise-holders determine whose artwork gets showcased; who is invited to receive an honor; which canonical artist, writer, or poet is no longer taught…which soft drink is sold at the game.
We take things under the umbrella of an authoritative body, when also we have no special business disputing its dictates, as givens. We don’t wonder in much detail how a “Best Book of the Year” comes to be so-called. We accept that it has been, by someone in the know, some group of literati who determine its greater worthiness, from among worthy contenders.
Society, in its taste-making endeavors, creates categories. It teaches us to recognize them. Icons, who may be talk show hosts, news personalities, actors, sports or music stars, by example teach admiration or condemnation. They pump or dump; their followers pump or dump. We learn to stereotype Southerners, to class off entertainment genres, to view certain things—the velvet Elvis, the pink flamingo, trailer homes, Hair Metal—as tacky (unless taken ironically), without official agreement as to what is tacky. Thus by contrast, what is tasteful? Is this question of intellectual versus stupid (both unanalyzed values) even one of taste?
It’s a real dilemma, having an impossible number of books to read, and an award to bestow, which means nothing much, if all it means is “out of a selection promoted to us, we gave a close reading to some, and chose from among them, by consensus of committee, a preference”.
To intuit, if I were going to read a book, and do it thoroughly and carefully, on the grounds that this is not reading, this is a slice of the pie dropped on someone’s plate, a chance at fame, maybe fortune—I would read it twice. Once to get the story, a second time for the nuances of the writing. I would take notes and research them: of words I didn’t know, facts I wanted to verify. I would mark down outstanding (for good or bad) dialogue, description, plot points. If I plugged away, it would take me two days’ work per book, at the least. But I know I can’t read that fast; I can’t concentrate to the same degree after four or five hours reading, as I’d done the first hour.
If I were to pick a favorite from my year’s reading, the clear difference would lie in that I am a committee of one; that rather than selecting from a submission list, I choose books according to taste and need (The Mayor of Casterbridge, as well as The Plutonium Files); that I am not acknowledged to have any importance in the publishing milieu, and that I have no prize to give.
But, you will see that to raise these objections doesn’t bear on how good the books are, or how likely to endure. Or whether the question is one of endurance or topicality, the search for new voices, the guilt of white privilege. And the criteria are even less authoritatively so, if judging panels shift about from year to year, tasked with one focus this time, a different one next.
(As, it may be, to promote awareness in our fraught political times; switching to “new voices” in response to an allegation of insularity. This is not legacy-building: 2007’s book a stage of maturity on the way to 2017’s. These are just two books, ten years apart.)
It’s useful to think about what reading should mean, with an eye to judging a book’s merits, or an eye to safeguarding the prestige of an award. What does an award do for anyone—writer, reader, presenting organization—if we don’t all agree that it carries prestige, and that prestige is a defined thing? In circular fashion, our faith has to come from a sense that the gods on Mt. Olympus have decreed this, and that a blind trust in their decrees is justified by their godliness.
The publishing industry wants to be seen as expansive and tolerant. The idea of waiving consideration for entire classes (who may be genre-writers, bloggers, self-publishers, small publishers), counting them all, in effect, no good, is out of politically correct keeping with most individual self-images, as well as corporate objectives. Yet the freshest, the newest, the truly undiscovered voice would, by this very definition of fresh and undiscovered, have to belong to someone thoroughly outside the industry, someone unrepresented. Being agented is a privilege.
And proximity is privilege, so even the rags-to-riches stories—of the indie author hawking her work from bookstore to bookstore, the unpublished author camping out in anterooms, the manuscript wielder buttonholing agents at pitch-fests—are city persons’ perseverance stories.
A common fault is to believe that everything (the whole of a putative segment) exists, can be found, in what we know. We forget to think about all we may not know. We make the competition between the white male writer and everyone else. But aspirants are not waiting one by one in a long line…more like an array of short lines, with registers continually closing, new ones opening, everyone scrambling for a place at all.
Suppose, for example, a woman from Africa or South Asia gets a contract with one of the Big Five. Who is she “bumping”? Not John Miller, writer of thrillers, necessarily. In her own country there will be thousands of hopeful novelists.
Suppose it also true that she lives in America, and holds a teaching post at a university. This university system is a conduit to the publishing world, one of privilege. Does her success function as an open door, then, for compatriots who have neither of these prospects, or does it somewhat detract from their chances of becoming known internationally? If someone outside America and Western Europe dreams of writing about knights of the Crusades, is she effectively shut out of publication, because the story she wants to tell isn’t “native”?
2017, Stephanie Foster