The subjectivity of literary taste and who’s telling you what’s good

“Taste is subjective. It is built from our personal experiences, our values, what we have read and watched and listened to all through our lives, and even stuff such as gender, race, nationality, and so on. Taste is political. Most of us would prefer our art to simply reinforce, rather than challenge, our worldview, so we tend to read writers who share our backgrounds, our values and so on. We create little artistic bubbles and don’t question them nearly enough.” – Jessa Crispin in Enough David Foster Wallace, already! We need to read beyond our bubbles in The Guardian

I’m an old white man. But unlike a lot of other white men, young and old, I disliked David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest so much, that I couldn’t even finish it. That’s rare for me. I was taught to clean up my plate and to finish the books I started. No matter, this book was like collard greens simmered in squid ink with a topping of chocolate-covered ants.

But, I digress. The point of Crispin’s article isn’t simply that women and some men are tired of white men telling them they must read Infinite Jest because “it’s important,” it’s that for years the elite of literary critics were eastern-based white men who had so much in common with each other in the small bubble where they lived and read and formed opinions so similar that they tended to recommend the same books that–when it came down to it–supported what they believed about literature and life.

In short, they created the canon because they told the rest of us what’s good and what’s not.

Times are changing in spite of the fact that Americans read a notoriously small number of books from outside the western world. But, we’re seeing more women and more non-Caucasians in the mix of books reviewers are finally reviewing, writing about and recommending.

Perhaps that means more readers are listening to new advice. Perhaps that means there’s more diversity in the origins of the printed word.  I’m sure my reading habits support my own world view; it’s just that my world view is (and has been) at odds with the eastern white men pontificating from their little literary bubble.

We all like what we like. That’s fair enough. But when and why did we start liking what we like? Perhaps those snobbish white men whispered in our ears without our knowing it.

Crispin’s article is a reminder that we all need to be more adventurous when we read. It’s not like that adventure is going to brainwash us into people we no longer recognize in the mirror. We’ll probably change, but for my money, change beats stasis and more of “the same old same old.”


6 thoughts on “The subjectivity of literary taste and who’s telling you what’s good

  1. More adventuresome, perhaps. I’ve never been fond of fantasy fiction a la good vs evil, though I did like Sunsinger (which somehow disappeared in a move. Note to self: get a copy for Nook!), but now I’m reading the Wheel of Time series, for no other reason than I can’t bear to read most books about today, because other people’s today is not mine. But for sure, I’m sick of critics pushing literary truths on me. I thought Confederacy of Dunces was appalling and was shocked to the core when I found out it won the Pulitzer Prize. It made me realize that except for the dubious financial rewards of such an honor, it was worthless. It didn’t mean a book was good or bad, just that someone with atrocious taste tried to foist it on the rest of us. I am still convinced the whole CoD brouhaha is a matter of the emperors new clothes, or something from Fountainhead.

    1. Actually, I couldn’t get to the end of Confederacy of Dunces, either. The whole thing built up via his mother’s pleas on behalf of the book, and then it became “a thing.” Wish it hadn’t. I have’t read the Wheel of Time series. Should I?

      1. Wheel of Time is interesting in a compelling sort of way, though I don’t necessarily think it’s a must-read series. There’s a lot of good, such as Robert Jordan’s incredible world building skills, but he is way too much into whipping both for mind control and for punishment. And he has a couple of distracting and overwelmingly sadistic and weird story lines. And there are fourteen books, each about 700 pages. In my case, I have nothing else I am particularly interested in reading. I still haven’t read the last book, but I am currently rereading the others sort of as a atudy in writing fantasy, or whatever this genre is.

          1. The first book was interesting because there wasn’t much sadism. After that, it got increasingly unpalatable. I read that they are going to do a wheel of time tv series, and I can only imagine it will be appalling, with all the visual effects and violence. The main redeeming feature is the main character’s mental state and his coming acceptance of who he is, and there is really no way to portray mental processes on screen. Not that I would watch it. I don’t watch anything.

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