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.”


No Pulitzer for Fiction: Disappointing

Major book awards focus attention on what we hope are the best and the brightest of books. They also create controversy when the winner and/or the named finalists don’t meet the expectations of the public and/or the critics. This year, no novel received a Pulitzer Prize, and that has focused public attention on the process.

The process includes a three-person panel of book-savvy jurors who, for this year’s prizes, spent the second half of 2011 reading over 300 nominated books. In December, they presented the Pulitzer Prize board with the names of three books. The 18-person board’s job was to select, by vote, the winner and two named finalists.

The jurors’ recommendations were Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace. While the first two of these books are on my to-be-read list, I have no knowledge about any the selections other than what I’ve read in the reviews and news stories.

Since the conversations and procedures in the board room are confidential, we don’t know what happened there. We don’t even know if the board votes like a trial jury, has a discussion, and then votes again. We also don’t know if, after the first vote, no book has a majority, the book with the fewest votes is eliminated prior to another vote.

Prospective Improvements

Many suggestions have been made about the process:

  1. The jurors should pick the winner. Reasonable, but unlikely, since boards have the final say and cannot give away their responsibilities.
  2. The board should have more than one author on it. Reasonable, but with the Pulitzer Prizes’ focus on journalism, adding an author might be seen as diluting the journalist knowledge base.
  3. Include provisions that allow the board to call for a back-up list of recommendations if it doesn’t like the first group. This has potential but if the board can’t reach a majority decision on a winner, it might not be able to reach a majority decision to call for the backup list.
  4. Add another board member so that ties are impossible. This makes sense, primarily because no board is ever supposed to have an even number of members unless an otherwise non-voting chairman is permitted to vote in the event of a tie.

Many commentators have spoken eloquently on behalf of this year’s recommended books while others have suggested reasons why one or more of them may have been unacceptable. In my view, presenting no award due to the lack of a board majority for any one book is not acceptable. So what happened to make 2012 the first time since 1977 that no award for fiction was given? We may never know.

If I were to speculate, I would say that possibly nine people on the board held out for The Pale King because they considered the book superior to the others and/or viewed Wallace as a great writer who shouldn’t play second fiddle to anyone else. If this happened, the only vote the board could arrive at—due to its ill-advised even number of members—would be a tie.

The powers that be probably have the power to prevent hung juries in the future. It’s too late for 2012, and that’s disappointing.