the last visible dog (intertext) wrote,
the last visible dog

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"I Know What I Like"

There have been several interesting flurries in the LJ zeitgeist recently about reading and criticism. It started with brisingamen's locked post about writing criticism, and her follow-up debate on "doing" versus "criticizing." Then oursin had a very interesting discussion yesterday about authorial responsibility that in many ways nodded in the same direction. Today, she added a little riff about book clubs and ambiguity, or the lack thereof in popular bookclub choices. Then, yesterday, I read a comment by Ian McEwan (in Time), saying that he didn't have a lot of time for those sites where the reader does all the reviewing. "Reviewing," he argues, "takes expertise, wisdom and judgment. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone's view is as good as anyone else's." Go him, I say. I have a number of thoughts on this subject, which I'm just going to plonk down - they are not necessarily all that coherent or cohesive, just random but connected ideas.

I belonged to a book club for a brief while. I got fed up when the other members outvoted me and gave a better "rating" to Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood or somesuch than to The Bone People. All but one of the other members absolutely hated The Bone People, mostly because it made them feel very uncomfortable. My choice one week was Carol Shield's Unless. When we came to discuss it, most of them were "I didn't like it much... I don't see why this is considered to be so good... I didn't understand it." I pulled out all my "jollying first year students in literary endeavours" skills and managed to show them why it was actually not just good but great, and they left at least understanding it better; I don't think they gave it as high a rating as I did, though.

Far too much "reviewing" these days is in the "thumbs up/thumbs down" school of, "I enjoyed this" or "I didn't enjoy this." I know that I often fall into that trap when I write in here, partly because I'm writing fairly short posts, partly because I am often writing about fairly "light" things. Partly, I hesitate to admit, because I've been uncertain of how well received a more truly critical piece would be - which is wrongheaded, and just plain wrong, given the people on my flist...

Fear of literary criticism - in its academic sense - is a related topic, one that bounces off what brisingamen was writing about. As a teacher at the college/university level, I encounter this in a fairly prevalent attitude toward textual analysis: the feeling that somehow to deconstruct is to destroy, that in depth analysis "spoils" one's enjoyment of a text.

The problem is, that if "reviewing" and, in the sense that reviewing has influence - like Oprah's Book Club choices - on sales, popular taste are thus being driven by "likes" and "dislikes," there is bound to be, to some extent, an effort on the part of writers, filmmakers, artists of all stripes, who have, after all, to make a living, to cater to that taste, and a related "dumbing down" of the product. NB the raft of movie sequels we're subjected to. Or all the novels that quite clearly are written with the Oprah formula in mind (poor abused girl makes good - oh, isn't that Oprah's own life story?). Or all the children's or YA books about magic and wizards (I mean, I LIKE magic and wizards, but ...)

I've been noticing this phenomenon on Flickr (the photography sharing site). There's a whole raft of groups (like communities in here) sprung up calling themselves things like "Superb Masterpiece" "Flickr Diamond" "Most Wonderful, Brilliant and Spectacular Photograph." They are all invitation only, and they all have big icons - like Oprah's Book Club choice stickers - to announce the invitation, that go in the comment box under your photo. If you get into a lot of these groups, there's a good chance your photo will be on "Explore" - the page that highlights the 500 most "interesting" photos that day. The disturbing trend, if you look at the photos on these groups, is that they are all "pretty pictures" - sunsets, kittens, flowers, glowing dewdrops... you get the idea. Photographs of a disturbing subject, or with an edgier feel to them tend not to get invites for these groups, and therefore tend not to get put on "Explore"...

I don't know anything about Art, but I know what I like. Indeed. Is this the future of our culture??
Tags: books, commentary, criticism, reading, reviews

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