Taste and Quality

Obliquely, this is about a current debate within science fiction. However, the lineaments of the argument pertain to literature as a whole.  I offer no solutions or answers here, only questions and a few observations.  Make of it what you will.

Reading experience is a personal thing. What one gets out of a novel or story is like what one gets out of any experience and being required to defend preferences is a dubious demand that ultimately runs aground on the shoals of taste.  I once attended a course on wine and the presenter put it this way: “How do you know you’re drinking a good wine? Because you like it.”  Obviously, this is too blanket a statement to be completely true, but he made his point.  If you’re enjoying something it is no one’s place to tell you you’re wrong to do so based on presumed “objective” criteria.  That $200.00 bottle of Sassicaia may fail to stack up against the $20.00 Coppola Claret as far as your own palate is concerned and no one can tell you your judgment is wrong based on the completely personal metric of “I like it/I don’t like it.”

However, that doesn’t mean standards of quality are arbitrary or that differences are indeterminate.  Such are the vagaries and abilities of human discernment that we can tell when something is “better” or at least of high quality even when we personally may not like it.

For instance, I can tell that Jonathan Franzen is a very good writer even though I have less than no interest in reading his fiction.  I can see that Moby-Dick is a Great Novel even while it tends to bore me.  I acknowledge the towering pre-eminence of Henry James and find him an unpalatable drudge at the same time.

On the other end of the spectrum, I can see how Dan Brown is a propulsive and compelling story-teller even while I find him intellectually vacuous and æsthetically tedious.

My own personal list of what may be described as guilty pleasures includes Ian Fleming, Edgar Rice Burroughs (but only the John Carter novels; never could get into Tarzan), and a score of others over the years who caught my attention, appealed for a time, and have since fallen by the wayside, leaving me with fond memories and no desire to revisit.  A lot of the old Ace Doubles were made up of short novels of dubious merit that were nevertheless great fun for a teenager on a lonely afternoon.

I would never consider them Great Art.

Taste is the final arbiter.  But using it to determine quality—rather than allowing quality to determine taste—is doomed because taste changes.  Works you might strenuously defend at one time in your life can over time suffer as your taste and discernment evolve.  It’s sad in one way because it would be a fine thing to be able to summon up the same reactions experienced on one of those lonely afternoons, aged 16, and poring through the deathless excitement of a pulp adventure you might, given your enthusiasm, mistake for Great Writing.

I try always to make a distinction between things I like and things I think are Good.  Often they’re the same thing, but not always, and like other judgments humans make tend to become confused with each other.  Hence, debate over merit can take on the aspects of an argument on that day at the base of the Tower of Babel when people stopped understanding each other.

But if that’s all true, then how do we ever figure out which standards are valid and which bogus?  I mean, if it’s ALL subjective, how can any measure of quality ever rise to set the bar?

Fortunately, while personal experience is significant, collective experience also pertains. History, if you will, has taught us, and because art is as much a conversation as a statement we learn what works best and creates the most powerful effects over time. Having Something To Say that does not desiccate over time is a good place to start, which is why Homer still speaks to us 2500 years after his first utterances.  We derive our ability to discern qualities from our culture, which includes those around us informing our daily experiences.  In terms of literature, the feedback that goes into developing our personal values is a bit more specific and focused, but we have inexhaustible examples and a wealth of possible instruction.  We do not develop our tastes in a vacuum.

Honest disagreement over the specific qualities of certain works is part of the process by which our tastes develop. I might make a claim for Borges being the finest example of the short story and you might counter with de Maupassant—or Alice Munro. Nothing is being denigrated in this. The conversation will likely be edifying.

That’s a conversation, though.  When it comes to granting awards, other factors intrude, and suddenly instead of exemplary comparisons, now we have competition, and that can be a degrading affair unless standards are clear and processes fairly established.  Unlike a conversation, however, quality necessarily takes a back seat to simple preference.

Or not so simple, perhaps. Because any competition is going to assume at least a minimum of quality that may be universally acknowledged. So we’re right back to trying to make objective determinations of what constitutes quality.

If it seems that this could turn circular, well, obviously. But I would suggest it only becomes so when an unadmitted partisanship becomes a key factor in the process.

This can be anything, from personal acquaintance with the artist to political factors having nothing to do with the work in hand. Being unadmitted, perhaps even unrecognized, such considerations can be impossible to filter out, and for others very difficult to argue against. They can become a slow poison destroying the value of the awards. Partisanship—the kind that is not simple advocacy on behalf of a favored artist but is instead ideologically based, more against certain things rather than for something—can deafen, blind, reduce our sensibilities to a muted insistence on a certain kind of sensation that can be serviced by nothing else. It can render judgment problematic because it requires factors be met having little to do with the work.

Paradoxically, art movements, which are by definition partisan, have spurred innovation if only by reaction and have added to the wealth of æsthetic discourse. One can claim that such movements are destructive and indeed most seem to be by intent. Iconoclasm thrives on destroying that which is accepted as a standard and the most vital movements have been born of the urge to tilt at windmills, to try to bring down the perceived giants.  We gauge the success of such movements by remembering them and seeing how their influence survives in contemporary terms.

Those which did not influence or survive are legion. Perhaps the kindest thing to be said of most of them was they lacked any solid grasp of their own intent. Many, it seems, misunderstood the very purpose of art, or, worse, any comprehension of truth and meaning. More likely, they failed to distinguish between genuine art and base propaganda.

How to tell the difference between something with real merit and something which is merely self-serving?  All heuristics are suspect, but a clear signal that other than pure artistic intent is at play is the advent of the Manifesto.  Most are hopelessly locked in their time and the most innocent of them are cries against constraint.  But often there’s an embarrassing vulgarity to them, a demand for attention, as insistence that the work being pushed by the manifesto has merit if only people would see it.

Not all manifestos are signs of artistic vacuity, but those that front for worthwhile work usually fade quickly from service, supplanted by the work itself, and are soon forgotten.  Mercifully.  We are then left with the work, which is its own best advocate.  In hindsight it could be argued that such work would have emerged from the froth all on its own, without the need of a “movement” to advance its cause.  Unfortunately, art requires advocates, beginning with the simplest form of a purchase.  In crowded fields overfull of example, the likelihood of a lone artist succeeding on his or her own, without advocacy, is slim.

Advocacy for an individual artist, by a cadre of supporters, can make or break a career.  And this would of course be a natural development of widespread appreciation.  It’s organic.

Advocacy for a perceived type of art begins to suffer from the introduction of agendas having less to do with the artists than with a commitment to the aforementioned windmill-tilting.

The next phase is advocacy of a proscriptive nature—sorting out what belongs and doesn’t belong, measuring according to a prescribed set of protocols, and has little to do with individual works and much to do with the æsthetic and political prejudices of the movement.  The quality of a given work is less important at this stage than whether it “fits” the parameters set by the movement’s architects.  Taste plays a smaller and smaller role as the movement meets opposition or fails to advance its agenda. With the demotion of taste comes the dessication of quality.  The evocative ability of art, its facility to communicate things outside the confines of the manifesto-driven movement eventually becomes a kind of enemy.  We’re into the realm of cookie-cutter art, paint-by-numbers approaches, template-driven.  Themes are no longer explored but enforced, preferred message becomes inextricable from execution, and the essential worth of art is lost through disregard of anything that might challenge the prejudice of the movement.

This is a self-immolating process.  Such movements burn out from eventual lack of both material and artists, because the winnowing becomes obsessional, and soon no one is doing “pure” work according to the demands of the arbiters of group taste.

As it should be.  Anything worthwhile created during the life of the movement ends up salvaged and repurposed by other artists.  The dross is soon forgotten.  The concerns of these groups become the subject of art history discussions.  The dismissal of works in particular because “well, he’s a Marxist” or “she was only an apologist for capitalism”—factors which, if the chief feature of a given work might very well render it ephemeral, but in many instances have little to do with content—prompts head-scratching and amusement well after the fury of controversy around them.

Given this, it may seem only reasonable that an artist have nothing to do with a movement.  The work is what matters, not the fashions surrounding it.  Done well and honestly, it will succeed or fail on its own, or so we assume.

But that depends on those ineffable and impossible-to-codify realities of quality and taste.  Certainly on the part of the artist but also, and critically, on the part of the audience.

Here I enter an area difficult to designate.  The instant one demands a concrete description of what constitutes quality, the very point of the question is lost.  Again, we have heuristics bolstered by example.  Why, for instance, is Moby-Dick now regarded as a work of genius, by some even as the great American novel, when in its day it sold so poorly and its author almost died in complete obscurity?  Have we become smarter, more perceptive? Has our taste changed?  What is it about that novel which caused a later generation than Melville’s contemporaries to so thoroughly rehabilitate and resurrect it?  Conversely, why is someone like Jacqueline Susanne virtually unremarked today after having been a huge presence five decades ago?

I have gone on at some length without bringing up many examples, because taste and quality are so difficult to assess.  What one “likes” and what one may regard as “good” are often two different things, as I said before, and has as much to do with our expectations on a given day of the week as with anything deeply-considered and well-examined. My purpose in raising these questions—and that’s what I’ve been doing—has to do with a current struggle centering on the validity of awards as signs of intrinsic worth.

The best that can be said of awards as guideposts to quality is that if a group of people, presumably in possession of unique perspectives and tastes, can agree upon a given work as worthy of special note, then it is likely a sign that the work so judged possesses what we call Quality.  In other words, it is an excellent, indeed exceptional, example of its form.  I’ve served on a committee for a major award and over the course of months the conversations among the judges proved educational for all of us and eventually shed the chafe and left a handful of works under consideration that represented what we considered examples of the best that year of the kind of work we sought to award.

I never once found us engaged in a conversation about the politics of the work.  Not once.

Nor did we ever have a discussion about the need to advance the cause of a particular type of work.  Arguments over form were entirely about how the choice of one over another served the work in question.  When we were finished, it never occurred to me that a set of honest judges would engage in either of those topics as a valid metric for determining a “winner.”  No one said, “Well it’s space opera and space opera has gotten too many awards (or not enough)” and no one said, “The socialism in this work is not something I can support (or, conversely, because of the political content the faults of the work should be overlooked for the good of the cause).”  Those kinds of conversations never happened.  It was the work—did the prose support the premise, did the characters feel real, did the plot unfold logically, were we moved by the story of these people.

Consensus emerged.  It was not prescribed.

This is not to say other metrics have no value, but they can be the basis of their own awards.  (The Prometheus Award is candidly given to work of a political viewpoint, libertarianism.  It would be absurd for a group to try to hijack it based on the argument that socialism is underrepresented by it.)  But even then, there is this knotty question of quality.

Here’s the thorny question for advocates of predetermined viewpoints: if an artist does the work honestly, truthfully, it is likely that the confines of manifesto-driven movements will become oppressive and that artist will do work that, eventually, no longer fits within those limits.  To complain that the resulting work is “bad” because it no longer adheres to the expectations of that group is as wrongheaded as declaring a work “good” because it does tow the proper line.

Because that line has nothing to do with quality.  It may go to taste.  It certainly has little to do with truth.