Sunday, August 30, 2009

On "Let's Talk about Love" by Carl Wilson ****

A short while back, when I was reading all those fantasy books, I admit there was a part of me that, when confronted with people in public who would ask me what book was in my hand, what book I was reading, was a little embarrassed. It's not a genre I usually read, and there is--as one person said, a "nerdiness" about it ("Getting your nerd on," I see, the person actually said). I'm fine with being a nerd, but a nerd who reads fantasy is not the nerd I am.

Similarly, while in Florida, I was driving a few friends to a pizza place, and I had in my CD player, a mixed CD that for whatever reason at that moment was focused on Phil Collins and Liz Phair. I like both. The former, though, is considered by many to be cheesy eighties music, the latter, after her first album, often considered to be too commercial. There are lots of other songs on that CD, but these were the two artists that ended up on play. I felt a bit shy. Really, I wanted to say, my tastes aren't always so mainstream. I like some out of the way stuff too.

Wilson has a similar moment in his 33 1/3 book, whose subtitle, A Journey to the End of Taste pretty much sums up what the book is about. In it, he tries to figure out what taste is and why some people can like an artist he detests so much, like Celine Dion. In an attempt to come to that understanding, he plays the album over and over in his apartment, an apartment that does not hide very well what sounds emanate from inside. And strangely, he feels incredibly embarrassed, more so than say if people were listening to him have sex. What is this thing that causes us to be embarrassed by certain things we might read or listen to? What is this thing called "taste"?

I like Wilson's book because it's about something I haven't given much thought to since a twenty-something in grad school. There, I had to confront other grad students who were arguing that the sole reason a given book is considered literature (say, The Great Gatsby) and another given book (say, Myers's Twilight) is not is politics. In my twenties, I couldn't abide by such reasoning. The greats were great; the not so greats were not--there were aesthetic reasons. One supposedly can read Gatsby on many more levels than Twilight. And maybe one can--or maybe one can't. But does that make something better aesthetically? (The particular example is drawn from a more-recent conversation with a high school senior who considers Twilight the greatest book of American literature, and Gatsby merely boring. She'll be an English major at college this year--I'm curious to know if her tastes remain the same. Judith Krantz was the actual college example.)

These are the questions Wilson confronts. In that process, he discusses theories of taste by men like Hume and Kant (arbiters, in their judgment, should be those with a great deal of background in a subject, who have in short good discernment). And he discusses a more recent and more interesting (and much more arguable) one by Bourdieu--namely that taste is a class thing. We show our particular class by disparaging the "tastes" of a lower class. Hence, we end up with high and low culture. But Wilson, I think correctly, says that that sort of argument isn't wholly satisfying. There's more to life then class. Still, our tastes are, in part, forged in an attempt to fit in with a particular cultural subset. We judge Gatsby better because we want to be part of the kind of group that would choose Gatsby over Twilight. Or the White Stripes over Celine Dion.

In the end, however, Wilson comes to appreciate Dion. He may still not find her to be "his" music, but he can appreciate her for the kind of music she does. And what he suggests is that critics should not so much "judge" a work as enter into a dialogic conversation about it, about taste--and more explicitly about the personal experiences that would cause us to like one thing or dislike another--as in, "I like this, but you don't. Why for me and why not for you?" In this way, we better understand one another.

To be sure, the book has a large theoretical component, but it is readable. And it's also fun. Wilson doesn't just talk about taste but about Dion's career, where she came from and where she's gone. And he summarizes hilarious studies such as that of Komar and Melamid's study of art, coming up with a "most wanted" painting based on a generic quiz about what type of art people like most and a "most unwanted" painting on the same; the same study is later applied to music. He uses wonderful anecdotes to illustrate points, such as Dion's own statements on Larry King regarding letting the Katrina looters "touch those things." A wonderful read.

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