Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Question of Taste

I was going to write a post today deconstructing the opening to A Tale of Two Cities, but it occurs to me there ought to be a discussion about something else.  After all, why A Tale of Two Cities and not Jane Eyre or The Great Gatsby

I must confess I have particular tastes about the things I like, and the things I think are good, and it will be those tastes that are presented positively or negatively here.  I must further confess that I have no interest in this blog being bogged down with discussions about who is good and who is not, or who is horribly overrated or who is horribly underrated.  I am aware that it is impossible to expect people to appreciate my tastes ... but I don't want to hear about it when they don't.  There are always dissenting opinions about every writer, just as the gentle reader who wishes to be a writer will stumble into criticism that has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual work you've produced.  Oh, people will tell you it does ... but you must recognize that people bear grudges against certain subjects, and even certain words.  You may never discover why this girl hated your short story, simply because she had a rather juvenile reaction to the swear word you included on page four ... but she won't want to tell you that, so she will lie about the weakness of your characters or indicate she thinks you write like a ten-year-old, and you will spend the next week fighting yourself about what could have been wrong.

Taste is positively the worst critic you will face, because taste needs no logic, it depends upon no level of ability or talent, and it will disparage as viciously and coldly as a knife in your back.  At some point in your writing career you must learn to rise criticism you deem irrational, and do so without questioning your motives for doing so.  It will do well, whenever you submit anything to anybody, to remember the source.  Very often even the most reputable people are blind to their reasons for liking or disliking things.

It will fall on deaf eyes, but I will ask that the reader does not question what works I choose to discuss on this blog.  Some will be classics, some will seem absurd and highly questionable; and some, I am certain, will be infamously despised or even hated.  My tastes are wide and varying, including works going back to the beginning of writing itself and including works that are very recent.  I enjoy works that appeal to literary snobs and works that appeal to the denizens of the gutter.  I enjoy films, theatre, novels, short stories and poetry.  I confess that I rarely read any fiction written later than 1960, because I find most modern novels to be formulaic, overly wordy and in general lacking in significant themes.  I think this is also true of most novels produced before 1960, but since the bad novels have been weeded out by time, making it easier to find good novels from that time period, I am less apt to be disappointed when I reach the novel's climax.

In general, too, the grammar is better.

I like old movies and new movies.  I like a good action film, I like an old musical, I like most things with a strong sexual theme, if the suspense is suspenseful I can enjoy a slow pace and I particularly like films that hang upon a deeply intellectual quandary.  I can enjoy a very, very slow film if it is produced very, very well.  I do not like bad films for the sake of camera angles, cinematography, lighting or any other technical innovation.  I like films because they are written well.  My only criteria for identifying a good film is in the script itself, and the performance of that script.  If the spoken words do not ring well or ring true, I simply do not care if the movie was a technological triumph.  As such, there are many 'great' films that I do not care for in the least, because they are considered to be 'great' because of the filmation, rather than the writing.  I am a writer, not a technician, and I am therefore not moved by the wonders technicians can accomplish.  If they support the writing, wonderful.  But for me, visual wonders cannot replace writing.  Now and then I can like a film because it is pretty.  But I will never consider it a great film.

Theatre is perhaps the greatest disappointment, since I live in a part of the world - Bible Belt Canada - where everything that gets produced or presented for the stage is done poorly.  I have never seen a play performed live which I would consider to have been a 'good' performance.  Now and then, I've seen things performed adequately.  The best performance I have ever seen live would be a presentation of Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer, which I adored for the libretto.  I like opera, particularly when the story is brilliant.  I have no interest at all in ballet, since it is not writing per se, but rather a lot of dumb show.  Dumb in the sense of "unspoken."  I do not understand, nor care for, the language of feet.  It does not speak to me.  Words speak to me.  I am a writer.

Poetry that appeals to me, again, predates this era.  I heartily love poetry that includes many stanzas, that rhymes or carries a rigorous meter, and that addresses concrete things.  I cannot reproduce meter; it is simply beyond me and I respect deeply those people who can manage it.  Because I cannot enjoy poetry that eschews meter, I do not write poetry myself.  I did, when I was young, but being a toxic mess lacking any musicality, I don't discuss it and I don't attempt to improve upon it.  I hate with a deep, deep passion 'poets' who have no comprehension whatsoever that meter even exists, while supposedly string words together into vague lists about no given subject whatsoever, and call it  poetry.  The worst thing about this species of sub-humanoid is their ever-stated argument that poetry doesn't have rules, and that it can't be judged or criticized because it simply 'is.'  Bah.

There you have it.  I'm afraid the gentle reader is not invited to comment with their own lists of what they like or dislike.  Please comment, but do so in general terms.  You will please note that in the above, with the single exception of the opera mentioned, in the paragraphs describing my tastes I have not included any example of a book, film, play or piece of poetry.  I will therefore publish any comment that includes the mention of ONE opera - fair is fair.  But I won't publish anything that mentions a specific work, today only.  I'll let it go in the future.  But if you wish to make a statement about taste, please leave your specific tastes out of it, as I have.  Thank you.

I shall endeavor, as I write about various works produced by others, to give honest reasons for my opinions, and to not simply say, "I like this" or "I don't like that" as though the reader should automatically feel as I do.  There are works I like for no reason whatsoever.  I shall try not to make mention of them here.


  1. As far as books go, I've actually stopped reading many, recently I've been reading an educational book, albeit slowly because of it's dense content.

    I myself have also gotten tired of the formula in books I've read. Though the fault may be mainly that I get books as gifts, primarily from someone who gives me anything with a dragon on the cover.

    Poems I've found appealing is few and far between. Most of the works I've read I just don't get. Or I think I get, and just come off stupid. Maybe this is due to my younger age and exposure to more recent works primarily with my American education.

    I honestly don't watch movies much any more either. With the exception as a social activity, I've found most to be less engaging than many other activities and MUCH more expensive, possibly with the exception of some direct services and public TV.

    I actually found some theater to be very engaging and reasonably priced in college. They had a nice little theater with a stage that actually went into the audience. While the acting wasn't always top-tier I'm sure, they had some good content. Now I'm in an area that probably has top tier acting, but costs as much as my utilities to see, therefore I've only seen one show.

    Honestly, recently I've found very little that interests me in writing now that I look at it.

  2. My taste in music changed. I grew up doing the classic rock and country thing, but three years ago I put my radio in my truck on NPR and it has been there ever since. I guess being in my forties now I'm just looking for something new or different.

    But at some point we have to gain the ability to recognize talent without liking the subject matter. Which is getting tougher because the older I get, the more set in my ways I get. And alot of what I've loved all my life (people, places, and things), all seem to be disappearing.

    I'm going to go to my room and cry now...

  3. Ok. Here goes. I like work that is capable of surprising me. By which I mean, work that can re-frame a point of view in a way that makes the audience, namely me, look at the world through a different perspective. Work that can make me go away with the simple feeling of "I never thought of it that way, before now!" When creative work is done that way, it can be a genuinely liberating and exciting experience. It's a rush, in it's own way, like winning a competition. I've discovered also, to leave my taste filters and prejudices at the door when I'm experiencing these works.For a broad example, (no specifics) I don't care much for Jazz/Fusion music, but I've encountered examples of it that have made me realize that my earlier broad dismissal of that particular genre of music may have been a little...hasty? I could go back to musical pieces I hated before and get something new and rewarding out of it. I can also go back to work I didn't like before and still not like it.But more importantly, broadening my understanding of a work of art gives me a better vocabulary to communicate the nuances and subtleties to personally discriminate between separate pieces of creative work. That's why I think part of being a good artist in whatever medium one works in involves being a good critic.

    'Taste', however, is a purely subjective thing, and I don't think anyone could quantify it. I'm sure I like a lot of stuff that would make a lot of people look at me funny, and there's a lot of stuff out there that a lot of people enjoy that makes me cock an eyebrow at. The danger here is when you have people out there who use their 'taste' to define their personalities. If you're trying to shore up the crumbling wall of your personality by identifying with some franchise based around vampires or a generic sci-fi space opera, you've got problems...

  4. The degeneration in quality of novels in general I'd like to say has a lot to do with how we approach communication.

    In short, I'd say modern fiction sucks because modern writers have never before needed to sit down and actually think about writing.

    You mentioned it earlier, that we no longer use writing as communication (communication that took considerable time to arrive, at that) and so with it went the pressure that such communication brings, to be witty, memorable, to make very clear one's voice, in short, to maintain interest in a given reader over a period of weeks, even months.

    As for taste, I always supposed that writing was not, and could not be done for someone else. You just wrote "your" story and hoped it struck a chord.