by Sherwood Smith

Last week’s discussion about women’s and men’s fantasy intersected in my head with an old novel I was reading a few weeks back, one of the many nineteenth century novels I loaded onto my Kindle for my recent journey cross country on the train.

The novel was pretty much standard, but the thing that lingered in my mind for days afterward was the protagonist’s calm, confident assurance in stating “It is simply a matter of good taste.”

Taste. Not meaning food. It means a meaning a superior aesthetic, a refined discernment, the choice of an implied pinnacle of cultural or artistic hierarchy. Not so simple at all, especially if you begin to question the authority of the arbiters of taste.

At the far end of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton remarked, “Good taste, the last and vilest of human superstitions, has succeeded in silencing us where all the rest have failed.” Has the idea of good taste become an impossibly elitist concept?

Is there a such thing as good taste? At a family party the other day I asked.

One person sighed and said something to the effect of “Here comes the aestheticism argument again.”

Another crabbed about “art” (especially with a high price tag and lots of publicity) that is hailed as art because it’s shocking. The only thing that makes it art (besides a pretentious name and a stratospheric price tag) is that it offends on every level.

Someone else gave an eye-roll and said that that argument was old when Plato was in diapers. There’s skill to making art, or everyone would be doing it.

Someone else said that bowing to accepted forms of aestheticism serves modern consumer trends, and that the art that thumbs its nose (or middle finger) at contemporary morals, or at what’s considered pleasing, can evoke the same behaviors the art is supposedly exposing.

I asked, what about a work that apparently defines itself as art by the way it exceeds the bounds of tolerance?

“Doesn’t that trump the objectionable by raising consciousness and questions? Art is supposed to make you think, instead of say Ooooh!”

As usual, we didn’t decide anything, but had great fun doing it.

So. I looked around for definitions of taste.

A German sociologist who lived at the same time as Chesterton defined fashion as a rapidly changing pattern of taste. Fashion, he maintained, was a method for strengthening the unity of the social classes and for making them distinct. The upper end of the class hierarchy demonstrates superiority by starting new trends that everyone below scrambles to follow in order to seem higher placed than they are. So as commodities, language, manners, fashions once regarded as high-class status markers are widely adopted, they lose their éclat.

At the same time, an economist pointed out that distancing oneself from labor has always been the conclusive sign of high social status. Therefore upper-class taste is not defined by things regarded as necessary or useful but by those that are the opposite, and from there we get conspicuous consumption.

Orthogonal to that is the education of taste (one goes to the right school, and is gently but firmly guided to regard Degas, say, as a great artist, but Mary Cassatt’s work as sentimental twaddle), but there is also the slow evolution of our own tastes, developed over a lifetime. “Taste” was once regarded not only as a sign of birth, but of education, of refinement. The person who gained education had a better chance of social mobility.

In Europe a few centuries ago, the aristocrats had the wealth and leisure to define taste, but within that limitation, women had as much authority as men, in particular the women who hosted salons. In fact, it was a very young wife— Madame Rambouillet—who set out early in the 1600s to improve French society, in reaction to the apparently less-than-couth manners of the male court around Louis XIII.

With the aid of Madame Scudery and Madame de la Fayette through novels as well as hostessing, the tone of French society improved, though not without some satirical resistance, as in Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules. In spite of his pillorying of the excesses of these taste-mongers, women, in particular French salonistes, were the taste-makers of Western Europe until the Revolution swept most of them away.

After the 1700s, with the rise of literacy, for English speaking people, though women could draw social and cultural leaders together for parties, it seemed that taste was really dictated in the media. Only men could publish under their own names. “Ladies” (so received wisdom stated) should only appear by name when they were born, married, and died. Though women could and did write novels, it took a long time before their names could go on the title page—meanwhile, criticism and literary essays were still the privilege of men. They decided what was good, what was negligible, and what was worthy of reading in schools: the new definition of ‘classics.’

Their authority has eroded considerably in the last half-century, so who are the taste makers now? What is good taste in reading?

The year Christopher Paolini’s Eragon came out, I was a junior high teacher. I couldn’t force myself through it, but even as I winced over clumsy prose strung together with the most blatant clichés, the plot holes (and undigested wodges of Star Wars, Bruce Coville, etc) I envied my students. Paolini had clearly enjoyed penning every word, and his audience—teens like him—loved reading every word. I knew that if I’d been fifteen, I would have been part of that enthusiastic audience.

There are some books that work for us at certain ages, which makes them—for that time—great books. Dune worked for me at age fourteen. I can’t read it now without wincing, but I can remember shivering with delight, horror, and fascination, my head swimming with new ideas. Dragonflight is another that worked terrifically for young women of my generation, though judging from reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, it doesn’t work for young women of this generation as effectively; Valdemar worked for thirteen year olds in my classroom during the eighties and nineties, but not so much during the 2000s.

It seems to me that the idea of taste is evolving as rapidly as other areas of our culture. Is it bad taste to like Eragon? These days, the confident sneer of some male critics about romance novels is thrown right back at them by loyal readers who refuse to accept their authority on what makes good or bad books.

I wonder if the idea of ‘taste’ is undergoing a paradigm shift as authority or entitlement continues to erode, and no one accepts anyone else’s hierarchy of discrimination. What do you think?

Sherwood Smith’s books at Book View Cafe



Taste — 35 Comments

  1. .. so, ‘taste’ evolves along two lines as we stroll through our lives … the upwardly mobile class defined taste, and how our tastes change as we age … fascinating … must ponder.

  2. Which German sociologist are you referring to? It sounds vaguely like Adorno to me, though Adorno was of course a terrible snob with regards to “good taste” himself.

    I think that the monopoly of the educated white male establishment on good taste was being eroded since the beginnings of postmodernism in the 1960s and have completely toppled by now outside a thin sliver of critics who wield a lot less influence than they would like to believe. Today, it is perfectly acceptable for an educated person to like genre fiction, comics, TV, etc…

    However, it sometimes seems to me as if the tyranny of tastemakers has now spread to all parts of culture. Prior to the widespread acceptance of popular artforms, it wasn’t much of a problem whether you preferred Georgette Heyer or Kathleen Woodiwiss, Heinlein or Asimov, Batman or Spider-Man, Star Trek or the Twilight Zone. The relative merits of both were heatedly discussed in fanzines or face to face among those lucky enough to have other fans nearby, but to the cultural establishment they were all the same sort of crap.

    Nowadays, however, largely thanks to the internet, there are taste hierarchies even among the artforms ignored by the critical establishment. Try being the person who prefers Charmed to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, thinks The Wire is overrated twaddle aimed at clueless white middle class dudes who want to be gangsters, likes Uncanny X-Men better than Sandman, hate The Dark Knight with a passion, still prefers Asimov to Charles Stross and Robert Jordan to George R.R. Martin, thinks the singularity is a stupid idea and wouldn’t read Who Fears Death when forced at gunpoint (those are just examples BTW). That’s not a comfortable position to be in, particularly if you happen to hold more than one unorthodox view.

    Indeed, I almost lost my joy of reading and of genre after getting on the internet and finally being exposed to fandom, because I was constantly told that what I liked was crap. And when I tried the good books, films, comics that were recommended to me, I ended up hating 90 percent of them. I had learned to ignore the opinions of critics and wannabe tastemakers at school and later university and follow my own instincts. But I initially wasn’t able to resist the pressure from fellow fans, people who were supposed to be my peers. It wasn’t until I had a horrible blow-up with my “friends” from that time (after being told I was a bad and stupid person for liking a particular TV show) that I learned to ignore the tastemaker tyranny in fandom and found my joy of reading again.

    Our tastes definitely change and evolve as we grow older. There are many books and authors I loved as a teenager (Dune, Anne McCaffrey, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Daphne du Maurier) that I cannot enjoy as an adult anymore.

    As for kids, I think it’s important to take their taste seriously, even if we privately think that what they read and watch is god-awful crap. Because if you accept what kids like without automatically dismissing it, you can engage with them and maybe expand their horizons a bit. But if you dismiss everything they enjoy as worthless crap (which my teachers did), they’ll just close up and hate everything you recommend on principle.

    And kids’ tastes move in strange ways. Just lately, we watched a film in my 8th grade class. My students had requested that film and brought the DVD. It was certificate 12, so I went along with it. The film was a Dutch comedy and it was awful. It was unbelievably awful. Nor was it a film I would have chosen, because it relied heavily on late 80s/early 90s lower class macho culture of mullets and muscle cars (the joke was that this part of the Netherlands was so backwards, it still looked like 1989 down there) as well as on specifically Dutch political and social issues. All that totally went over the kids’ heads and I am not certain what they saw in it, but they loved it anyway and were happier than I have ever seen them.

  3. Cora: Georg Simmel, a contemporary of Chesterton.

    I agree about kids. Re the taste wars in fandom, isn’t that exactly the point–that there is no Blackwoods or Atlantic pundit telling us what is good and what isn’t? When it’s every reader for herself or himself, of course people argue just as much as ever, it’s just that they are their own authority, rather than arguing what Henry James said about that piece of drivel.

  4. There’s personal “taste” and then there’s “Good Taste.”
    The first might have everything to do with fashion, but I can’t see Good Taste and fashion being the same.
    Good Taste is about good judgment and that includes consideration for other people’s opinions and feelings. If a person claiming Good Taste ridicules some else’s taste to their face? Well, then they don’t have it.
    My personal taste isn’t always Good. I am guessing that a lot of us here shared Sartorias’s experience of being told as young folk that what we really liked was stupid and bad. I still get it sometimes. I really like Canaletto and get sneered at for it on a regular basis, but I am not at all sure that reactions to art ought to be rational–or at least not all the time.

  5. I was going to say something along the lines of what Pilgrimsoul said. There is personal taste and good taste. I think the real difference we see these days is akin to what we see in the classroom in terms of “opinion.”

    My students will often argue with me that “everyone’s entitled to her opinion.” Or better, “Do you understand now why I marked this essay the way I did?” “Well, in your opinion, it didn’t deserve a B”

    And I have to then stop and say, “yes, this is true when we are talking about movies, or food, or even what is appropriate behavior — to an extent — but there are different uses of the word ‘opinion’. When I mark a paper, I mark it according to a certain set of standards. I often check those standards with other professors, to make sure that what I expect is normal for students at your level. We are basing our ‘opinions’ on the experience of many, many people and on research into what professors have expected at this level for many years. It is opinion backed by evidence. So probably we should think of ‘my opinion’ as ‘my judgement’ or ‘my conclusion.'”

    words. they can be hard.

  6. Pilgrimsoul: I agree, though I think your Good Taste is more about civility than about judgment of art?

    ADM: It seems to me that a teacher who says up front what the standards are for various grade levels and then sticks to them is not dictating taste as in fashion. I see them as two different things . . . but then maybe arbiters of taste talk about their standards.

    Anyway, standards can be about safety, say, as well as aesthetics. like, I wouldn’t hire any architect, no matter how pretty her buildings looked, if they didn’t meet earthquake safety standards.

  7. People sneer at Canaletto? His picture of St Pauls overlooking the Thames is my wallpaper!

    There are clearly some very different things bunched together under the rubric of ‘good taste’, ranging from rank cliquery to sensitivity to other’s feelings. I’m not sure how useful a phrase it is.

    I also doubt whether there’s any canon of taste that exists independent of fashion, although some fashions last long enough to appear permanent. (One the other hand, I wouldn’t want to be absolute about this: evolutionary psychology may show that some colour combinations, say, or a preference for the Golden Section, are hardwired at a species level.)

    One can certainly be trained in sensitivity to art, wine, architecture, etc, so as to be able to recognize in a way that feels instinctive what is the “real deal” and what a “fake”; but ultimately that’s not much more impressive a trick than a twitcher (or a meerkat) being able to spot the difference between a vulture and an eagle at 200 yards.

  8. Cathy: this is true. At least in my mind, it wanders close to the territory of value, which is a very strange concept. Like, why is this painting worth ten million dollars, but that one–which looks the same to me–is donated to the Good Will because nobody will buy it for ten? Aside from the fact that yes, someone is willing to pay ten million, why are they willing to pay it?

    Maybe there’s something about exclusivity, but that’s not it, either. The Goodwill reject could be one of three paintings in existence done by Uknown Q. Wannabee.

    Connected to that is the fact that someone can discover a rotting old piece of paper stuffed in a drawer up in the attic of great-grandma’s house. The paper is a letter, short, say, a rsvp for a gathering at a house in London. Worthless–it’s about to go in the trash–when someone deciphers the scrawl at the bottom, and it says Jane Austen. Suddenly it’s worth a lot . . . and then it turns out that the party in question is at the Lefroy house during 1803, or whenever the year was that Cassandra threw away all of Jane’s letters. The worth jumps exponentially, because suddenly the paper is a Clue to the ongoing puzzle of Jane’s life during that mystery period. The bidding at the auction house goes stratospheric.

    This is straying far away from taste, but in a way it’s not. I guess these things are so arbitrary they are impossible to pin down.

  9. There I think we are sidling up to another subject, as you say, and one that interests me a good deal: the ‘primitive’ power of holy relics (in this case secularized). Many of the people who scoff at medieval pilgrims as superstitious and primitive in their thinking will still struggle to see the Mona Lisa through tinted glass, or to afford that scrap with JA’s signature.

    (There’s also the question of there being a financial market for such things, but that’s less interesting, and couldn’t exist without the other.)

  10. Cathy: yes. That is a fascinating subject indeed. And akin to yet another subject, when a fiction has the resonance of the real. (I’m pondering an otherwise adequate spy novel that seems to have been propelled into popularity on the fact that its writer really was part of MI6–Spycatcher, by Matthew Dunn.

    Though whew, I am totally getting away from my own topic, which is probably a signal to get off the $^%! Net and get back to work.

  11. Cathy, you are obviously a person of taste and judgment. Canaletto painted Civilization, and I love his paintings of London, too.

  12. Some people nowadays have opted for “authentic” rather than “cool” — both meaning “fashionable,” of course.

  13. Elizabeth Taylor in her 1947 eponyomously titled novel, Angel, whose protagonist was a once wildly successful romance novelist: “Fashions change. Time is cruel.”

    Love, C.

  14. Ah, Georg Simmel. Yes, this definitely sounds like him. I studied sociology once upon a long time ago.

    Sherwood, I’d argue that instead of one Atlantic or New Yorker or Marcel Reich-Ranicki telling us what is and isn’t good, different subcultures and fandoms have their own tastemakers now. Why do we know that Patrick Rothfuss, Neal Stephenson or George R.R. Martin are good and that urban fantasy is a trashy porn genre? Because we really feel that way or because Locus or SFX told us? Do readers adore Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, because it’s truly the best historical romance ever written, or because Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Dear Author and All About Romance keep extolling its virtues? Do we dislike the Star Wars prequels because they were genuinely bad movies or because Star Wars fandom tells us to hate them? Is The Wire really the best TV drama ever made or are we just parroting what the Guardian told us?

    As for the value of authenticity, when it was attributed to Rembrandt, the Man with the Golden Helmet was the treasure of the Berlin museums along with the Nofretete bust and one of the most recognizable paintings in the world. However, once it was discovered that the painting was not by Rembrandt but by a much lesser known student of his, it suddenly lost its luster even though the quality of the painting itself has not changed. And for that matter, what differentiates the original Man with the Golden Helmet on the Berlin museum island from the meticulously handpainted reproduction on my parents’ wall, when a layman could not detect the difference with a bare eye? Indeed, my parents have been asked whether their Man with the Golden Helmet was the original.

    Canaletto is considered bad taste now? Colour me confused. Even my old art teacher with the orthodox tastes liked Canaletto and assigned papers about him.

  15. Cora, glad to find another C fan. Our pal Antonio is “too pretty” “too civilized and refined” for our Authentic Age.

  16. Pilgrimsoul and Cora: well, I like Canoletto too, for what that’s worth.

    Cora, these are excellent questions–and I don’t have an answer to them. I do think we are still in the grip of that “male gaze” thing, the automatic give-male-POVs authority, which is why more male things get reviewed and called important, but on the other hand, I think there is enormous change going on, propelled by social media.

  17. Another Damned Medievalist: that’s interesting. The difference between “conclusion/judgment” and “opinion” that you’re talking about is akin to the difference between “theory” in scientific usage and in common usage.

  18. Strangeattractor: thank you very much for that link. While the stuff about design was interesting, I don’t know how germane it is, but the first part of the post made me nod like a dashboard doll because yes, taste does tend to line up with beauty, doesn’t it?

    Of course beauty can be just as difficult to parse, especially if we’re talking about things that don’t usually earn the term. And yet, if on perceiving the given thing we get that little bloom of surprise and pleasure and intrigue and refreshment to the spirit, isn’t that beauty? Especially if we can revisit it and still feel the pleasure and intrigue and refreshment, but the surprise turns to inspiration and insight?

    I was thinking about the Leonardo painting. Yep, we are told he was great when we go to the museum. Now, many can look at his work and shrug, but enough of us down the centuries look and feel awe to agree that he was a great artist.

  19. Actually, your post, with its references to taste and fashion, reminds me a lot of the idea of the American Waltz Culture. Waltzes were always full of rules of etiquette and had to be the height of fashion. But what makes them interesting is that they were so clearly a response to fear.

    In a way, I think all fashion is a result of fear. The right clothing, the right manners, even the right tastes, they tell us who we can trust. At waltz parties the fashions evolved quickly and were very strongly held up because of the confidence men, who pretended to be part of that world when they were actually trying to steal from you.

    The fact is, there are differing groups that by making themselves distinctive can protect themselves from outsiders. In some ways its arbitrary, like whether we prefer X-Men or Sandman (I’m usually with the X-Men camp on this one, although both titles are so variable that I can’t make a pronouncement on them.) But in other ways it’s knowing what other people are thinking.

    Okay, Charmed over Buffy? Fine, maybe you’re an adult and would rather have stories about adults. Or maybe you’re saying something about how you see the world, and it’s not the same way I see the world. Perhaps its absurd, but perhaps, psychologically, it’s seen as a threat.

    Gotta love pack mentality.

  20. Cara: interesting. Fear? I think i see that–the drive to order, and hierarchy–but there is also a response to pleasure stimuli and a few other things. Otherwise, fear, wouldn’t that be all about survival? And waltzing at its most popular wasn’t about survival, not with the horrible corsets squashing women’s wastes, etc.

  21. Cora — Can’t we trust in our own educated palates to know that by the standards that matter to us something is good?

    Otherwise, what is the point of living and studying and working to understand what makes whatever it is work right, whether art, history, fiction, etc.?

    I didn’t need anybody to tell me The Wire was great television. I could see it.

    Also, living long enough one sees what one viscerilly to as at least excellent if not great, get pushed aside by the next generation as they prefer something else that speaks more to their own experience.

    If one has lived long enough one has learned this is inevitable, and nearly as inevitable is that as this next generation that poohs what you loved, they will come to love it too.

    It’s astonishing to me how much I love the musical forms that informed my mother’s and grandmother’s generations now — but I surely did not when I was coming up to adulthood! Music lovers and professionals perhaps don’t run into this growing up because – music. But I wasn’t one of those — then. But the more educated I became in the music the more I could hear and appreciate, and now I’ve developed the sorts of ears that the pros say are damned reliable. That’s even more astonishing.

    Love, C.

  22. Sherwood, I think the male gaze still does play into taste hierarchies. For example, I believe that the main reason why the entire urban fantasy subgenre is ignored and dismissed by SFF critics is because it is dominated by women. Or why the female dominated cozy mystery subgenre is valued far less than the male dominated neo-noir subgenre. But try suggesting to a male critic/reviewer that there might be some latent misogyny behind his blanket dismissal of a subgenre he has never or barely read and watch the sparks fly.

    But the male gaze cannot account for taste hierarchies in the romance genre, where debates about the relative merits of different authors, novels and subgenres can be just as heated, even though the majority of readers and writers are female and there is no male gaze involved.

    Foxessa, I do trust my own judgment, education and taste. But sometimes, even after years of school and university and degrees, I look at something that is universally praised and loved by educated people like myself and think, “Sorry, but I don’t see anything good about this.” Does this automatically make me a person of bad taste that even years of education and an English MA couldn’t correct? Or do my own instincts and experiences simply lead me to a different conclusion about the merits of this almost universally praised thing.

    For example, I don’t think The Wire is a great show. Neither do I think The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or the new Battlestar Galactica or any other of those highly praised “quality” TV shows are great. Does the fact that I just cannot see the merits of these programs automatically make me an uneducated person of poor taste or just someone whose tastes are different from what is considered high quality television in the Anglo-American world?

    I think there is a difference between “This book/fim/TV-show/comic is obviously well made and the creator is obviously a person of talent, it just doesn’t work for me at all” and “I really don’t see what the supposed merits of this thing are – has everybody else been taking drugs?” For me, George R.R. Martin and Susan Elizabeth Philips and the TV show Breaking Bad would fall into the first category – obviously well made, but don’t work for me. Meanwhile, the new Battlestar Galactica would fall into the second category as would the two highly regarded SF writers who regularly get award nominations and wins and yet read like some of the worst writers in the English language to me.

    I also agree on disliking the things beloved by the previous generation. For example, as a teenager I developed a hearty dislike for the German escapist cinema of the 1950s and early 1960s. This stuff was on TV all the time, my mother loved it, but to me it was just sentimental twaddle. Looking at those films again as an adult, I realized that a) there was a lot that was not sentimental twaddle at all but excellent cinema, b) even the sentimental twaddle was usually very well made by talented actors, directors and writers, and c) sometimes there was some surprisingly hard-hitting satire or social criticism underneath the sentimental twaddle. It’s similar with the operetta, an entire genre of music that has been dismissed as sentimental twaddle since the end of WWII at least. Now I grew up with operettas and loved the music and never knew until university that it was sentimental twaddle I was not supposed to like. And even though the plots are usually bonkers, most of the music truly is excellent and gradually being rediscovered by young singers and directors.

  23. Pingback: The link between the Occupy movement and V for Vendetta or Downton Abbey respectively – and some other stuff | Cora Buhlert

  24. Cora: there are some terrific operettas–I remember loving the few I heard in German class. I would love to get ahold of some of those sentimental films–the ones I saw were all the grim existentialist late sixties ones that felt like a hammer to the head to watch. I think we talked about this before–the grimmest of them all was “Das falsche Gewicht”–shudder!

  25. I’m not saying the waltzing itself is about fear. Of course there’s pleasure, at least for some, and pain, for many, but the idea of ‘knowledge of fashion as a sign of group membership’ is a mark of purpose.

    I think Oscar Wilde depicted it best, where having good taste was liking what everyone else liked, but having excellent taste was despising it all as insignificant twaddle, but never, ever, ignoring it.

    I’ve recently discovered, that on a personal level, I have terrible taste. I can’t tell if a book is well written or not, I can only say if I enjoyed it. I can also usually say if it’s interesting, as in, is it dealing with interesting ideas in a nuanced way. As an academic, I find things that are ‘interesting’ easy to talk about, and I want to talk about them. But I’m often blinded to things like ‘good writing’ by other aspects, usually humor, sometimes political sympathies. I don’t know if I really can appreciate good writing in and of itself. I don’t even know if I can pick it out of a line up.

    This depresses me. 🙁

  26. Canaletto fans: every time I’ve seen one of his paintings, I could have stayed for hours, just looking and drinking my fill.

    The snobbery is a more general one, I find, and goes across boundaries.

    My theory is that there are different levels to enjoying any piece of art. From, as Sherwood points out, the reader who is only there ‘for the story’ or for the pretty picture or for the pleasing melody right up to the person who is well-versed in the particular language of the medium, who has engaged with that particular artform critically for many years, and who is looking for nuances. And then there’s the reader/viewer/listener who seeks a raw emotional reaction and who does not mind being shocked or disgusted as long as they are moved.

    Some – most? – pieces of art work on more than one level, so that different people can enjoy them for different reasons. (Or the same person can enjoy them over and over again – the first time reading a book and the time I sit down to admire paragraphs in isolation are not the same action.)

    And now we’re back on the snobbery I mentioned above: there is a class of people – mostly the ones who feel they ‘get’ the edgy stuff – who feel that art which is pleasing isn’t ‘real art’, that giving the people who engage with it a pleasing experience is somehow a bad, an inferior thing, and that people who say ‘I want something nice’ are inferior to those who say ‘bring it on, shock me.’

    Personally, I engage with art in my spare time, and I don’t want to read about horrible things for the sake of it, I don’t want to listen to disharmonic sounds, and I don’t want to look at pornography or human excrement for the sake of ‘art’. I *like* stories, I like melodies, I like realistic art.

    This doesn’t mean I will never venture into some of Beethoven’s really weird chords, that I want to read only about fluffy kittens and unicorns, that every picture has to show a perfect world (‘Heile Welt’ – can’t think of an English equivalent right now). It does mean that I refute the worldview that only depressing things count as serious, or that nice things can’t make you think.

  27. Green Knight: Heile Welt is pretty much perfect world, and yeah.

    Cara: the interesting thing is finding how many different types of perfect writing there are. How friends and I will agree on X, but be sharply divided on Y.

  28. Hm.

    Someone raised a question about the the Star Wars sequels. I like the first ones because I watched them with my dad, and he loved them, and it was a Dad and Miriam thing that we got to share together, and the stories were fun and exciting. I liked the first of the sequels because it felt very similar to me. I did enjoy the second two, because it was still a shared experience, but I wanted to chop out 95% of the romantic plotline. Possibly what this says about me is that I’m not much of an arbiter of good acting, as long as there’s fast-paced action and plot and character to keep me going, but that I become more discriminating when it’s just these two people staring deeply at each other for scene after scene after scene. Of course, I wanted to chop out most of the romantic plotline in the LotR movies, too, but I think that was largely because we were skimming over bits of story I cared about in order to put in stuff that hadn’t been in the books.

    “Today, it is perfectly acceptable for an educated person to like genre fiction, comics, TV, etc…”
    You think so? It may be more acceptable than it was in the past, and more widespread. But members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Society at my (exclusive liberal arts women’s) college were with some regularity dismissively referred to as ‘cape girls’ (despite the fact that after my sophomore year, the cloak-wearing portion of the geek population weren’t actually members of the Society), and definitely considered weirdos by some portion of the student body (I had the impression that it was especially bad amongst those involved in student government or the newspaper — the sort of Women Leaders who were favored whenever the folks who worked with alums needed to pick representative students — although maybe that’s just my prejudices).

  29. It seems that often so called “good taste” is linked with being wealthy, and that having money makes someone an immediate judge of what is in good taste and what isn’t. (Sort of like the snobbery mentioned above in a way). One of the only “trickle-down” effects in the economy that I’ve noticed is the attempted imitation of the less wealthy trying to imitate the wealthy with cheaper models of things that look the same. That has always puzzled me, because if you can have a purse that looks exactly like a Gucci except it doesn’t have the name on it, it is simply the name that holds the value, not the physical item itself.

    So when you look at the NYT Bestseller list, and the authors are all easily recognizeable–they have name recognition, but does that mean they are authors of good taste or authors of popular taste? I suppose at that point, good taste would be dependent on whatever group you associated yourself with, whatever esoteric magazines you read and their lists of best books, which would be books in good taste for your own particular group moving in it’s own little microsphere.

    I think now there are simply too many books–there are the ones picked out as NBA winners, which may be good, or people may slog through just to say they’ve read them so they will have read the books determined to be books in good taste by such and such an authority. I used to work in a bookstore, and it seemed a lot of people were hesitant to buy something unless it had been on Oprah, or some booklist, or an award winner. It had to be approved by someone else before they would read it. Someone else had to determine their taste for them, as if they didn’t trust their own. This was at the beginning of the Oprah book club, and we learned very quickly to order more of those books than we normally would, because they sold out so fast. So again, someone with money, power and influence determining what was in good taste, at least in her mind.

    For myself, I read what I like. I write what I would like to read. I have never read Paolini, but boy, was I ever into Valdemar when I was a younger teenager. And the Dragonriders of Pern. I haven’t tried re-reading any of the Dragonriders books, but I have read the new Valdemar books, and they’re pretty much at the same level as the ones I read when I was a teenager. I have a much younger baby sister (23 years) so sometimes we read the same YA novels–I’ve found she’s extremely harsh on them. One descriptive phrase she doesn’t like and out they go. Yet touch any one of her Doctor Who or Torchwood Novels… She also makes knitted finger puppets of characters from all these shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Horrible’s Sing a long Blog, so I don’t think my family is particularly normal in the sense of outside influence of what is good or bad taste. She’s sort of in a limbo between YA and adult novels, because she’s perfectly happy with her finger puppets (she made one of Spike that was pretty cute, although I don’t know if Spike and cute go in the same sentence.) (OK, maybe they do).

    I have accepted the fact that I don’t like what is generally accepted to be in good taste, and if I do, it’s purely by accident. I do think there are more categories of taste now, helped along by the media–popular taste along with “bad” taste–but they’re judgement calls for the most part, and very personal. I don’t think there is _quite_ the stigma as there used to be, although it’s still out there, of liking things or mocking things that are popular–there was a reason Jane Austen didn’t want Northanger Abbey published until after her death, or that, to a lesser, more personal degree, the Queen Mother didn’t want a movie made about her husband until after she died. (Maybe that was part of her incentive for living so long). Presumably the latter is because it would have been in bad taste.

  30. I think, like that big hair in the eighties, that we will only be truly able to see who generates taste a few decaades later. For now, gen Y likes to sneer at the establishment and say that no one is better than anyone else, but then, so did the followers of the Sex Pistols (many of whom now run large companies and dress impeccably)… Either way, the “taste of the teens” will be interesting to dissect once it’s gone.

  31. I don’t think this is the usage of “good taste” at all, but I like thinking of it as the ability to recognize the successful execution of an artistic or stylistic goal.

    It seems to me that the usage of “good taste” is more often about the choice of socially approved artistic or stylistic goals.