Tuesday, June 24, 2014

In Defense of Judging

Statement of Principles (Yep. It's the kind of post that needs a Statement of Principles.)

At the Bookstore & On the T: I will never judge a specific book purchase at the store or a specific act of reading I see on the T. I'm going to defend judging in this post, but just because judging is an available action, doesn't mean I can judge whenever I want. At the store or on the T, I have no idea why you're buying or reading that book. Maybe you're getting the latest Anne Coulter because you need material for your sculpture garden of hate. Maybe you're buying Ulysses to set it on fire. Maybe you're reading Twilight because your Little Sister is reading Twilight. I don't know if you're reading The Empathy Exams to expand your understanding of the human condition or as a prop to impress the bookseller you have a crush on. In some ways, I would have to learn your entire life story before I could have any solid base for assessing and then judging your specific purchase of The Secret, and, as a wise scholar once said. 

So because I know nothing of your life, I will never judge a particular book purchase or particular reading choice.

Literature and Entertainment are Different Things: I think much of our culture's inability to have a productive conversation about the role of books in our lives is our refusal to distinguish literature and entertainment. Both are important aspects of a fully realized human life. I'll say this again, because these terms are so fraught with assumptions, it is easy to see them and make assumptions. Literature is important. Entertainment is important. Humans have many intellectual and emotional needs; some are met by literature, some by entertainment. To me, literature is any work (book, TV show, movie, song, painting, etc) that is most fully experienced through the interpretive efforts of the reader, both in terms of how the components of the work mean amongst themselves and how the work means within the wider world. To me, entertainment is any work (as above) that is most fully experienced through the reader simply absorbing the work. You engage with literature and give yourself up to entertainment.

Of course, “literature and entertainment” is a spectrum, not a division. Few, if any, works are purely one or the other, and even the purest examples of literature or entertainment will likely have moments of the other. And, part of what distinguishes one from the other is how the reader responds, which means the same work can be literature to one reader and entertainment to another. But this spectrum and the role of the reader shouldn't be taken too far. Patterns have emerged over the years. Some works are treated by most people who read them as entertainment and some as literature. Even if we can't identify a fundamental trait to distinguish them, it's clear, that as a society of readers, we can reach agreements. (Much more on this idea later.)

I Am Responding to a Minority: Most posts, essays, comments that deal with “judging” start with perfectly reasoned arguments about the false hierarchies that have historically constrained human expression, but a noticeable number of people go too far, leaving behind the specific act of judgment they are arguing against to condemn the act of judgment itself. They go from “This particular person has judged poorly, expressing outdated or perhaps even oppressive assumptions and biases,” to “No one can tell anyone about anything and they certainly can't make any kind of judgment about what I choose to read.” The first is totally necessary in our progress towards a truly humanist society and the other, I believe, negates the meaning and the fun of literature.

With those principles in mind:

A Defense of Judging

Democracy Requires Judging: Can I judge your political decision? In our attempt at democracy, who you vote for, who you donate to, what petitions you sign, what you repost on Facebook influences the policies that will change my life. The decision by someone in West Virginia to support a pro-coal candidate will contribute to human-driven climate change, and thus, to the potential collapse of, you know, society. Shouldn't I be able say, “In my judgment, your decision to support this candidate is a bad one, not just in my subjective opinion, but with a preponderance of objective evidence?” You could argue that democracy cannot function if our culture precluded the ability to judge other people's political decisions. If politics is just a collection of opinions, we can't sort one opinion from another, and thus, can't to enact policy. We might as well just spin a roulette wheel of possible solutions.

Your politics (both of the voting and petition signing kind and the how you spend your money kind) is a function of both your worldview and the way you interpret the world; a world view that is built, in no small part, on the books we read and a method of interpretation that is built, perhaps even more so, on the books you read and how you read them.

So, yes, because my political decisions affect you and my political decisions are based on my worldview and world-interpretation drawn from the books I read, you have the right to judge the books I read. Though you might not have all the evidence needed to judge one of my particular reading decisions, you do have all of the evidence to judge whether a book is likely or unlikely to contribute to me having a productive worldview, and, I would, add, you do have all of the evidence to judge society-wide patterns in reading. (Though, nearly everyone who tries to doesn't actually collect all the required evidence. More on this later.) And, honestly, given how easy it is for our politicians to manipulate our vote, for a powerful minority to sculpt our media, and for American policy to fly directly in the face of established scientific fact, I think there is compelling evidence that our reading abilities and thus our reading habits, need improvements.

Didn't Post-Modernism Get Rid of Ideas Like “Good” and “Bad?”: What we tend to call “post-modernism” is probably best understood as a complex and often contradictory amalgam of cultural processes that grew out of (and around) modernism's radical humanism. In terms of “good” and “bad,” that amalgam of processes leads us to this idea: “There is no universal fundamental truth upon which we can base our concepts of 'good' and 'bad.'” Which is not “There is no such thing as 'good' and 'bad.'” Humans are social animals. Our ideas are built, in part, through interactions with society. Though we cannot ultimately define what is “good” and what is “bad,” over the course of human history we have reached agreements on those ideas. All post-modernism ultimately does to “good” and “bad,” is reveal their agreement-ness.

When someone argues that there is only personal taste and opinions, for whatever reason, that person is abandoning the process of agreement. Maybe they honestly misunderstand post-modernism, maybe they don't want to exert the effort of agreement, and maybe, just maybe, they're a little afraid through the process, we won't agree with their taste and opinions. Honestly, I think avoiding this process is a little, well, sad. Not only does it, at a pretty fundamental level, abdicate one's social and political responsibility, I think it removes the point and fun of literature. If it's all just a matter of taste, then we have no mechanism for shouting at each other, maybe at a bar, maybe after a few drinks, about books. Who wants a world without that?

I knew Knausgaard before he was cool, (I have the signed Vol 1 Galley and this essay to prove it.) but the backlash against his work and those who praise it is starting. The debate between his supporters and his detractors is going to be FUCKING EPIC, hashing out everything from the nature of storytelling, to our definition of “fiction,” to the function of meaning in your (Yes, You!) life...unless we just accept that we have different tastes and give up. I know, ultimately and fundamentally, I can't argue definitively and conclusively against taste, but I can say a taste-only world sounds really fucking boring.

Judging Isn't Good or Bad: We judge salsas at supermarkets, waitstaff at restaurants, and we sure as hell judge drivers on roads. We judge co-workers, siblings, and celebrities. We judge fashion decisions. We judge public transportation. We judge conversations at parties. We judge performers on American Idol and we judge the judges who judge the performers. Why should judging books be somehow different from all the instances of judging in our lives?

Judging is like dancing. Sometimes it can be done well, sometimes it can be done poorly, and sometimes it can be done so poorly that you embarrass yourself in public. But just because your friend's date got drunk and danced like vengeful gnome filled his hips with loam, doesn't mean no one should ever dance.

How to Judge

The real problem we seem to be having with judging and books, is those who take it upon themselves to judge, have been doing a terrible job. So, before you publish your latest assessment of a major trend in American publishing, make sure your piece meets these qualifications.

Judge a Work on the Right Terms: Much of what I consider misdirected criticism around books, comes from the critic applying the wrong set of standards. If you read a work with the expectation that it is going to be literature and it is entertainment, you will be disappointed. But insulting a work of entertainment for not meeting the standards of literature is like shouting at your dishwasher for not doing your laundry. Similarly, complaining about the effort a work of literature demands is like whining about your personal trainer making you sweat. If you're not sure which a work is, well, figure it out before you publish anything and include in whatever criticism you do publish (even on Facebook) a statement that explains which standard you are applying and why.

Let Me Introduce You to My Friend Sample Size: Though science and book criticism are very different things, I think book criticism can benefit from the scientific method. If you want to pass judgment on a general reading trend, you actually have to read, let's say five of the books you consider to be in the trend. (Twelve would probably be better.) Otherwise, you're not writing about the actual trend, you're writing about what you think the trend is. I'll be honest, I have some concerns about the possibility that a significant percentage of adults spend a significant percentage of their reading time, reading books written for younger readers, but you haven't seen anything about that in this blog, because, frankly, I don't want to put the time into reading 5-12 popular with adults young adult books in order to understand the trend.

Never Tell Another to Feel Shame: If you have convinced someone that it is wrong to throw recyclables in the trash, they will feel shame when they throw their recyclables in the trash. You don't need to tell them to. People are perfectly capable of feeling shame for making mistakes on their own. Instructing people to feel shame compromises your argument in two ways: first, it instantly raises everyone's hackles and guarantees all of your other points, no matter how good they are, will subject to unsympathetic scrutiny; second, it implies you haven't actually made your point convincingly.

But more importantly, don't be a dick. Seriously.

Judge the Particular Not the Person: Finally, as above in my statement of principles, you will almost never have enough information to accurately judge a person. If you are going to judge, judge an entity that you can actually know with some thoroughness. A vote. A social pattern you've thoroughly researched. A book you've read.

What Is At Stake?
So this has been a lot of words. And for what? Why spend all this time on the issue of whether or not we can judge books and reading decisions? (I mean, besides the fact that books are important to me, and thus the conversation around books is important to me.) Forbidding judgment outright creates a fundamentally passive world. You simply coast along on your own tastes or on the tastes carved into you by family, culture, and (in the U.S.) capitalism.

You know who benefits from a culture of taste-only passivity? Bud Lite. Mainstream politicians. The Koch Brothers. The corporations who make billions because, rather than exercising any kind of critical judgment, we just accept the shit they sell us. It benefits the people who respond to an argument about the social, ecological, and flavor value of farm-to-table dining with a dismissive, “Fucking hipster.” It benefits people who are willing to be active, when everyone else is passive. You know, assholes.

Simply put, assholes rule a passive world. Every “meh,” every shrug of the shoulders, every “whatever,” every thoughtless, “it's all just a matter of taste,” is an opportunity for an asshole (who is usually a rich, white, straight, man) to grab power. There should be judgment free zones in our culture. There should be a lot of judgment free zones in our culture, but if we make the entire world, including the world of reading, a judgment free zone all we do is empower the people who don't give a shit about anybody else. I'm not saying that those who argue “it's all a matter of taste,” are themselves assholes, but that this particular attitude enables assholes.

There are downsides to judging, and unfortunately, far too few of us practice judging well, but if I had a choice between a world ruled by critics who sometimes (maybe even often) judge poorly and a world ruled by assholes who exploit of our passivity, I'd choose the critics every time.

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