Well, here's a supposedly fun thing I'll never do again. Dash off a post late at night about the death of an artist whose work I was less than thrilled with.
I should have known last night's post would strike people as cruel, heartless, tasteless, and even dumb, and if you think some of my readers are mad at me you should read the things they're saying in the comments over at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Thanks for the link, Rob. What I shouldn't have known, however, because it's not true and doesn't even make sense, is that my saying that I didn't like to read his writing was the same as calling him a bad writer, let alone "talentless" as if the only reason anyone can have for not liking a writer's work is that the work is no good.
There are in fact plenty of critics who think Wallace was a bad writer. There are plenty who think he was a genius. And there are plenty who hold opinions covering a wide range in-between. And I'm not among any of those, because my feelings about Wallace's work are too personal. My reaction to reading whatever he wrote---and by the way I've read all his books, because whatever I feel about his writing, he's been an important writer, far more important than a lot of writers whose work I enjoy more.---is entirely subjective in the way liking or not liking basil is subjective. If you can't stand the taste of basil, that doesn't say anything about basil. That's something between your tongue and basil and there's pretty much no point in trying to convince anyone whose tongue gets along with basil that basil is horrid or their trying to convince you that it's actually delicious. You're not going to stop them from ordering the pesto and they're not going to make you order it.
I didn't like Wallace's writing because there was something about it I found way too sympathetic. Given world enough and time, and if I had all his books on my desk, I could make a good case that that something was there, and if I thought it was also the case that that something made his writing weaker or even bad I might try to make that argument too. But in the second case I probably wouldn't because I couldn't be sure I wasn't just trying to convince you to hate pesto, and in the first case even if I succeeded I couldn't make you feel what I feel when I bump into that something in his work.
I think that something, a defensive detachment from the messiness of human emotions, is intrinsic to his writing. Wallace was an abstractionist. But I don't know if that made him better or worse as a writer or if it just made him him, because I don't like to be abstracted from life any more than I already am. It makes me feel sad, lonely, and lost. Scares me to death, actually. And possibly that's my loss, but it's not his fault.
Fault as in the sense of flaw.
Which it might be, although Nobokov was an abstractionist too.
This is why I opened that post by describing Wallace as one of my least favorite contemporary writers and not by writing "Talentless hack dies."
My favorite contemporary writer is Terry Pratchett. I don't have an ordered list after that, but way up near the top are Donald Westlake and Elmore Leonard. And if you look at those three you'd be right to conclude that my tastes run towards comic novelists (Leonard's thrillers are dark comedies), and you might think then that Wallace ought to have been right up my alley. But you might look at that list and conclude that my tastes run towards genre writers and so it's not surprising that I don't particularly care for a serious literary novelist like Wallace.
As it happens, I just didn't find Wallace's writing all that funny and I don't particularly care for genre fiction, at least not more than what's called for want of a better word literary fiction. The point is though that my favorites and least favorites are like everybody else's, matters of personal taste and preferences, not to mention temperament and mood and situation.
By the way, as much as I like Donald Westlake I dislike Richard Stark, and they're the same person!
There is an abstract ideal of objective aesthetic judgment, but for most of us all criticism is a case of not knowing art, but knowing what we like, and we like things that are good because they are good and they agree with us in some way. The agreement is not necessarily intellectual. We like them because we like them. They make us feel good---and we can feel good about feeling really bad. Some people only like books or movies or TV shows that make them laugh. Others like only the ones that make them cry. Those aren't serious aesthetic criteria, but they don't preclude serious aesthetic judgments.
There are people who can talk themselves into liking something. A definition of intellectual might be someone who can like a work he didn't like. And tastes can be trained. But most of us like what we like just because we liked it and the upshot of this is that all of us have liked movies, books, paintings, songs, and poems we know are bad and hated others we know are good.
I haven't enjoyed a single movie I've seen directed by Jean-Luc Godard, not even Breathless, but I'm not about to argue that he's a talentless hack. On the other hand, I got a real kick out of Transformers, but he's got to make a lot more movies I get just as much of a kick out of before I'll even consider the possibility that Michael Bay is to action movies what Hitchcock was to thrillers.
Ok, your turn. What movies, novels, poems, paintings, directors, writers, poets, painters etc. do you like that you know you shouldn't and what ones that you know you're supposed to like make you shudder in disgust?