The Literary Life



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Ok, so here you are, a person who loves to read and unlike so many others you know who profess to read a lot, you really like to read the classics. You can work your way through a Shakespeare play, a Henry James novel, even a David Foster Wallace novel (how about that?) with no problem. You even like great poetry. You are a certified person of taste. You deserve a sticker for your sticker book. Enjoy being smug.

Or maybe you just like to read and you’ve always wanted to know who it is that decides what literature matters and what doesn’t. In other words, who decides proper literary taste?

I would love to say I can tell you what proper literary taste is, but I have spent much of my professional life reading more cheap paperback Westerns than anybody you probably have ever known. Believe me, I know from experience: tell somebody with real taste that you read paperback Westerns and you’ll find out quick just what kind of taste people think you have.

Our friend David Hume, the Enlightenment thinker we have been looking at the last few weeks, in Of the Standard of Taste, felt he knew pretty well who it is that decides proper taste: the critics, that’s who.

Does he have a point? After all, the critics writing in The Times Literary Supplement, the New Yorker, The Paris Review, and other similar media certainly maintain powerful influence.

While Hume would not rule out our present-day very powerful critics from his treatise on standards of taste, he also would include qualified readers who have discriminating critical taste as judges of literature. Some people, he says, must be acknowledged to have better judgment than others about the aesthetic value of art, of literature.

Maybe that’s you and me. Let’s see.

So, what are the qualities required to have such taste? David Hume gives his qualifications for this discriminating critic. And he is writing about the person, not just the process of critical reading.

A proper judge of taste must have a strong sensibility, “A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, due attention to the object.” These qualities are not optional, according to Hume. Without them, “we shall be unable to judge of. . . catholic and universal beauty.” Without a strong sensibility, a person will be unable to determine the relationship “which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment will at least be more obscure; and it will require greater accuracy to trace and discern it.” If the only kind of literature you care about is cheap shoot ‘em up Westerns, you might ought to question your sensibility of discernment in literature.

“One obvious cause,” Hume says, “why many feel not the proper sentiment of beauty, is the want of that delicacy of imagination, which is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions. . . .” A delicate sentiment does not come easily and in our time with the prevailing tastes in popular culture for violence, physical and emotional, as well as anything with shock value, delicacy of sentiment rarely seems even to exist.

A proper judge of taste must be someone with great experience in literature who has plenty of opportunity to compare artworks. How can we expect any sort of measure of taste, be it ever so general or undefined, from someone whose knowledge of literature, from the greatest to the basest, is significantly limited?

Thus Hume says, “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to [this] valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.” A person of proper literary taste, then, must be able to clear the mind of all prejudice.”

“But where are such critics to be found?” Hume asks, and perhaps you are asking. Especially in the second decade of the 21st century?

What do you think? As I said in my last post, we have plenty of critics around us today, publishing their ideas everywhere—in books, on the web, in blogs like mine, in peer reviewed journals, everywhere. Clearly they can’t be dismissed and aren’t dismissed. What they say carries plenty of weight. But they disagree with each other at seemingly every point of discussion, right?

David Hume ends his essay on the standard of taste saying, “It is sufficient for our present purpose, if we have proved, that the taste of all individuals is not upon equal footing, and that some men in general, however difficult to be particularly pitched upon, will be acknowledged by universal sentiment to have preference above others.”

Do you agree that in fact some people do have very bad taste in literature? If so, would you not also agree that other people have better taste than those with very bad taste in literature? Do you agree that in our culture of the 21st century there is such a thing as bad taste and, at least, better taste? Whether you or I accept prevailing standards of taste, don’t they exist anyway? We can ignore them if we wish, but does that change anything ultimately?

These are the questions that matter. Not what David Hume said or thought. I used David Hume in this series on taste simply to place in front of you ideas about taste that much of our culture would find outdated but which nevertheless might still have some validity no matter how much we might deny them.

So, who decides proper literary taste today?

Write your comments in the comment box. And let’s see your comments no matter when you read this blog. None of the ideas I am approaching are time sensitive.

Let’s start a conversation. Re-blog. Re-tweet. Follow The Literary Life. The more readers who are posting comments the better.


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