By TOBY LICHTIG
The subject of artistic taste has always been fraught, bound up as it is with notions of intellectual elitism, class politics, social identity and consumer power. Taste is both a tool for organizing society and a matter of individual freedom.
Writing about the subject in The Spectator in 1712, Joseph Addison defined “taste” as “that Faculty of the Soul, which discerns the Beauties of an Author with Pleasure, and the Imperfections with Dislike”. Our artistic preferences, for Addison, were imbued with divine powers – or potentially devilish ones.
Literary taste is perhaps more fraught than most because literature is such a democratic artform: cheap to produce (even before the digital revolution), available to the many (at least since the printing press), and a temptation to anyone interested in a good story. Literary taste has meant different things in different times, though what we value about literature has perhaps remained more static. As Arnold Bennett wrote in another well-known essay on the subject, “Literary Taste: And how to form it”:
“The aim of literature is not to amuse the hours of leisure; it is to awake oneself, it is to be alive, . . . . It is well to remind ourselves that literature is first and last a means of life, and that the enterprise of forming one’s literary taste is an enterprise of learning how best to use this means of life.”
The question of literary taste and the current state of “literary values” are the subject of a panel debate I’ll be taking part in on Friday, June 7, somewhat ominously entitled “Pandora’s Box”. The discussion – hosted by The Literary Consultancy, an organization that has made a business out of evaluating literature – is being held at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon, as part of a two-day conference on Writing in the Digital Age, in partnership with the TLS.
Also on the panel will be Andrew Franklin, the founder and Managing Director of the excellent Profile Books; Scott Pack, the publisher of the experimental HarperCollins imprint The Friday Project and the director of another experimental (community) literary project called authonomy; the “book doctor” Sally O-J; and The Literary Consultancy’s co-founder Rebecca Swift.
The focus of the debate will be on the brave not-so-new world of the digital. We will consider how literary values have been either eroded or enhanced by social media, Amazon, citizen journalism and the literary blogosphere. We will question whether the gateways to literature – from academia to publishing in all its forms, from creative writing courses to literary agents, professional journalism to Twitter, casual book groups to word of mouth – have changed the quality and quantity of what is available and the ways in which we think about and critique it. We will grapple with the consequences of print-on-demand and self-publishing, the demise of the high street bookshop, squeezed margins at traditional publishers and the inexorable – and potentially redemptive – rise of the e-reader.
Is the question of literary taste now more fraught than ever? Certainly people are worried: about corruption and self-promotion in Amazon online reviews; the dreary ubiquity of prize culture and its concomitant, list culture; the lack of professionalism in the vast amount of online criticism; the demise of the literary editor and remunerated hack; the sheer amount of literary material being produced and written about, sifted through or allowed to proliferate in an advanced state of bookish metastasis. Who, we might ask, are the "gatekeepers" now?
Last year, our Editor, Peter Stothard, provoked howls of consternation and hollers of support in equal measure by daring to suggest, in an interview in the Independent, that “not everyone’s opinion is worth the same”. “Criticism needs confidence in the face of extraordinary external competition”, Peter said. “It is wonderful that there are so many blogs and websites devoted to books, but to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste.”
Peter was right, of course, and somewhat unsurprisingly I intend to make the case for professional criticism as one of the cornerstones of a healthy literary climate. Literary journalism is a means of stepping back from the babble, assessing what is out there, remembering to be sceptical.
For me, a decent literary review serves two chief functions: it should critique the book in question, impartially, preferably against a broad backdrop of the reviewer’s learning, interests, frame of cultural reference and painstakingly assembled prejudices; and it should perform a discrete function as a stimulating and diverting piece of writing. Or, to put it another way, a review has to serve both the author of the book and the reader of the review. That good criticism is enjoyable is, I believe, why there will always be people prepared to pay for it – and professionals prepared to devote their time to it.
But professional criticism (a niche genre even in its heyday) is just one component alongside all the other modes and means of talking about literature. And even as we worry about being engulfed in a sea of unmediated literary outpourings, I see new filters popping up all around: innovative publishing projects, high quality blogs, the vast flowering of literary festivals, new little magazines, in digital and print, which rise and fall and rise again, much as they've always done.
It's worth bearing in mind that we've been worrying about literary "values" ever since we first had literature. Indeed, just two decades after Addison’s essay, the Weekly Register was decrying “the degeneracy of Taste since Mr Addison’s time”. And as for Bennett: “The one primary essential to literary taste", he wrote, "is a hot interest in literature”.
But what are your thoughts? Is being passionate enough? Are standards declining or blossoming? Is there such a thing as too much literature? Who are today's gatekeepers? And are they doing a good enough job?