The question up for debate today is:
Can you read or hear strong opinions (positive or negative) about a piece of art without your own judgments and ideas being warped and affected? A corollary question is: does the volume and passion of said opinions have a relationship to said (potential) affect? A corollary to that one is, are we more prone to react to criticism or praise? But you can ignore that last one because it pretty much answers itself.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. It started with Billy Joel. It started with Ron Rosenbaum’s Slate article in which he essentially takes a massive dump all over Billy Joel’s music and employs some serious intellectual bullying to convince his readers he’s correct. Read the article and come back, but if you don’t have time, simply imagine any criticism that could ever be levied against Billy Joel (overrated, lite rock schlock, insubstantial fluff), then turn it up to 11. Rosenbaum was so adamant that I, a life long Billy Joel fan, began to wonder whether I’d been wrong about the Piano Man my whole life. It shouldn’t matter what Rosenbaum thinks, of course. He’s just one opinion. Why should he even enter in to the conversation against decades of liking? But he sounds smart enough, and he writes for Slate, and he writes with the kind of spite that you can’t help but sit up and listen to, even though you kind of know he’s an idiot. His intention is clear: to convince you Billy Joel sucks. For those who already hate Billy Joel (he refers to him simply in the sexually overt moniker “BJ” as if everyone calls him that) he wants to affirm and explain to you your hatred so that you can clarify exactly what you mean when talking to your friends at the next Radiohead concert. If you like Joel, he wants you to doubt your own allegiance, to shout you into submission so that you’ll eventually say, “Okay, okay, you’re right, he sucks, I’m sorry!”
It shouldn’t matter.
The problem, of course, is that it does matter. Someone shouts in our ear and, if we’re thoughtful and impressionable (as most of us are), it affects us. I did feel just a little bit of doubt about Billy Joel after reading. I wondered: does he actually suck? I always thought he was a pretty good singer and a hell of a songwriter. And I’ve spent more than a few hours in the man’s musical company, much of it singing along in a very loud and horrible way. In the end, this doubt derived from Rosembaum didn’t go anywhere. It died on the vine. That night I cued up “Easy Money” and white-man-overbit my way back to the mid-level allegiance I’ve always felt for Billy Joel.
This brings me to Chard Harbach’s blockbuster debut literary novel The Art of Fielding. Without a doubt, Fielding has been the IT literary novel of the year. Darling of critics and readers and book groups and the subject of a very very long Vanity Fair piece that detailed its slow ten year grind from MFA project to $650,000 bidding war and author advance. Like with any piece of art that becomes really really popular, a critic was there to tell these many readers they were wrong. In this case, it was B.R. Myers’s article in The Atlantic a couple of months ago entitled “A Swing and a Miss” that heatedly and expansively debunks the literary merits of Harbach’s debut and reveals it to be a soft and unimpressive book and the beneficiary of the cultural boon that accompanies the IT literary novel of the year.
I hadn’t read Fielding when I read Myers’s article, though I had been very aware of it, seeing its cover on the book store shelf many a time and hearing strong praise about it from a friend whose opinion I greatly respect and who has similar reading tastes to my own. After reading Myers’s article, I couldn’t deny I had a similar kind of knee-jerk reaction (by the way, I may be deluded, but I’m telling myself over here that I’m admitting to a kind of reaction that many of us feel but may elect not to express) to Rosenbaum’s piece. Granted, I’d been a lifelong Joel fan and not read a word of Fielding, but still, I wanted to read the book and now wondered whether I could go into it without judging it as overrated. You could argue that I’d been swayed similarly by my friend’s positive approbation (see question 3 above, the one that answered itself), but I felt a stronger reaction to Myers than to my friend (and this is nothing against my friend, who was convincing). For me, it became: How can I read Myers and the like and not let them hinder my individual experience with the piece of art being discussed? Can I? Should I? Do I read these things just for intellectual fodder or do I read to be informed and/or convinced? Don’t I secretly want their opinion so I can later pawn it off as my own? But who wants to read a book just so that they can hate it and then be like, yeah, I knew that was going to suck, Myers was so right!
The conundrum for me is that I enjoy reading. Everything. I read a lot of reviews (my friend, interestingly, does not because he doesn’t want them tainting his experience). I can’t help it. I’m just into knowing what people think and many times I’ve thought of buying a book or album and hustled over to Amazon to read reviews to see whether it’s any good or not. And yeah, this practice has burned me more than a few times (if you didn’t know, people are much more likely to write positive reviews than negative).
By the way, I finally read The Art of Fielding a couple weeks ago and became so engrossed in it that I literarily felt physical pain at having to put the book down. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. I got a headache because I couldn’t read it. It completely owned me for three days. It had been a long time since I’d felt that way. So, I was able to ignore Myers for the duration of my joyful reading, and yet, upon finishing, there that fucker was, whispering in my ear: “it wasn’t as good as you thought it was, really, think about it, you idiot. Just listen. I’ll tell you. I know. I’m smart. My opinion is more important than yours. I’m in The Atlantic.”
And I’m thinking: SHUT UP!
And I’m thinking: TELL ME MORE!
I’m going to cue up “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” while I ponder this some more.