Blake has stated, over at Vice, that he doesn’t want to read any more books about straight white people having sex. Stephen has stated, right here, that he is prepared to read many more novels about people fucking. There are substantial differences in these claims that we could pause to examine (“don’t want to read” vs. “am prepared to read”; “straight white people” vs. “people”; “sex” vs. “fucking”), but forgive me if I let those subtleties drop. Because I would rather observe that, if this is the scope of the debate, then it’s akin to one person saying, “I am tired of books about dogs, and no longer want to read more novels about them,” to which someone else replies, “I’m still willing to read some canine fiction.”
Recast in that light, it’s easy to see that neither person is right or wrong. How could they be? It is simply a matter of taste. One man has gotten tired of all those dog books. The other man is not yet so tired. The literary market, no doubt, will cater to them both. And perhaps, over time, demand for dog-free writing will grow, and drown out the pro-dog side, and the market will shift and, for some time, it will be hard to come by a copy of Marley and Me. (Here it might be helpful to replace “dogs” with some other thing, like vampires, or zombies, or alt-lit.) But through it all, one’s preference is perfectly free to steadfastly remain one’s preference. What’s not at stake, in other words, is the right to like whatever you like. The books you read say something about the person you are, and you should be proud of whoever you are! Display your chosen book(s) on the train to signal your affiliation with one of this nation’s many vibrant subcultures. Who knows? Another member of that subculture may spot you, in which case you can exchange nods, smiles, kisses! What’s more, today, thanks to the Internet, you can even make a list of the books that you like, then talk with fellow fans! (There are even web-sites devoted to this!)
Let’s try thinking instead about this argument in terms of genre. A new cowboy movie has comes out, and you and all of your friends go see it. Afterward, you’re wondering whether it’s any good or not …
One of your friends, Buster, thinks it’s good because he likes cowboy movies. Put a cowboy in any movie, and Buster is happy. Dude just likes cowboys! (“More cowboy!”) But Suzie dislikes the movie, because Suzie doesn’t like cowboy movies. (She says they’re, quote, “Yuck!”) She wouldn’t have gone to see this one at all were she not dating Buster. What’s more, both Buster and Suzie have very good reasons for liking what they like: as a child, Buster was saved from a flash flood by a cowboy, whereas Suzie’s father abandoned her and her mother to go drink whiskey and lasso steer. Well, it’s a puzzler! Buster and Suzie will no doubt argue long through the night, debating whether the movie is good or bad until the cows come home, or run free forever, but the only conclusion that you and I can draw from this is that they’re probably ill-suited as a couple (unless they turn out to be one of those couples that likes to always argue).
Your likes are your likes, and no one can tell you any differently. They can mock you, of course, and people might not want to date you. But that still fails to address the more pertinent question, which is whether or not this new cowboy flick’s any good. That question, we might now see, will require a different set of criteria, beyond the matter of like/dislike—a set of criteria other than whether all cowboy movies, a priori, are good or bad.
Whether an artwork is good or not is an entirely different question from whether you like the artwork or not. In other words, the quality of a work of art is irreducible to how popular it is. This is why you and I, who are of course very educated and sophisticated people, tend to distrust lists like this one (the one on the right), which ranks Atlas Shrugged as the greatest novel of the 20th Century, and lists like this one, which names The Shawshank Redemption as the greatest film of all time. The quality of a work of art cannot be equated with how many units it sells, or how many votes it receives in a popular poll. (This works both ways, though, mind you. Just because a book or movie is popular doesn’t mean that it’s not good.)
So what then does make an artwork great? It’s a complicated question, and a lot turns out to be at stake. Let’s look at the primary assumption lurking behind it. Perhaps there really is no such thing as a great work of art, no such thing as artistic excellence. Perhaps artworks are just like people, all of them wonderful and unique in their own special ways? Every pot eventually finds its lid, and every movie will eventually find its audience. You thought The Master boring and distant? Well, that movie just wasn’t meant for you; a different crowd will cherish it precisely for those reasons. Meanwhile, you loved Battleship because it was schlocky, and unintentionally funny? Well, bully for you!
In this view, the world where no artwork is any better than any other, “the World of Pure Difference,” art’s value turns out once again to be totally synonymous with consumer preference. As others have noted*, this is precisely what’s so boring about the much ballyhooed Jonathan Franzen / Ben Marcus debate. Franzen cried, “I’m tired of difficult fiction! Authors should write much easier books that are more about social problems, such as so many readers want!” To which Marcus replied, “Oh Franzen, you dope, you’re overlooking the fact that some readers do want difficult, experimental fiction!” Neither man is right or wrong as long as these are their stakes. From this perspective, easy-to-read social realism and experimental fiction with made-up words and jarring syntax can peacefully coexist, because the debate is not a debate but rather a question of reader identity. Which market or brand do you identify yourself with? Are you Team Marcus, or are you Team Franzen?**
In order to claim that an artwork is great, or even good, it turns out we need a more objective account of greatness—one that doesn’t rely on subjective and ultimately non-debatable qualities such as, “Do you like it?” We need criteria such that when we call an artwork good, we are not simply saying, “good for me.”
It should be obvious by now that we won’t be able to derive this criteria in terms of content—whether the book’s about dogs or fucking or zombies or straight white zombie dogs fucking. Nor will we be able to write off any genre—Western or horror or social realism or hallucinatory horror Western realism or experimental mishmash.
Well, do you see where this is all heading?
It turns out that a very smart critic, working almost 100 years ago, spent a great deal of time thinking about this very issue. I didn’t put his name in the tags or the headline so you would be surprised when I got to him, but it turns out that I’m once again writing about our old friend
And yes, dear God, I know I’ve already written a ton about the guy (here, here, here, here, here, and even more yet elsewhere), and so I won’t bore you by rehashing it all once more. But I will very succinctly summarize his relevance to this debate. What Shklovsky provides is an account of art’s value derived from how well we think the artwork both adheres to and deviates from its own tradition. The artwork exists in a context, against a landscape of other works. Audiences, thus, encounter artworks with certain expectations; they expect that the artwork to some extent will resemble related artworks. But the artwork, if it is good, also differs in some crucial way, and that difference (defamiliarization), when understood in relation to how the artwork also simultaneously conforms, is what determines artistic value.
Which makes sense; we propose a cruder version of this argument whenever we say things like, “What’s good about that new cowboy movie is how it managed to be a real cowboy movie, but at the same time wasn’t predictable.” Or, as we might less crudely put it, “What’s so brilliant about The Searchers is that it’s at once a conventional Hollywood Western, and yet a critique of previous Westerns.” That The Searchers (1956) is a Western is not debated; it trades openly in its chosen genre, and yet it finds new ground for that genre (it revitalizes it). What’s more, its revitalization of the genre is itself a critique. As in so many Western movies, the hero, the cowboy Ethan Edwards, rides in on his horse and fights with Indians and restores the social order—he rescues Debbie from her captors, and returns her to her family. But the film differs by depicting Ethan Edwards as a brutal racist who, having accomplished his mission, is unable to then join the social order himself. Hence the staggering importance of the film’s most famous shot:
The innovation and its genre critique are intrinsically bound up with an adherence to canonical conventions. This shot makes no sense—it lacks its artistic import—if John Wayne is not wearing a cowboy outfit and standing outside the doorway of a log cabin, beyond which extends the Wild West.
This is why genre is no enemy of art, but rather the very occasion for artistry. This is why realism is no enemy of experimentation. This is why critics are wrong when they imagine only some types of art to be art (dismissing, say, any writing that employs Aristotelian unity, or privileging free indirect discourse above all other modes of writing). And this is why, artistically speaking, it doesn’t matter whether Blake or Stephen or me or you or anyone else we know likes the new autobiographically realist books about fucking, or doesn’t like those books, or doesn’t read those books, or cares or doesn’t care, because what matters in regard to any artistic value those books might have is how they relate, formally, to other books—other fictional autobiographies, other realist novels, other literary depictions of sex.
In other words, artistic value is formal value.
*I’m cribbing here from arguments made by Ryan Brooks and Walter Benn Michaels; indeed, I heard Ryan present on this very topic just last week. And before anyone gets too up in arms defending Marcus, understand this: in order for his rebuttal to Franzen to be something more than the promotion of experimental fiction as a niche market—i.e., “fans of experimental fiction are readers, too”—then he must propose some account of what experimental fiction is, and why such fiction matters even if no one wants to read it. In other words, he must defend experimental fiction on grounds other than Franzen’s own Contract Model.
Also, it will be obvious to anyone familiar with their writing that my overall argument here is indebted to Walter Benn Michaels’s and Nicholas Brown’s respective but related critiques of the reduction of art’s value to individual preference; for more along these lines, see Brown’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Real Subsumption Under Capital” (which contains a brilliant reading of why Avatar is not art, but Terminator 2 is, in addition to wonderful observations on the White Stripes, Cee-Lo, Tropicália, The Wire, and more).
**One may certainly bemoan realism’s disproportionate market share, but that is a separate argument entirely from whether realism is or can be artistic. We’ve been inundated by zombie movies, and by superhero movies, but that doesn’t make films like Shaun of the Dead and Super any worse. If anything, the current popularity of those genres allows us to more clearly see the excellence of those two films, since they’re surrounded by so much pap. I mean, do you have any idea how many Westerns came out between 1956–62, the height of the genre’s popularity?