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Questions of Subjectivity and Taste: Reading Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste

January 28, 2013

Lately I’ve been considering questions of subjectivity and taste because I’ve been having one of those annual doubting sessions about whether blogging is still worth the time and energy that it takes. As a blogger, I have always championed subjectivity and reacted against attempts to defend the categorization of taste, so when I read about Carl Wilson’s book entitled Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste at Things Mean A Lot, I bought it for my kindle and started reading it immediately (in the glow that only immediate satisfaction can produce, especially in a rural area in the dead of a sub-zero-wind-chill night).

Wilson is a music critic who decided to learn more about Celine Dion’s music precisely because he didn’t like it and looked down his nose at those who enjoy it. He not only learned how to enjoy some of it, but did a nice job of tracing some of the disconnections between enjoyment based on sophisticated knowledge in a field and the individual tastes of those outside the field, starting with his own:
“After the tumult of the early 1990s, when ‘underground’ music was seized on by the mainstream and just as quickly thrown overboard, many critics and ‘underground’ fans got in a cynical mood. The ever-present gap between critical and general tastes threatened to become an entrenched war of position….It wasn’t sustainable.”
Wilson traces the history of “schmaltz” as a music genre and locates a place for Dion’s music within it, saying that she has invented a “recipe for hyperschmaltz, a Frankengenre of sentimental intensity.”

Some of my favorite parts are when Wilson talks about sentimentality:
“Manipulative? Manipulating listeners, moving them, is what music is supposed to do, skillfully. Phony? All art is fake. What matters is to be a convincing fake, a lie that feels true. Clearly Celine has her audience convinced. And is her soundtrack-to-your-life approach more ‘self-indulgent’ than James Joyce’s multilingual word games? Is that really a fault in art? Who else should the artist be indulging?”
He goes even further, saying that
“it’s often assumed that audience for schmaltz are somehow stunted, using sentimental art as a kind of emotional crutch. As Solomon points out, there’s no evidence for this slur: isn’t it equally plausible that people uncomfortable with representations of vulnerability and tenderness have emotional problems?”
Finally Wilson builds to discussing why a songwriter named Stephin Merrit would say that “catharsis in art is always embarrassing”, saying that Merrit’s “enjoyment…depends on having the embarrassment built into the art, as irony, which allows him to register emotion without the shameful loss of self-control involved in feeling it.” I love Wilson’s conclusion about this: “Here we reach a crossroads where sophistication is just another word for paralyzing repression.”

As he broadens his argument about taste, Wilson points out that although “Kant was the first to say that aesthetic judgments are by nature unprovable….they always feel necessary and universal: when we think something’s great, we want everyone else to think it’s great too.” If there’s a better explanation for book blogging in the 21st century, I haven’t heard it.

Wilson discusses “the continual process of violating limits” in the early part of our century, and the idea of “separate ‘taste worlds’ in which there is no perception of “need for external, official inspection and verification.” He concludes that “the mandate to dethrone taste orthodoxies remains part of pop criticism’s legacy, so much so that it may help bring its own extinction: Within what more than one writer has called ‘No-Brow’ culture, who needs professional critics? What do they offer, if not objectivity?” I think that’s a good question, don’t you?

At the end of his effort to learn more about Celine Dion’s music, Wilson says “though I now enjoy some of her music, it’s never in the same way I like ‘my’ music, which tells me that I have a way of liking: it forces me to admit I have a taste.” This, to me, is the point of book blogging—to articulate what I like and express the subjective point of view that drives this way of liking. I am always consciously blurring what Wilson describes as “a strong line between private life and public interaction” and trying to “offer something more like a tour of an aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir.”

What Wilson is describing and what I try to do here at Necromancy Never Pays leads to what I was trying to articulate when Teresa at Shelf Love and I had our discussion about occasionally wanting commenters to disagree: it seems lopsided when I try to show you what it is like for me to like something I’ve read without inviting you, as the reader, to compare your experience. I don’t think this necessarily means that you have to have already read the book or poem I’m discussing in order to comment, but that the discussion is more interesting when you compare your experience with mine in order to figure out whether you might react the same way.

What do you say? Do you like knowing more about the reader as a way of figuring out how much you’ll like the book? Do you think it might be time to once again re-examine how book bloggers read and write about books in terms of the time it takes and the little bit of influence it has…or any other reason for doing it which has somehow slipped my mind?

40 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2013 9:01 am

    Knowing about the reader is sometimes the ONLY way I can tell if I will like the book. I mean, look at Nymeth. (Hi, Nymeth!) She makes EVERY book sound irresistible, but from reading her blog, I have a much better idea of who she is – and why I def. will not like some of the books she loves, but will adore others. It’s why I find the NYT book review interesting, but not compelling: I don’t know the reviewers, so I read the review for their opinion, but inwardly vow to collect several other opinions before I spring for the book. As for you, my imaginary friend, I hope with all my heart that you do not abandon blogging. I love your open subjectivity, and also (different topic altogether) rely on you for my weekly dose of poetry.

    • January 28, 2013 9:10 am

      I really didn’t mean this as a threat to abandon blogging, but did mean that I think occasionally (maybe annually) bloggers have to re-invest in the project or else, like anything else, it gets to be a rote exercise.
      Investing in pleasing a loyal audience member is always a pleasure, and helps me sort out what to keep if I’m going to throw out some of the old.

  2. January 28, 2013 9:14 am

    Well, I have a slight advantage here, in that I do know you, and I’ve read books you suggested and book that you required. *grins*

    There are definitely times when you love or loathe a book and while I take your thoughts on board as I decide “to read or not to read” I make my own choice, knowing where our tastes do not intersect. You tend to be a good waver of red flags.

    As NWK observed, you do keep me in poetry.

    • January 28, 2013 10:29 am

      Lemming, you are the very model of a modern NNP reader. I like it that you’re resistant, and I think you (like Teena, another former student) have no qualms about disagreeing with me precisely because you were once required to read books that I said would be “good for you.”

  3. January 28, 2013 9:15 am

    I’m with NWK, and it’s one of the reasons I like Goodreads. There are a couple people on there that if they like–or don’t like–a book, I’m 95% sure I’ll feel the same way, because when I read their reviews of books I’ve already read myself, we’re so much in agreement. And there are other people with whom I share certain tastes and not others, so I know roughly how far I can rely on their reviews.

    I do think it’s much harder when I haven’t read the book to disagree with the reviewer, but a well-written review can skirt this by being so clearly formulated that I understand the issues well enough to feel confident commenting even though I only know half of it. Similarly, though, it’s difficult to know the extent to which someone’s taste overlaps with my own until I have enough common points of reference.

    • January 28, 2013 10:39 am

      Interesting that you bring up Goodreads. I tried it (when invited by a former Writing Center student) but don’t have the listing/categorization/librarian turn of mind to find its attempt at completeness compelling.
      On the other hand, sometimes I find the arbitrary nature of what a blogger chooses to review that week as less than useful. Why should anyone care what I suddenly felt the need to read, unless it’s a preview of something about to be published, which establishes an occasion for writing?
      I think that’s what I’m looking for–more of a sense of occasion.

  4. January 28, 2013 9:54 am

    “What do they [pro critics] offer, if not objectivity?” Knowledge. The answer to that question is “knowledge.”

    For example, one thing Wilson, a pro, offers in this book is an extraordinary and fascinating one-chapter history of Quebecois music.

    I know I am in a tiny minority here. What I like and do not like seems like the absolute least interesting thing about books and blogging. How does Wilson move to liking Dion? by understanding her and her audience, through knowledge.

    That “songwriter named Stephen Merritt,” by the way, is a genius: very funny, enormously creative. He makes a good foil to Dion – Dion is always sincere, Merritt rarely. That line about catharsis is not meant sincerely! And Wilson dang well knows it.

    • January 28, 2013 10:28 am

      Oh, Tom, as usual you raise some very good points. Where you use the word “knowledge” I would use the word “context” instead. Having little context for an argument about the music Wilson is discussing, I had no idea that Merritt’s line was meant to be ironic and Wilson was twisting it around for his own purposes.
      The chapter on Quebecois music was interesting, but for me it was a side issue. I don’t think I have much knowledge about Quebec from reading that and the funny bits about Quebecois separatism in Infinite Jest. I am building up a sense of context, though, which I can share with readers who haven’t yet built up a picture from such bits and pieces.
      I’m over the kind of idealism that assumes adults are going to spend their free time trying to increase their knowledge without being invited in a certain direction, but still have that didactic bent, you know?

  5. January 28, 2013 6:09 pm

    I think that’s one of the most interesting things about being in a book group– realizing that people read and like books for very different reasons, There are people i almost always agree with, except when i don’t — and it’s actually most interesting when I don’t. And I think NWK has a good point about the NYT — I think that really does explain why it’s so rarely of any use in predicting whether a book is worth reading or not —

    • January 29, 2013 8:37 am

      I like to think that quoting from the book a lot gives people a chance to see for themselves. I try to quote bits from throughout, although sometimes I leave off the ones too near the end in case of spoilers.

  6. January 28, 2013 6:54 pm

    This book sounds fascinating. These kinds of questions of taste interest me very much. I like to think that my own taste is sophisticated and smart, but it seems to me that really intelligent taste involves being able to see value even in things you don’t like, to recognize what others might find of value in it. It sounds like Wilson gets to that point with Celine Dion.

    Regarding Tom’s point about liking or not liking being the least interesting thing to find in blogs. I feel that way to, to a certain extent. It’s not that I’m not interested in whether someone likes a book–it’s more that I’m interested in how and why. After reading a blogger’s writing for a while, knowing whether that blogger liked a book might be enough to get me to read the book, but that’s only useful if blogging is primarily about recommendations. The recommendations are nice, but if that’s all I got out of reading blogs, I probably wouldn’t read many blogs. It’s not as if I’ve ever lacked for reading ideas.

    • January 29, 2013 8:45 am

      Exactly! I think most of the people who like to talk about what they’re reading have no lack of recommendations. If that was all we could talk about, blogging would be merely listing and rating.
      How and why I like a book is what I’m talking about when I use the word “subjectivism.” Telling why I like it involves describing my perspective on it, and showing how is the part that can edge over into recommendation but can also involve showing the place I’m looking from.

  7. January 28, 2013 10:24 pm

    Jeanne! Someone came to my blog by doing a search for Bernoulli’s principle and muusical instrument. I was intriqgued, so went to look at the post, and it was actually all about taste in book groups! Exactly what I was talking about right up there! I guess I am nothing if not consistent — here’s the post:

    • January 29, 2013 8:47 am

      Yes–I see that we’re getting close to conflating personal taste with matters of taste, and Wilson actually does an interesting job of discriminating.

      • January 29, 2013 10:47 am

        I am utterly conflating personal taste with matters of taste! Is there really a difference?

        • January 29, 2013 6:31 pm

          I think there is, as in this definition: “the ability to discern what is of good quality or of a high aesthetic standard.”

          • January 30, 2013 8:04 pm

            Of course I’m being earnest. I should just adopt your tag line (“correct opinions on almost everything”)!

  8. January 28, 2013 10:25 pm

    I’m a huge fan of the 33-1/3 series in general, but I haven’t read this one, primarily because I’m not a Dion fan and when I read music books for fun rather than work (which is also often fun, but I think we’ll agree the parameters and goals are different), it’s usually about stuff I like. But you make a compelling case for it. And in fact, with other 33-1/3 books, I’ve been less enchanted with the ones about my favorite albums. They tend to disappoint either because I don’t feel like the author got it at all, or because they agree with me in every way and where’s the fun in that. I have enjoyed more the ones where I disagree with the author but feel like s/he understands the album. Or the books about albums I’ve never heard before. I’ll have to check it out. I just finished Jonathan Lethem’s 33-1/3 on the Talking Heads album Fear of Music. I loved Lethem’s writing about music in Fortress of Solitude. I’m still trying to figure out why. Maybe I can sort it out with Celine on the blog at some point. Thanks for drawing this to my attention!

    • January 29, 2013 8:53 am

      As with most music that’s not classical, I had no particular feelings about Celine’s music before I read this; it neither offends nor delights me. I was aware that there is a segment of the population who are offended by the song from Titanic, though, partly because of the episode of Supernatural in which an angel causes the ship to avoid the iceberg in order to avoid ever having to hear that song.

  9. January 29, 2013 4:37 am

    I’ve heard about this book elsewhere and it does sound fascinating and extremely pertinent in a world where opinion suddenly seems to be all. I’m with Tom – whether I like something or not is far from being the interesting issue. After all, isn’t the point of reading – to some degree – to open our minds and hearts to new perspectives, new ideas? So what tribute is it to this incredible leap of imagination to incarcerate what we read in our subjective point of view and refuse to countenance any other?

    I really liked the quotes about sentimentality, though, as I loathe it, and precisely because I feel manipulated into big emotions I would generally prefer to protect myself from. I really appreciated the way he made me see it differently.

    • January 29, 2013 9:01 am

      Wait, I’m not talking about opinion. I’m talking about point of view. There’s a big difference–you can support a point of view.
      In class, I used to illustrate the difference by saying that you can’t make an argumentative thesis about opinion: “I like the view out this window.” Why would anyone argue about that–“uh, no you don’t”? But if you say “The view out this window makes the 8-hour trip to your house worthwhile” then you have a way to show what you like.
      The parts about sentimentality are probably the best parts of Wilson’s book because they show him learning to appreciate different ways of responding to music.

      • January 30, 2013 8:53 am

        Well, I do talk about point of view in my comment, and I’m not sure whether the distinction you make is one that everyone would make. I tend to think of point of view as more akin to a perspective – which is to say that as critics, we all stand in particular places from which we view things, as white or coloured, educated in literature or not, feminist, preferring cats to dogs or whatever. I think professional critics have the obligation to state something about their perspective, in order to remove that false mask of objectivity. Plus it makes it easier for the reader to see where the critic is coming from – where they are standing when they look at the book.

        All this being said, I agree completely that there IS a huge and important distinction between just liking or disliking, and using some sort of supportive or explanatory information to account for our reactions.

        • January 30, 2013 9:14 am

          That’s a good point about perspective. Perhaps it’s time to get down and dirty and admit that I’m championing reader-response criticism, whereas what you’re wanting from professional critics sounds like a mix of Marxist and Historical criticism.

          • February 9, 2013 6:20 am

            Ah, I hadn’t really thought of it in that light. Where I come from is actually a mix of feminist and psychoanalytic literary criticism. For the feminists in particular, where you spoke from and who you tried to speak for were big issues. I like reader response though – always interesting!

    • January 30, 2013 10:32 am

      Feel free to correct my mistakes – but isn’t reader-response criticism the study or use of the response of other readers (real or theoretical)? And then only incidentally about my own response. The object of study is still outside of myself.

      Wilson is engaging in it when he writes about Celine Dion fans. How can their response help him move past his own formalism and understand her music better?

      Or am I way off and Stanley Fish does something else entirely?

      • January 30, 2013 10:45 am

        Fish’s most famous reader-response book has a subtitle: “the authority of interpretive communities.” The way I think of reader-response criticism is as a way of thinking about meaning as something that is created by readers.
        Certainly part of the theory is that the more readers who line up behind a particular interpretation, probably the stronger it is.
        This is one of the briefest and yet still fairly complete definitions I’ve seen online:

  10. January 29, 2013 8:52 am

    Is it corny if I say pro-critics might offer is thought beautifully shaped? At least that’s what my favourites do (as well as going off on tangents that take you from a book to a range of other things, all with personality and great writing thrown in). One of the things I struggle with personally is getting my thoughts into some kind of decent form, where the sentences and the flow read well, or where the way the review is written, or sounds, is as interesting as the content. And I’m much too insecure a writer at the mo to try moving a review from a straightforward report to an essay that takes in a sweep of things. So, this is somethig I value a lot and tend to find mostly in prof critics (although you’re very good at mixing life and other things in with books, or poetry).

    • January 29, 2013 9:03 am

      Thought beautifully shaped. That’s what we look for in books and in what we read about books. That’s what we’re always looking for. Yes.

  11. January 29, 2013 10:11 am

    The 33 1/3 books are a varied and raggedy bunch, but I do not believe any of them take the theoretical direction of Wilson’s book. Douglas Wolk’s James Brown’s Live at the Apollo is superb, but it probably does depend on an actual interest in James Brown or at least pop music. That book is packed with well-organized, important knowledge.

    I do not think Wilson was “twisting Merritt to his own purposes.” Wilson is himself an ironist (and a huge Merritt fan). His rhetorical technique – all of those questions you quote – is tricky. “Isn’t Joyce also self-indulgent? Is that really a fault in art?”: asking the question acknowledges the possibility of other answers, but it does not actually give his answers, which are, I suspect in these cases “Not in any significant way” and “Yes.”

    But Wilson’s answers are not important. He is giving up his subjectivity, his focus on himself, and replacing it with an object of study, the tastes of Celine Dion fans. Part of that study includes an attempt to be objective about his subjectivity, trying to see his own tastes from a position outside of himself.

    How often, honestly, do book bloggers challenge their own subjectivity? Or may you mean something else by “support[ing] a point of view”? The typical pattern is something like: I like the book and need to support my opinion. I support the opinion by demonstrating that the book contains the kinds of things I like. It is just a circle, part of “the world where opinion suddenly seems to be all.”

    There is rarely any attempt to argue that a point of view – a particular bundle of tastes or aesthetic approach – is justified or valuable.

    • January 29, 2013 6:40 pm

      Tone of voice is so interesting; I had little idea that Wilson is known for being an ironist (although that does fall in line with the way he presents his views).
      You ask what may turn out to be my question of the year: how often do book bloggers challenge their own subjectivity? Not often. So at the risk of sounding elitist, which works against every idea I had when I started my blog, I think I could re-invigorate my own blog writing by arguing that my point of view is more valuable than others’.
      This could make the tone unbearable. But, in fact, as with Wilson, I find that readers react to tone unpredictably anyway.

  12. January 29, 2013 7:49 pm

    These are such good questions! When I was doing more “professional,” paid book reviews and blogging, I always struggled with that authoritative reviewers voice — who I am to make those assessments? The best I feel like I can do is talk about why I love the things I love and why I hate the things I hate and let my readers know enough about me to know if our tastes align. But I also wonder if that’s the best or most useful approach to book blogging as well.

    • January 30, 2013 7:24 am

      It could be that it’s best to admit that book blogging is not useful. It can be amusing for both writer and reader, but it is not in any way a utilitarian exercise. It’s like answering that question we all get sometimes “how do you have time to read?” with “I fritter it away on reading as opposed to socializing more or organizing my sock drawer.”

  13. January 29, 2013 8:01 pm

    Aw, Stephen Merritt. I like his music.

    It definitely helps me to know the reviewer. The New York Times Book Review is interesting and I enjoy it, but without having a good sense of what those reviewers tend to like and dislike, I don’t really depend on it for recommendations. That is why I love bloggers!

    • January 30, 2013 7:32 am

      I’ve said here before that I consider it a successful review when I describe what I disliked about a book at such length and in such detail that one of the commenters says he/she would like it. As I just said to Kim above, though, I’m not sure that recommendations are the primary reason I read book blogs. One of the things I delight in is tone of voice, like in your reviews. The Flame and the Flower one made me laugh out loud, and it did have very definite standards of taste (e.g. rape in romance novels is bad).

  14. January 30, 2013 1:06 pm

    *waves at Mumsy*

    I love what you and Teresa said about not reading blogs primarily for recommendations. I mean, I love discovering new books, but the reason why I keep coming back to my favourite blogs is because I enjoy the bloggers’ voice and I’m interested in how they engage with ideas through their reviews. I realise that the bloggers who do this are probably in the minority, but over the years I’ve found enough of them to keep me happy.

    • January 30, 2013 5:38 pm

      I agree that it’s fun to see how bloggers engage with ideas through their reviews–and more than that, I like to engage with the ideas myself, sometimes even without knowing much about the book under discussion. It becomes a sort of metacognition. Readers reading readers.

  15. January 30, 2013 5:38 pm

    And then there’s this (from a writer for TV):

  16. February 2, 2013 10:50 pm

    What a great discussion! You’ve brought up some interesting points. Speaking as one who is not a book blogger, but merely offers a few subjective words on books I’ve read, I have a slightly different perspective. When I read reviews, it’s more like chatting with friends about the merits of a book or their recommendations. The more varied the discussion, the better. And my favorites are bloggers who let their personality loose in their reviews.

    • February 4, 2013 8:30 am

      Hmm, the more varied the discussion, the better. I’m not sure that works for me, at least the way I’m interpreting it. I’m not very interested in hearing about someone else say why Wuthering Heights is too _____ or how they don’t understand Ulysses. That’s a variation that sets a low bar and then refuses to even try to go over it.
      I am interested in reading about how someone understands a book that is outside his/her “comfort zone” in case there’s a different kind of reaction from what I’ve read before–this happens fairly often with people who don’t think of themselves as science fiction readers trying a book like Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, for instance.

  17. February 10, 2013 9:34 am

    Also… from a Supernatural Episode in which an angel stops the Titanic from sinking so Celine Dion will never sing “My Heart Will Go On”

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