You Say Potato, I say Potahto

Posted: July 20, 2012 in Random Rumis
Tags: , , , ,

There’s a lot of crap out there.  People making music, and movies and writing books that…well, they suck, okay?  Musicians who’ve never picked up an instrument, movie makers who’ve never seen the outside of their basement dwelling.  And writers who couldn’t write their name in the dirt with a stick.
Or…but wait.  Back up a minute, Sparky.  These are all forms of art, yes?  Sure they are.  And what precisely is art meant to do in this day and age?

Communicate.

Does perfection at one’s art equate to clear communication?  One could argue that the more proficient one is at one’s craft, the clearer the communication.  Okay, I might be willing to grant that idea.  But then the question becomes: What are we attempting to communicate?  And is communication the end-all, or are we really talking about resonating?

Ah, now we’re cooking with gas, eh?  Many artists are proficient but do not resonate.  Or perhaps they do not resonate with everyone.  Some of us raise a hand in salute, give a nod to excellence, while others yawn and look for the exit.  And then there are the artists who somehow nail the bull’s-eye without the slightest idea how to notch an arrow (sorry, saw Brave recently).

Maybe—just maybe—art is not about the artist.  Certainly not when it comes to communication and, ultimately, resonance.

An example, if I may: Rush may be one of the greatest bands of our time (don’t argue with me, you will lose).  But what makes them great?  Their musicianship?  Of course.  The complexity of the arrangements and unadulterated skill level at which they play?  Yep, and yep.  But (and this may come as a shock) some people like to dance to music.  Uh-oh.  Can’t dance to Rush.  I’ve tried.  Shifting time signatures and delicious syncopations make dancing to Rush virtually impossible.  Suddenly my favorite band no longer resonates, at least not with everyone.  Who can you dance to?  Ummm, Justin Bieber.  Lady Gaga.  Dare I say it, the poster child for absence of musicianship: Techno?  All danceable.  All quite popular and selling records (or MP3 files I suppose).

We can do this with movies as well.  Overheard at the water cooler: “Titanic was a suckfest.”  Really?  Was it?  Why was it a suckfest?  I took a good deal of umbrage with this statement at first, until I saw the interlocutor’s point.  But screw their point, this is my blog.  To my umbrage then: Here’s why I don’t think Titanic stunk on ice (pardon).  Put aside some questionable acting (Leo DiCaprio has become a fave as of late, but not due to his performance here); look away from gratuitous period jokes (think Billy Zane and his dissing of the upstart Picasso’s paintings); let’s avert our gaze for a moment from Kate Winslet’s bare breasts…no, wait, that’s one of the good points (or two, if you feel me).  Aside from all that, what did Titanic achieve?  Cinematic excellence?  Oscar-worthy performances?  A gripping and unpredictable story line?  Nope, none of that.  What then?  Here’s what, since you asked: Titanic took me somewhere I’d never been; somewhere I never could’ve been.  What James Cameron did for me was give me the opportunity to visit a pretty convincing version of a historic vessel, and he placed me on that vessel in a moment in time (the moment) so I could imagine what it was like to see the iceberg looming, to experience something I really never, ever want to experience, which is to say the feeling of the boat going down beneath me.  Titanic is a time machine—I was transported.  It resonated with me.  I do not know enough about the art and craft of movie making to see anything other than the story, to feel the deck pitch and sway beneath me and wonder just how testicle-shriveling cold that water’s going to be when I finally hit.  Resonance, communicated clearly from Cameron’s brain to my ganglion.  Bravo, sir.

I know a little about music—I’ve been performing for more years than I care to think about—so I can speak on the subject with some modicum of intelligence.  I do not, however, know as much about the art of cinema; I only know how it makes me feel, and so I have many guilty pleasures, films and television shows that make me laugh and cry and cringe and whatnot.  Books now…ah, here’s what we paid our nickel to discuss, yes?

I am a writer.  This is what I do, and what I have spent a great many years learning to do well.  What does learning to write well consist of?  First, and maybe most important of all, it consists of reading—millions and millions of words that others wrote before me.  Our libraries and bookstores and Kindle devices are the universities we writers flock to…or should that read: the universities to which we flock?  Never mind.  We read so we know what has been written, and to see how it was done.  Then, and only then, should we write.  Constantly.  We write and throw it out and write some more.  It is the only way to become proficient.  What about writing courses, writing groups, etc.?  Sure, if you’ve got the time.  But if you’re writing and reading as much as you should be….well, you probably won’t have time for such extracurricular activities as writing classes.  Basic English is all you need (if you happen to be writing for an English-speaking audience).  Beyond that , you will learn everything you need to know about good sentence structure, dialogue, and description, from your reading.  But this is not my point.

I’ve been working my way through some horrendously bad fiction as of late.  Trading reviews with other writers, paying it forward, spinning the wheel of Karma.  Bad writing is not easy to read; it can be torture if you happen to know what good writing looks like.  Open anything by Dan Simmons, or Lawrence Block, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Peter Straub, David Morrell, Ray Bradbury, Robert B. Parker, Trent Zelazny…sigh, this is making me want to read.  These writers all have The Gift.  That indefinable something that is hard to point to and say: “This is why it’s good.”  Actually, if you can point to it, it’s probably not good writing—good writing is not aware of itself, does not stand up and say, “Look at me, look how clever I am!”  Bad writing on the other hand…well, it has a smell.  And it ain’t good.

So I’m reading these clunky efforts, and judging the crap out of them, and wondering why on earth these folks didn’t stick with Sudoku…and then I become increasingly aware just how many of these writers and books are out there.  Anyone with a word processor and a junior high understanding of computers (and grammar) can publish an eBook.  And if that weren’t enough, people are actually reading the damned things! Some of these books are at the 5th or 6th installment for crying out loud, and people are flocking to them.  Because they are literary works of art?  No.  Because they speak to the human condition and enrich our understanding of the Universe?  Hardly.  Why then?  For the love of Edward Cullen, why???

Ahem.  Because they resonate.  With me?  Not so much.  But when did what I like become the litmus test for what everyone should like?  People flock to these books because they like the stories.  Period.  The subject matter, or hunky dude on the cover, or twenty-seven euphemisms for male (or female) genitalia moves them on some level.  And as a lifelong lover of books, the hardest thing for me to admit is that I sort of envy them.  They don’t see bad writing; they don’t see cardboard characters and implausible plotlines.  They see (like me with Titanic) angst and glamour and fear, oh my.  The things that turn me on in a book would likely bore them to tears.  Does that make me smarter than they?  No, it makes me interested in different things.  I’m interested in the sheer craft of writing—and when it’s done well, the story hits me all the harder—when it isn’t done well…ah, the heck with it, I don’t’ finish a lot of books I start.  But I sometimes wonder if these other readers (and writers) might not have tapped into something grand: they are in it for pure story, pure entertainment, pure resonance.  And who is the better person here? Do they judge me for the books I like to read?  Uh-uh.  Yet I find myself judging them at nearly every turn, calling them names and questioning their genetics.  What fresh arrogance is this?  It’s akin to calling Itzhak Perlman a dullard because he doesn’t appreciate Charlie Daniels.

This has been a soul-searching rumination.  I am interested in your thoughts on the subject, I only ask that you be nice.  Don’t name names unless you are being complimentary.  Tell me: What kind of art rocks your world?  Who are the practitioners you particularly enjoy, and why?  Are you able to see how your liking them does not in and of itself make them great?  And that you not liking another artist doesn’t mean they’re no good?

Talk amongst yourselves.  And talk to me.  I’m all ears.

Comments
  1. Perhaps Art, in both its creation and enjoyment, is a selfish thing. The more intense the need for it, the more we search for it like prey, the more bitterly we hold our opinions as righteous and our favorite artists as heroes, then we are doomed by our selfishness to hold up our discoveries/creations as more valuable than others because they resonate so deeply within us.

    When we live and die on every word our favorite authors writes or have our emotions manhandled by our favorite bands, human nature’s desire for the common experience wonders why everyone doesn’t love what we love. Age adds perspective and tolerance, which go a long way to us holding our tongues, but do nothing to lessen the enjoyment we personally take away from the art we feed our souls with.

    Lefty

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  2. mott342 says:

    Well said, sir. 🙂

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  3. Ms. Nine says:

    True. Not every reader is a critic.

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  4. Points well made. I am an artist and a photographer and I enjoy books that really make me use my imagination. I enjoy what I perceive to be good writing by authors like King, Koonts, Bradbury, and others. Recently I read Relative Karma and finished it in two evenings which for me means it’s a book I really enjoyed. Earthy, visual, honest and full of good visuals. What else could a person ask for in a book? Maybe pictures? Ok I admit I was a comic book junkie for many years and now that I’m as old as dirt, I’m into graphic novels. I would never try to write because it’s not something I could do well. I leave that you the guys that really know what they’re doing. So keep up the good work and I will be reading your other novel soon.

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    • mott342 says:

      Yes, I believe art “works” when it connects with someone, whatever that connection may be, and whatever the “nudge” was that made that connection. So glad you enjoyed the book, and hope you enjoy the next. Much more to come. 🙂

      Oh, and if you like pictures, give Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children a try. 🙂

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  5. jamesrovira says:

    Nah, some people really are tasteless, tacky, and stupid. If someone thinks a McDonald’s hamburger is the best food ever made, that person has a problem.

    Other people are capable of more but are just inexperienced.

    Say this and very low people will accuse you of being pretentious, but being overly concerned with being pretentious is a sign of being low.

    Now, does this mean it’s wrong for people to enjoy these bad books?

    Not necessarily — some people who like bad books also enjoy very good ones. They may call the bad ones “guilty pleasures,” or they may just resort to them when they’re too tired for the higher pleasures, or they may just want to give their minds a break sometimes.

    But there are those people who will always call top grade steaks garbage because they don’t taste like a Big Mac. But even these people aren’t necessarily bad. They may be defective the way people who are tone deaf or who are color blind have a defect. They just may not be able to process anything else, and who would want to take the pleasures that they do have away from them?

    Things get very bad, however, when bad taste is linked to vanity and an inferiority complex: if I know how to appreciate a good steak, I might be hated by people for not eating only Big Macs. I have no use for these people, no respect for them, and feel no need to make concessions to them.

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  6. mott342 says:

    Lots of points to ponder here, James. And more than a few I’d like to gently counter…but I would not dream of going toe-to-toe with a PhD.

    But, you sparked some related ideas that could very well become their own blog post at some point, and I want to take a tender poke at these.

    Big Mac versus a “good steak.” Hmmm…

    A Big Mac is not actually food. We all know this. It is a carefully constructed (and poisonous) savory candy designed for one thing only: To make its consumer want another one. And another one. And to trick the body into thinking it is consuming food. People continue to consume these because they think they taste good, and their mouths have tricked them into thinking they taste good. The appeal of every ingredient in a Big Mac is based solely on a type of taste bud training that has turned into addiction. Eliminate Big Macs (and all fast food, for that matter) from your diet for 30 days. Replace all that non-food with real food. Whole, plant-based food. Eliminate chemically-infused, processed things like fake oils, table salt (replace it with organic sea salt) and give your body at least 30 days to reboot. Then go have a Big Mac. If you have stuck to the plan, you will be lucky if you don’t throw up. At the very least, that Big Mac will not taste as good as you remembered and you probably won’t be able to finish the darned thing.

    Enough.

    What constitutes the highly subjective idea of a good steak? If I wanted to be snarky about it, I’d say the answer is a ruby-red glistening hunk of Ahi tuna. But in the bovine world…let’s go with a choice cut (also subjective) of beef from an organically- and humanely-raised, grass-fed cow. But that’s not really the point. What does beef taste like? Again—remove this item (and all the other chemically-laden crap that goes with this steak) from your diet. Stop eating meat that has been destroyed by high heat; stop ingesting high fructose corn syrup sauces (virtually all of them); stop eating iodized salt, etc. Now, after 30 or 60 days cook up a steak. But don’t put anything on it. None of the above mentioned chemical items, which includes Liquid Smoke or any other chemical flavor enhancer. What do you have? An inedible and tasteless piece of cow muscle. Yum.

    What’s the point of all this? Taste, pure and simple. In this case, it’s literal taste. And it is taste that is not based on the actual merit of thing itself, but all the embellishment to make it taste like something else. Cow muscle does not taste like much unless we make a radical change to its basic nature.

    Hmmm…where is this going? Can’t say for sure, but it seems to be about the subjective nature of all areas of human appreciation. Meat by itself is meat, be it “real” meat or fake. A good steak to one is a pile of brutalized animal to another. Ultimately, it’s not the thing itself but what we do with it and how we feel about it afterward, and, of course, how we feel about that finished product based on a lifetime of conditioning in one direction or another.

    A piece of music is the same pile of notes artistically woven into a song that some will love and some will hate—but the notes are meaningless without an eye and a hand and an ear to shape them. A story or novel is simply the same old 26 letters arbitrarily formed into words and sentences.

    But it all comes back to that steak. The meaning behind the phrase “a good steak” is so subjective as to be rendered nearly pointless. It presupposes that everyone likes steak, first of all, and that among steak lovers there is a definable standard of excellence. There isn’t such a standard. Be it prime rib, tri-tip, sirloin, strip, chuck, or the bare simplicity of tartar…who decides which is good and which is bad?

    The consumer of the steak.

    Who decides if a story works? Not if the grammar is correct, or the structure is sound; but the effectiveness of the story on the person reading it. Who decides that?

    The reader.

    I refuse to proof any of the above, as I was very distracted during its composition and have doubtless rambled far afield, contradicting myself at every turn. Let’s just accept that I am right and move on, shall we?

    There, I feel better now. 🙂

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    • jamesrovira says:

      Glad you answered. Get over the Ph.D. stuff, man — you’re a creator and an experienced reader. That counts for just as much. The only thing that I might have on you is a bit more reading in this specific subject (aesthetics), which is just the benefit of reading what other smart people have thought about this subject too. If you really want to follow up on this subject, I suggest Kant’s Critique of Judgment. He splits up the subject into as many little pieces as you can. It’s a great place to start.

      Anyway, one of the most important distinctions that I think we can learn to make is between the subjective and the arbitrary. The “subjective” is that which is internal to our own experience (so, continuing the metaphor, how we taste food), while the arbitrary means that which is not guided by any principle at all (like, say, throwing a bunch of poker chips up into the air and trying to figure out which colors will land on top of which others).

      The subjective is almost never arbitrary. We respond to things even as simple as the taste of food for specific reasons. You should note that your own examples actually support this point — you describe a process by which we can train our tastebuds to like certain foods that are bad for us and then train them again to like other foods that are much better for us. So by your own example, this process isn’t arbitrary at all — it’s a matter of training — and there is a clear distinction in your mind between healthy foods and foods that are unhealthy. It would be better for us if we “liked” natural foods and learned to dislike unhealthy or processed foods.

      The history of food preparation, in fact, can be understood as the deliberate refinement of taste (say, the development of French foods — and let me tell you, the French do it right, and their diets are very healthy. We should ask them to run our school lunch programs), or the manipulation of taste for the sake of corporate profit (so the increase in dependence on refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, caffeine and other addicting materials, etc.).

      But the point is that taste is never purely arbitrary: it is manipulable, and we have ideas about -how- it should be manipulated. The “merit of the thing itself” does matter, as in this case the merit of different kinds of foods matter.

      Now, I’m a steak eater 🙂 . I almost never add anything to my steaks, btw — I don’t need rubs and I certainly don’t need steak sauce. I just eat the steak and love it, and I can tell you that some steaks are much better than others in terms of taste and texture. Now if we were to follow through with your analogy, I would say that you shouldn’t be comparing the preferences of vegetarians to the preferences of steak eaters, but that if you want to judge a steak, seek out the preferences or judgments of two different steak eaters. The more experienced and trained the steak eater, the better the judgment and the more likely it will coincide. They may not agree on every single individual steak, but they would probably agree on general groups of poor to excellent steaks, even if they couldn’t agree on the one best steak.

      In literature, then, I wouldn’t judge between people who prefer, say, science fiction to westerns, as the preference for one or the other isn’t significant. But if I were to ask the most experienced and sophisticated readers of westerns what the best western novels are, I think I’d get a pretty good sense of where to start reading, and then a sense of some criteria for being a really good one. Experience in reading matters, too. If someone has never read anything but cheap romance novels I wouldn’t trust their judgment any more than I’d trust the food judgment of someone who has only eaten at McDonald’s for the last twenty five years. In both cases, the person’s tastes are extremely limited, and they’ve been feeding on bad stuff for too long.

      Now, I agree with your conclusion: the reader decides if the story works (just don’t forget that the author is a reader too). But once you’ve used the phrase “the story works,” you’ve introduced a distinction between stories that work and those that don’t, so a distinction between good and bad stories, and then after that, a process by which stories are evaluated against specific criteria for how they work. Inexperienced readers may not be able to articulate that criteria, but they still have some kind of standard of judgment. Not being able to put it into words doesn’t mean it’s purely arbitrary, though.

      My go-to analogy here is that of a professional chef. One guy I worked with as an electrician used to be a professional chef. He said that the hardest thing about being a professional chef was having to literally eat -anything- and know how it was supposed to taste. So, he may hate broccoli with a passion, but he should know how correctly prepared broccoli should taste, so be able to distinguish between well-prepared and badly-prepared broccoli. His personal preferences for taste were one thing, and his professional judgment about taste were another.

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