“It’s all down to personal taste…”

I enjoy talking about books – hence this blog – but whenever I do, I usually find that it’s just a matter of time before someone tells me that “it’s all down to personal taste”. I’m confused. What’s all down to personal taste? One’s personal preference is down to personal taste, absolutely – but that’s just tautology. What else is down to personal taste?

Anyone got any ideas?

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21 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Erika W. on July 20, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    Personal taste?

    I think it safe to say that there can be an accepted canon of books worth reading–content, style, originality. Of course personal taste is subjective but this is something else entirely.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Erika W. on July 20, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Sorry, i didn’t mean to click off. I think my categories can be applied to almost everything. The weather can be healthy and unhealthy and sometimes dangerous but the kinds we prefer vary from person to person. As for food–there is rank, rotten and dangerous all the way to poisonous and then there is “This disgusts me” The New York Times this morning sang the merits of frozen bananas dipped in chocolate. I can’t think of many things I would wish to eat less.

    Reply

    • You should try the deep-fried Mars bars you can get in certain Scottish chip shops!

      But yes, it is a mesaage very hard to communicate – that there is more to literature than merely personal prefernce. That doesn’t mean that there exists a rigid set of criteria whereby works of literature can be ordered into a hierarchy reflecting their merit – but it’s between these two poles, each absurd in its own way, that all the interest lies.

      Reply

  3. Some readers – viewers, eaters – seem to believe that there is nothing but personal taste. So “it,” the thing that taste comes down to, is the entire conversation about art.

    To these people, we are not making arguments. We are just voting. I like blue. Well, I don’t like blue, I like yellow. I like Wuthering Heights. Well, I thought it was depressing, and I don’t like depressing books.

    Criticsim – reviews, blogging – is little different than making tally marks.

    Reply

    • Hello AR, and welcome to this blog.

      Indeed – if there is nothing more than personal taste, what more can there be to say about a book than “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it”? So much that passes for discussion on books is merely, as you say, “making tally marks”. Which is a shame really, as the internet offers opportunity for so much more!

      Reply

      • Is this the first time I have commented? I guess it is. I have been enjoying your writing and choice of subjects for quite a while.

        I tell people that I do not even particularly care if I like a book, much less if anyone else likes it. Some great books – not a lot, but some – are frankly unlikable.

        “I didn’t like it,” or “I did,” can be a good hook to get a piece moving. Anything to get a person writing. But what a dull place to stop writing!

  4. Posted by Erika W. on July 21, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Not to turn this into a rant about other countries’ delicacies, I thought of fried Mars Bars but I’ve never eaten one–maybe they are delicious? My sister, visiting her daughter in Australia, was taken to a pub to sample Floater Pie. To quote her “This wasn’t even fit to go into the pig trough” It was a dank commercial meat pie with soggy crust floating upside down in green pea soup and covered with tomato sauce.

    Reply

    • I’ve never tasted deep fried Mars bars myself, and i don’t think I want to: it sounds like a heart attack waiting to happen. And as for the Floater pie you mention … well, I suppose back in my student days I have had meals equally disgusting!

      Reply

  5. Posted by Erika W. on July 21, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Not to turn this into a rant about other countries’ delicacies, I thought of fried Mars Bars but I’ve never eaten one–maybe they are delicious? My sister, visiting her daughter in Australia, was taken to a pub to sample Floater Pie. To quote her “This wasn’t even fit to go into the pig trough” It was a dank commercial meat pie with soggy crust floating upside down in green pea soup and covered with tomato sauce.

    I remember my first college interview, to read English language and literature. I was asked “What is the last book you read?” I replied nervously and truthfully “Graham Greene’s “‘The End of the Affair’ “What did you think of it?” “I didn’t like it at all” The committee slumped visibly, but I continued “But I could see that it is very powerfully written and it has stayed in my mind”. I was awarded a place.

    Reply

  6. I like green. You like blue. We each perceive the world (and books, stories) in differing ways. What I find comforting, appealing, entertaining, etc. in stories, you may find boring or inane in some fashion. That’s just the way it is.

    I like green. 🙂

    Reply

    • Sure – one likes what one likes, one dislikes what one dislikes, and there’s no arguing with that. What worries me is the seemingly widespread belief that there’s nothing more to be said beyond this.

      If we’re talking about literature, it seems there is an awful lot more to be said. Otherwise, discussion of literature is restricted merely to “I like green and you like blue”. And, as Amateur Reader says above, while that may be a good starting point, it would be very dull conversation if we can’t get beyond it.

      Reply

  7. Posted by Marita on July 24, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    I like brown. I don’t like green. But what if the green is shimmering and shining with every tint of green in the universe and the brown is just a plain, dull brown? Is it so difficult to acknowledge that this is the best, most beautiful green ever seen? Or to say ‘I like brown above others but this green is good with all that shining and shimmering’. Or even ‘I like brown because I can lose myself in its dark, chocolaty, depths and that shining and shimmering green is too superficial for me’.
    There! All down to taste. But it’s interesting to know why it’s your taste.

    PS: I prefer green, deep and mysterious like a bottomless lake.

    Reply

    • Hello Marita, it’s good to see you’ve found your way here!

      One may like whatever one wants – green, brown, red – and there’s absolutely no argument with that at all. But it worries me when it is claimed, as it frequently is, that in literature, personal taste is all there is. At this point, the analogy with colours breaks down, because with colours, that is all there is: one may choose to decorate one’s living room bright purple if one wants – it may seem awful to me, but there can be no arguing with personal taste. But what do we do when we set the syllabus for English literature classes? We can’t go by mere personal taste here, as, quite apart from anything else, personal taste may vary from person to person. What should a college or university do when deciding which books to have in the libraries? In such cases, we have to go beyond personal taste: and we won’t be able to do so if we insist that personal taste is all that matters.

      I have long thought that stating a personal opinion is but the start of a discussion, not the end of one. To say “I loved X” or “I hated Y” is entirely subjective, and that is fine – but it’s hardly discussion. We may go a bit further, as you suggest, and explore the question “Why did I like X?” or “Why did I hate Y?” But we are still examining, primarily, our own reaction to the book, rather than the book itself. So let us take a vital step forward now, and consider the question “What was there in Book X that made me like it? What was there in Book Y that made me dislike it?” The focus has now shifted from one’s own self to the book, and that’s an important shift. And we may go one step further, I think. We may ask ourselves: “Leaving aside my personal reaction, what is the form and content of Book X, and of Book Y?” It is at this point that we begin to analyse, and have proper discussion.

      Recently, I wrote in this blog about a book by a good friend of mine, in which he discussed, amongst other things, how we read, and how we interpret what we read. I think these are important issues. The idea appears to have taken hold nowadays that the reader’s reaction is all that matters when it comes to literature (and other branches of the arts as well – but let’s just stick to literature here). I think this is a harmful idea. It has devalued the school curriculum for English; it has degraded our public libraries, our public broadcasting system, etc. etc. (I won’t give details here, as this has been a sort of running theme in my blog.) And it has degraded the quality of public discourse. Mere statement of personal opinion, no matter how uninformed, and no matter how badly thought out, is nowadays considered the equivalent of discussion. I have, as you know, been contributing to various discussion boards for a number of years now, and I have lost count of the number of times when I have tried to put together a coherent argument, only to find that argument ignored: not agreed with, nor even disagreed with, but merely ignored. And I am told that “it all comes down to personal taste”. Which really is another way of saying “I’m not going to engage with you – my personal taste is all that matters, and so, whatever you may have to say is irrelevant.”

      As an example of the sort of thing I mean, look at this very popular item that appeared on the Guardian Books blog. It attracted more than 600 replies (a couple of them my own, I admit). And many praised the quality of the discussion. But what discussion? Where? People merely said “I prefer X to Y”. Some actually said “X is better than Y” – without offering any argument based on what is in the text: mere statement of personal opinion was deemed sufficient. The author of the original article offered nothing resembling analysis; and in all the 600+ comments that follow, while some are more thoughtful than others, I can, once again, see nothing resembling analysis. Is this really what counts as “discussion”? Doesn’t literature of quality deserve a bit more than just this?

      Reply

      • Posted by Marita on August 1, 2011 at 9:02 pm

        Hello Himadri,

        Sorry for the late answer.
        This was not my first visit to your blog, just the first time I answered. Generally I don’t feel confident or clever enough to reply but I always enjoy what you say.

        Unfortunately I think you are right. ‘That is my taste’ sums up any discussion on books these days. And even worse ‘I don’t like it, it’s crap.’ End of discussion.

        The answer I gave was really a bit of a silly answer just to point out that maybe we should try and formulate why something is our personal taste. It might be a way to real discussion. Just saying I don’t like this book and that is my taste is, as you say, a dead end, but trying to explain why it is to your taste (or not) may just be a first step to discussing the merits of different books. So, even though I gave a silly answer, I do agree with you.

        I must admit I find it difficult to write down why I like certain books. I loved Vikram Seth’s an Equal Music. One thing I liked was the writing. It felt like music but I couldn’t tell you why I had that feeling. And I might have been totally wrong about that – I don’t know anything about music. So I wouldn’t normally go beyond saying I liked the writing. Not much of a discussion there.

      • Hello Marita, I think it’s my turn now to apologise for being late; I’ve been away for a few days. But as long as we can get discussion going – even if it is a bit late – that’s all that matters, I suppose!

        I think discussion is important because only by discussing with each other can we begin to apprehend perspectives other than our own. If we can understand through discussion how other minds think, how other minds perceive, then we may be able to incorporate some of that into our own thoughts and perceptions. And in this way, our own thoughts and perceptions develop, and broaden. If we don’t do this, if we assume that there is nothing beyond our opinions, and that they are fixed and unchangeable, then I think we short-change ourselves rather badly: we then deny our mind the extraordinary ability it has to leap across boundaries, and absorb things that had previously been alien to it.

        I am not of course arguing that subjective impressions are of no importance. But it is possible, I think, to look beyond, and I do feel very strongly that only by making the attempt to look beyond can we begin to apprehend the richness of literature. (And of other things as well.) For instance, a few years ago, I really didn’t understand what anyone saw in Austen. It is only by reading what others (including yourself) think about Austen did I begin to modify and to enhance my own views. I still wouldn’t say Austen is amongst my favourite authors (although – who knows? – that may change over time) but I do now understand at least something of what her admirers see in her works; and the last time I read Persuasion, I found myself, to my surprise, rather enjoying it. I think this is far more fruitful than simply saying “I don’t like Austen, and since it all comes down to personal taste, there’s no more to be said”

        Writing about books is, I agree, difficult, but it’s great fun, and the effort involved really can be quite rewarding!

      • Posted by Marita on August 3, 2011 at 9:44 pm

        I don’t think I did much to promote Austen beyond saying I would write something about Mansfield Park. I’ve made a lot of notes but it’s a complex novel and I find my thoughts jumping around all over the place. Still trying though. As you say, it is rewarding and it was your comment on Mansfield Park that inspired me to defend it. Since I joined the bookboard on BBC I’ve been thinking more about what I read beyond ‘like’, ‘dislike’, ‘good story’ than ever before.
        I still think that formulating WHY you like or dislike something is a first step to discussion. We all have to learn to walk before we can run.
        I have been wondering if the more important question is not ‘what is down to personal taste?’ but ‘why is that an answer?’. It’s as if people feel threatened by intelligence whether in books, TV programmes, conversation or internet blogs. The sad thing is that we live in a time when the highest goal seems to be mediocrity. Everybody is a writer, everybody is a singer or musician, etc. and we’re swamped with the output of this ‘talent’. Being a celebrity makes your opinion valid and not knowledge about the subject, something that we have seen in many a talk show. Dare to suggest that popularity is not necessarily the equivalent of quality, dare to suggest there is something better than soaps, game shows and bestsellers and you’re labelled ‘snob’ and ‘elitist’.
        Sorry, derailing your message now. I’ll stop here.

      • Marita, you’re not derailing anything, and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you!

        I actually do agree with you about Mansfield Park. It is an intricate and subtle novel, and while I am not personally the greatest fan of Austen, it is quite clear – putting my personal preferences aside – that it is a great masterpiece. You certainly don’t need to defend it from me! 🙂
        (I put up a post here on Mansfield Park some time ago: the title of the post is a bit tongue-in-cheek! Please feel free to comment on it. Although I recorded my own personal preferences – as well as my reasons for reacting to it as I did – I certainly did not denigrate Austen’s achievement.)
        And I agree with you also that formulating why one likes or dislikes something is an important first step. Indeed, sometimes I think it’s the only first step: one’s immediate responses, while by no means the end of the journey, is certainly a beginning, and possibly the only starting point we have.

        One problem I find myself coming across in my own writing is the use of ready-made phrases that don’t really tell the reader much. I try hard not o use expressions such as “well written” or “badly written” as they don’t really communicate anything at all. The questions to be addressed are surely “Why do I think this is well written?” or “Why do I think this is badly written?” Similarly with easy formulations such as “The characters were well-drawn” or “the characters lacked depth”: we surely need to address the questions of why we think they are well-drawn, or why we think they lack depth. We need to ask ourselves further what we mean when we use such expressions – e.g. what does it mean for a character to have depth? Is “depth” in a character – given whatever definition of “depth” we come up with – always better than lack of depth in a character, regardless of the author’s intentions? If so, why? If not, why not? What do we mean when we denigrate something for being “sentimental” or “melodramatic”? What do we mean by these terms, and why do we consider them bad things? And so on.

        Now, you could, I’m sure, easily go through my own scribblings on this blog, and pick out any number of holes on such specific points: What justification do I have for saying this? How would I define such-and-such a term? Indeed, I’d love it if you (or someone else) were to do that, as it is only by having our ideas challenged that we can develop them. By “challenging”, I do not of course mean aggression or confrontation, but, rather, a questioning of assumptions, an insistence on adequate definition of terms, and so on.

        All this may sound daunting, but let us not get daunted by it. We’re none of us professional critics here, so let’s not worry too much about getting things wrong. But let us at least try to look beyond mere subjective statements of preference. Trying to think, as you suggest, about why we like or dislike something seems to me an excellent starting point.

  8. Posted by Alex on July 31, 2011 at 1:49 am

    There’s indeed a canon of immortal books, and that’s one of the reasons why someone who’d think that Ken Follett is the best writer in history would be just stating his own ignorance of previous writers. We can, and do, define most of the values we find in a book, but in the Arts the whole always seems more than the sum of its parts. That elusive beauty… Although not a scientific truth, we can state that Tristram Shandy is an original novel, even one of the most original novels ever written, and then we can compare other novels with it on the basis of its originality. It’s not scientific, but not completely subjective either. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll keep on thinking why I like what I like, but I know I’ll never be able to grasp the answer to that question completely.

    Reply

    • Hello Alex, I do agree that there is a mystery to all great works of art – that even when we have analysed King Lear or Anna Karenina as far as we possibly can, there remains still some mysterious element that appears to be beyond analysis; and that it is this mysterious element that gives it – as you term it – its “elusive beauty”. All great works of art are more than the sum of its analyses. Which is not to say we shouldn’t analyse: only through analysis can we even begin to understand. But quite often, I find, it is only after one has understood up to a certain point can one begin to perceive that lies is beyond what may be understood.

      Tagore in one of his loveliest poems writes of the boundaries of what may be expressed, and of how he, as a poet, is for ever beating at the gates, and is for ever turned away,

      Reply

  9. Wow and am I glad that I found your blog. I do agree that certain books should be read regardless of personal taste. As you’ve pointed out, it can be hard to describe just what it is about a book that we like so much. Most of the time I do fight the tendency to pan a book if I did not “connect with it”. I love Eastern European lit and was so excited to discover a new to me Polish woman writer, Olga Tokarczuk. The first book of hers that I pick up was House of Day, House of Night. On paper, I should have loved it. At best, it was okay for me. But I appreciated that the book was much much better than what was implied by my emotional reaction. I love perfumes. Really, love them. In perfumery, there is a distinction drawn between the composition of the notes and the interaction of the notes with one’s chemistry. So it’s entirely possible to appreciate a well-done perfume but not be able to wear it. In my review, I likened my appraisal of the book to my feelings about Chanel No. 5 :). A exceptionally well composed perfume but one that I cannot wear. Crazy perfumistas, like myself, often lament not being able to wear a superb composition. Really agonize over it. Most book bloggers do no such thing. Folks favor the personal reaction over the elements of the composed work. I wonder why? Anyway, I ramble. It’s sunday morning here in Accra, Ghana and I’m yet to have my morning cup of tea. To use book-review-speak, I love your blog.

    Reply

    • Hello Kinna, and welcome to the blog.

      I hope I did not go overboard in dismissing the importance of one’s subjective responses: obviously, one’s personal taste is a major element. However, when it becomes the only element, I think our ability to appreciate literature suffers. Quite often, I find that the attamptto view a work objectively can frequently alter our subjective response. When people speak of a book being “tedious” or “compelling”, they aren’t really telling us anything about the book itself: rather, they are telling us of their own responses. I do feel that we must make the attampt, at least, the shift the focus away from ourselves, and towards the book.

      As for perfume, I’m afraid I can’t answer for that: my wife has long given up asking me my opinions on perfumes! 🙂

      All the best, and I hope to see you around here again,
      Himadri

      Reply

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