Let’s Talk About Love

The other day, when Victoria Hoyle was dismantling the introduction to Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternate History, I mentioned Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste as a possible palate-cleanser. I came across Wilson’s book myself via Matt Cheney, whose discussion of the book now makes life easy for me:

The concept of the book is seductive: Wilson, a Canadian music critic and avowed Céline-hater, spends a year trying to figure out why she is so popular and what his hatred of her says about himself. I kept away from the book for a little while because I thought it couldn’t possibly live up to its premise, and that in all likelihood it was more stunt than analysis. […]

By focusing on Céline Dion, Wilson is able to discuss a wide range of topics: the details of Dion’s career, of course, but also the history of popular music, the globalization of certain styles and tastes, the power of local cultures, the role of class and aspiration in forming and policing personal taste, the demonization of sentimentality and excess, the promotion of irony and transgression, etc. Wilson also provides a good, basic overview of histories and traditions of aesthetic philosophy, showing that even the most eminent thinkers and critics tend to do little more than construct elaborate sleight-of-hand routines. Because his goal is not to debunk so much as it is to explore, Wilson is able to use the best of what he encounters — most fruitfully in his clear-eyed application of ideas from Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Taste is not, for Wilson, merely an expression of social influences and aspirations, but it is partly so, and those parts are often what is most invisible to us when we discuss our aesthetic judgments.

There’s a lot packed into a short book (164pp), in other words, and it’s well worth the time of anyone who’s even tangentially interested in any of the points listed above. In particular, as Matt says, the final chapter is almost infinitely quotable. He pulls out a couple of chunks relating to Wilson’s vision of a more pluralistic construction of taste; what caught my eye, more self-centredly, were the paragraphs linking that vision to the day-to-day work of the critic:

What would criticism be like if it were not foremost trying to persuade people to find the same things great? If it werne’t about making cases for or against things? It wouldn’t need to adopt the kind of “objective” (or self-consciously hip) tone that conceals the identity and social location of the author, the better to win you over. It might be more frank about the two-sidedness of aesthetic encounter, and offer something more like a tour of aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir. More and more critics, in fact, are incorporating personal narrative into their work. Perhaps this is the benefit of the explosion of cultural judgment on the Internet, where millions of thumbs turn up and down daily: by rendering their traditional job of arbitration obsolete, it frees critics to find other ways of contemplating music. (156)


You can’t go on suspending judgement forever — that would be to forgo genuinely enjoying music, since you can’t enjoy what you can’t like. But a more pluralistic criticism might put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors — to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare. This kind of exchange takes place sometimes between citics on the Internet, and it would be fascinating to have more dialogic criticism: here is my story, what is yours? (157)

I like advocacy; I like people being for and against works of art, and I’m in favour of discourse that encourages freedom of opinions. (Rather than saying: if you don’t like Heinlein, you’re not a real science fiction fan.) But that is, in part, because I think advocacy can and should be decoupled from the sort of “objective” voice Wilson criticises, and that couching something as a personal “tour of aesthetic experience” can be a powerful form of advocacy. I think this can work whether you’re for or against something, but it seems to me that it might help with the oft-noted reviewerly problem that it’s easy to say why a book is bad and hard to say why a book is good, if instead you’re trying to say why a book was good for you; it gives you a way to think specifically about a general question. After all, the sources of delight in fiction are surely as individual as readers.