The Absence of Criteria

I wanted to like the essay "Art, Freedom, and the Bechdel Test" much more than I did. It requires a certain incisiveness to note:

These days, in the discourse of popular culture, nothing is JUST entertainment, but EVERYTHING must be fun. And popular, although the fragmentation of platforms has redefined popularity itself. Still. The difficult stuff, the stuff that doesn’t make the "fun" requirement, gets relegated to a ghetto now called snobbism. (This is one of many reasons why ostensibly feminist culture commentators are more interested in Taylor Swift than Annette Peacock, say.) This leaves us free to debate just how adolescent we’d like our culture to be, e.g., ought we read "adult" books as a teenager would (what did I learn from Updike, what was he trying to tell me?), or should we just give up and read YA as adults because that has its value too, and what ought we be embarrassed by?

...but the remainder of the essay meanders. The point about reading like a teenager is well-taken: many years ago, I was acquainted with someone who wrote (popular, praised) book reviews that consisted of describing two-thirds of the plot, identifying some of the themes involved, and saying whether they liked the book or not. That barely qualifies as a book report, much less a review, but it also seems to be the way criticism is trending.

The picture I had of being an adult reader, when I first set my mind to it, was something like this: you read some books, at first indiscriminately, because the goal is to find authors, genres, or periods you find interesting. One reads more in these preferred areas until the central elements are evident, whether in plotting, rhetorical style, theme, or something else. These, supplemented by the occasional critical perspective focused on technical elements of writing as a craft, then allow all that consumed writing to be placed in comparative perspective, where the variable pleasure derived from the act of reading combines with theoretical knowledge of how the writing produces its effect to allow one to make judgments about quality. Areas of particular interest to you can then become places where further exploration of influence and influences can expand future reading options. The same applies to other fields: a little knowledge of film composition will have a dramatic effect on how certain genres are consumed and appreciated (horror films draw from a very small bag of tricks, westerns tend to be highly sophisticated and painterly in their visual grammar).

The problem now seems to be a ceaseless intake of aesthetic products divorced from any time spent contemplating them: stream hour-long episodes of a show all day without any pause to process what's happening in front of you. Everyone doing this to some extent leads to a large number of people having a broad familiarity with a wide number of things and nothing interesting to say about any of it, aside from the fact of having had the experience of consuming it.

I find myself slowing down a lot these days, the better to consume less.

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