On Avoiding Elitist Assholism

I came across a review by Brian Deleeuw (whose debut novel for which I recently posted a praise geyser) written for Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. The book was familiar: its author, Carl Wilson, is a music journalist who decided to investigate why the hell people listen to Céline Dion.

The premise goes much deeper than that, of course, since it allows Wilson to discuss what “taste” is, and how much culture or perceived quality in music affects its appeal, and so on. But that was sort of lost on me when I was first exposed to the Let’s Talk About Love.

My girlfriend and I watched this author on the Colbert Report and thought his book sounded mildly amusing. (See, how’s that for elitism? Being mildly amused?) All I can say I remember is him admitting that after his journey into the world of Céline Dion fandom, not only does he tolerate her music now, he actually kind of likes some of it. Kiersten and I looked at him as if he’d radioactively mutated before our eyes.

I had trouble listening to what the three-tentacled wombat was saying about musical taste afterward, so fortunately I found Deleeuw’s analysis on Let’s Talk About Love. He focuses on the project’s greater aesthetic goal, which is, as Wilson himself put it, “To give Céline’s album Let’s Talk About Love a sympathetic hearing, to credit that others find it lovable and ask what that can tell me about music…in general.”

This would bother self-appointed guardians of culture even more than the fact that people hang Thomas Kinkades on their wall. Really—not just accept schlocky art as valid, but sympathize with its admirers?

By keeping the kind of blog I do I’ve already appointed myself one of these guardians of culture, haven’t I? (And as far as guardians go, I’m as of yet maybe a Tom Thumb waving a toothpick) Some elitists are content with being assholes. I’m not entirely, and I don’t think DeLeeuw is either, which is why Let’s Talk About Love seems to speak to him.

Since the lover of literature in America today exists in a more or less constant state of ‘grappling with people and things not like me,’ it seems more important to realize that such an oppositional stance can be mined for both knowledge of others (but not in a condescending way) and self-knowledge (but not in a narcissistic way), rather than just the usual—for me, at least—cocktail of irritation and self-righteousness.

The “oppositional stance” comes up a lot at the bookstore. Now, I treat all folks kindly whether they come in asking for Joseph Conrad or James Patterson. The difference in my reactions is mostly internal: in one case the elation in discovering a fellow member of the Joyous Brotherhood of Great Books, in the other case a spike of bile.

So maybe my tastes in literature haven’t changed, but my attitudes have. I used to assume that people read crap not because it’s mental junk food, but because they must think it’s freakin’ Dante and don’t know what else to read. (“James Patterson takes up two whole shelves—must mean he’s really good, right?”) But I learned that it’s mostly because other people don’t read books for the same reason I do.

I’ve gone about it backwards: I learned to enjoy the classics first, and the genre stuff second, and the bookstore exposure has been integral to the second part. My idea of a “fun book” used to be Candide. But you know what’s a really fun book? World War Z.

I don’t think you have to forfeit your ideas of good or bad art, but I think if you become obsessed with aesthetic value and cultural significance and contributions to the great conversation of mankind, you can miss a really awesome book about zombies.

And the classics knowledge is still handy. When I hand someone their requested Nicholas Sparks novel, I’ll probably ask if they’ve read My Antonîa. No? Well then, follow me this way to the C’s…

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