When my wife sees that I've written a big blowhard blog post pontificating about this or that, she kind of looks up at me and sighs. Sorry, Sweetie. You can skip this one.
Writer Mark Evanier doesn't like Star Trek. It's just not his cup of tea. What he can't understand is why other people care. Back in 2003, he wrote, "If you say you don't like their favorite movie or TV show or book, they feel the urge to argue with you as if you have made a clear factual error and can be debated into seeing things their way. Recently, I had occasion to say to an acquaintance, 'Why do you feel so threatened because I don't like Star Trek? My not liking it is not going to take it away from you. Can't you enjoy it despite the fact that I don't?' But the guy continued hectoring me to watch more episodes so that I might become enlightened and see the error of my ways."
Despite loving Star Trek myself, I appreciated this perspective and buried it in the back of my brain, only to have it emerge a couple of times recently.
One: Editor Charlie and I are friends who've never disagreed about anything more serious than the placement of an exclamation point. That is, until a recent conversation in which the subject of cartoonist Chris Ware came up. I confessed that I am not a fan.*
"But he's a brilliant cartoonist."
Yes he is.
"His sense of color and design is amazing."
Yes it is.
"He's doing formalistically innovative things like no one else."
Maybe so. Still: not a fan. I don't find his characters or stories compelling. They don't stick with me and rattle around in my mind long afterward like the work of other authors does. There's a sterility and distance in his work I find off-putting.
"But that's who Chris Ware is!"
Well . . . there you go.
Two: The past few days I got into an interesting Internet discussion about the types of comic strips people like and dislike. Not singling out individual comics or creators, I listed some qualities common to comics I enjoy--character-based humor, a clear and interesting authorial perspective, skillful artwork--as well as some I don't, among which I listed knock-offs of The Far Side. Gary Larson's popular and influential comic strip spawned a lot of copycats I don't like for reasons I explained as well as I could. I thought it was a pretty unremarkable opinion. However, it drew the ire of another poster who worked very hard to convince me that I was wrong, that Gary Larson had been influenced by a lot of other cartoonists himself, and that I should be picking on all those other cartoonists who'd obviously ripped off other strips. To which I could only reply: I haven't noticed those. What I've noticed are Far Side knock-offs. Which I don't like.
What's to argue? Why should you care? Like Evanier said, can't you enjoy it despite the fact that I don't?
Maybe not. Shared taste is how we organize ourselves socially. If you don't like dancing or bowling, you don't join the tango club or bowling league. It's a litmus test, a secret password to the clubhouse door. Everybody wants to be accepted. Everybody emulates the tastes of those they look up to: kings and queens, tycoons and trendsetters, the cool kids in high school. Book editors. If you like what I like, and disdain what I disdain, then you're all right. That's how we're wired.
I think it's also true that not all taste is equal and some preferences are actually better than others. It's not "all relative." Critics play a valid role. If your taste in cuisine and literature hasn't progressed past pork rinds and Porky Pig, well, honestly, I'm going to draw some conclusions from that. Likewise when I meet someone whose taste and sophistication obviously outclasses mine (which ain't hard).
But I have no problem recognizing and respecting the quality and importance of something without liking it myself. Chris Ware is a very good cartoonist. Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain are important figures in the history of popular music and key voices of their respective generations. Marc Chagall was one of the towering titans of 20th-century art. I understand why people love their work. I don't. Wouldn't put a Dylan or Cobain album on the stereo, wouldn't hang a Chagall print on the wall (although I'd take one of his stained glass windows). If you would, I think that's wonderful. They're just not for me.
I also always acknowledge that I MIGHT BE WRONG. I'm wrong all the time. Taste evolves. I like a lot of things I didn't used to like: beer, bluegrass, balsamic vinegar, goose-down pillows, the comic strip Get Fuzzy, Coen Brothers movies, Impressionism, sushi. I also look back on things I once liked and wonder what I was thinking. That's why I've never been interested in a tattoo: I can't think of a single thing I was passionate about at age 18 that I'd still want billboarded on my body today. Art affected me differently at ages 20, 30, 40. I expect to learn and change.
So why should anyone care that I don't care for Ware? I don't even care. It's not a position I'm deeply committed to. I think there's a fair chance I'm wrong and my opinion may change in time. I'm pretty sure I'm wrong about Chagall, and suspect that with a little study and effort I'd "get" him. Dylan and Cobain, I don't know. Maybe. Far Side knock-offs? Never.
I'm not talking about being wishy-washy--there are principles, aesthetics, and ethics I believe very strongly. But atop that foundation I think it's good to be discriminating and flexible. Refining one's taste should be an active and constant pursuit. I'm working on it.
(*This critique of Chris Ware breaks one of my Blogging Prime Directives: "if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all." In this case I rationalize that Chris Ware is a giant while I am but a gnat, he pretty much says the same things about himself, and I later admit my opinion may be mistaken. I still feel bad about it.)