this modern anxiety

I found out about this sad Damien Walker piece (edit: Walter, not Walker!) in the Guardian only via this wonderful piece by Lincoln Michel, and I suppose the real purpose of this post is to ask you to read Michel’s piece. It’s a sharp, data-driven look at why so many complaints about book culture, and so many of the claims of literary populism just make no sense. It’s indeed bizarre, for example, that Jonathan Franzen’s work is frequently discussed as the interest of an elitist fringe, given how incredibly popular his books are by objective measures. (And it’s worth noting that Franzen himself is a literary populist of the most tiring variety.) Read the piece.

But Walker’s piece speaks to an old hobbyhorse of mine: the deep fear of the existence of other tastes.  Longtime readers know that I’ve become more and more interested in this weird, anxious, pregnant tendency in modern life, which I’ve come to call aesthetic eliminationism: the urge to reject the existence of differing tastes. Walker, you see, feels that literary fiction as a category is all a con — that people who claim to like it are just doing it for show. This is eliminationist, because it doesn’t claim that such tastes are inferior, which is just having an opinion on art; it claims that a sincere preference for literary fiction does not exist. I’ve been cataloging this impulse for years now. One of the earliest places I saw it was in relation to noise music, which my older brother is a huge fan of. As he can tell you, there are many people who will claim not only that noise music is bad, not only that its creators are talentless, not only that it isn’t music, but that no one sincerely likes it. The entire genre, they claim, is a con, a put on. And though they dress up their claims in any number of ways, the evidence for this all boils down to one thing: no one can like it because they don’t like it. Case closed.

I find this a wearying, pathetic, juvenile attitude, and a terrible way to live. But at least with noise music, we’re talking about a very small genre, that is the epitome of a niche taste, and which does include many elements that are always going to limit its popularity. Walker goes further in ascribing this insincerity to the entire edifice of literary fiction, a giant, shaggy, vague grab bag of books that number in the hundreds of thousands or more. A grab bag, as Michel points out, that is enjoyed by many, many readers across the world. The con job that Walker is alleging would represent, probably, the biggest conspiracy in the history of the world. Here, the simpler explanation — that people actually like to read “luxury brand” books — is much, much simpler indeed. Yet Walker plows on, as so many do who push the aggressive psychologizing school of art criticism.

Walker is only guilty of a particularly grandiose form of this type of criticism; it’s now ubiquitous in the world of reviews and litchat. I am as convinced as ever that this attitude is the product, fundamentally, of insecurity and fear. I can think of no other explanation that would drive people to condemn thousands as insincere and dishonest in their artistic preferences. The thought that other people might have different tastes, and that these tastes might be equally valid as one’s own, seems to be too threatening, too destabilizing. The idea of a different life than the one we’re living now, in a way that’s been  explored by Adam Phillips, seems to be so powerfully anxiety-inducing that the possibility has to be rejected through assertions of dishonesty and false consciousness. I hate to respond to mass psychologizing with some of my own, but I’m out of other ideas.

The question is, why now? Why is this belief that everyone else is a poseur so endemic to the internet era? Why has the hipster, whose tastes are seen as inherently affected, become a figure of hate on par with serial killers? There’s never been a time when it’s been easier to discover niche interests and to celebrate uncommon tastes, and yet I am amazed by the abundant anxiety that the presence of other points of view have engendered. If the slogan of the internet era is “You’re Doing It Wrong,” we should be honest in admitting that this is a more subtle expression of “I’m doing it right.” This at a time when the sheer abundance of human behaviors and preferences should be expected to undermine the very notion of “doing it right” entirely. Why has a set of technologies that allow for the expression of limitless diversity in tastes become a tool for enforcing aesthetic consensus?

I liked the new Adele album fine. It’s good. It’s Adele. You know what you’re getting. But I felt so tired when it came out and, immediately, we had the usual round of meta-awareness about how everyone is required to love Adele. The fact that disliking Adele is a proscribed position shouldn’t be funny to us. Diversity in tastes is the blood of artistic culture. As someone who found Inside Out nonsensical, manipulative, and ultimately cynical, I can tell you that the communal insistence that Pixar Will Restore Your Faith in the Movies didn’t make me appreciate it more. It just made me feel hectored and resentful. With about two weeks to go, I am more exhausted by the coming Star Wars borg than I can say, the coming claims that only joyless snobs will fail to join in the celebration. And I kind of like Star Wars. What’s it to you if your neighbor loves noise rock and hates Adele? I’m not asking you not to have your own opinion on each. I’m asking why someone else’s opinion would bother you so much that you feel the need to declare it insincere. Why would you ever care?

I’m a socialist who believes that diversity in aesthetic tastes is a bedrock value for human culture. In other words, I believe in material equality and aesthetic diversity. These days it frequently feels like I’m getting the opposite: economic inequality and conformity of tastes.