Sunday, January 31, 2016

Of Tastes And The Disputation Thereof

     A few things you know about me already, just to “set the stage:”

  • I’m a cranky old bastard;
  • There’s no governor on my mouth;
  • I’ve been sharply critical of others many times;
  • On occasion, the criticism was occasioned by a matter of taste.

     I apologize for precisely none of the above. In fact, I glory in it. I’ll argue anything with anyone at any time, dress casual, weapons optional (nine millimeter and below, please; my body armor won’t stop anything heavier). But even one as opinionated as I will concede that certain things are beyond anyone’s presumptions of authority. These things are called “tastes.”

     “Chacun a son gout,” say the French. “De gustibus non disputandum est,” chorus the ancient Romans. “Of tastes, there is nothing written,” agrees the Talmud...though that last item does seem to contradict itself a wee bit. If there’s anything more widely agreed upon than the inarguability of tastes, it must be the pointlessness of the Yankees’ keeping Alex Rodriguez on the payroll merely as a platooned designated hitter. (Yes, they’ve done that before: Reggie Jackson. So what? It’s still a silly waste of money and a roster spot.)

     Yet, as the redoubtable Sarah Hoyt writes, we argue over tastes more often than any other subject:

     My first exposure to “people like different things” was over food and dad brought out that old chestnut “tastes can’t be disputed.” Which is of course nonsense because most of what we humans do is argue taste. Taste in the non-culinary sense, mostly.

     If we can’t rationally argue about tastes, why do we do so much of it?

     Well, there are probably a lot of reasons, but the ones that come to mind this fine Sunday morning in the year of Our Lord 2016 are as follows:

  • A strong taste for something can persuade the holder that others must like it – or ought to.
  • Particular tastes, as Sarah notes, are often embedded in and encouraged by the enveloping culture.
  • In social interaction, tastes can serve as surrogates for other choices, such as political positions.
  • Every society will possess sub-societes that exclude others, whether directly or indirectly, and differences in tastes are often used as quasi-justifications for such exclusion.
  • Sometimes, money is involved.

     Now, I happen to despise most hard liquors. For myself only. I’m not a “lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine” type. The C.S.O. consumes enough vodka and bourbon in a typical year to float a carrier battle group. (Say what? Of course that’s part of her strategy for putting up with me. You had to ask?) So, alongside the C.S.O.’s tippling supplies, I keep a modest stock of other liquors that I know to be favorites of the folks who most frequently visit us.

     That’s called being hospitable. It assumes differences in tastes and refuses to place one’s own preferences infinitely above the preferences of others. It’s what genial, convivial people do...or should.

     However, there are sectors of American society and its economy that reject the “no arguing over tastes” dictum for one of the reasons above. When the battle becomes particularly acrimonious, you can bet your last slug of Jack Daniel’s Old Number 7 that money is involved.

     Mind you, money needn’t be the only factor involved. Nor must it be the dominant one. But high levels of slander-slinging are a sure sign that it’s in there somewhere.

     The recent dustup over the Hugo Awards constitutes a good case for study. When I wrote last year that:

     Before the slanderers got their act into gear, a Hugo was a token that could bring a book increased sales. These days, it’s indifferent at best. Sometimes having “Hugo Award winner” on the cover has harmed a book’s sales, precisely because of the awareness of many SF readers that the awards process has been “colonized” by the activist Left. Perhaps the breakthrough success of “Sad Puppies 3” will change that; at any rate, it is to be hoped.

     ...I hadn’t thought the matter all the way through. The sort of hyperpoliticized garbage that’s dominated the awards in recent years sells indifferently at best. Books laden with actual story and interpersonal drama outsell it heavily. However, its authors might fear that without “Hugo Award Winner” or “Hugo Award Nominee” on the cover, it would sell more poorly yet.

     In this connection, consider how vociferously so many SF writers (and no few readers) rail against “romantic” science fiction. The more strident ones such as Vox Day seek to deny it any legitimacy whatsoever. And indeed, there are certainly examples of this crossbreed that aren’t honestly SF in any defensible sense. Yet this matter of taste obscures a consideration of greater objective import: the better examples of these SF / romance hybrids sell like beer at a BLEEP!ing ballgame – an Arizona ballgame – and not merely to the bored menopausal suburban housewife who wants a little something different in her pink-and-purple diet.

     Money, Gentle Reader. Money and the envy thereof. No one determined to be evenhanded could read Linnea Sinclair’s wonderful Down Home Zombie Blues or Hope’s Folly and deny that they’re both involving romances and rousing SF adventures. But the envious writer whose sales are limping along will be tempted to denigrate such books, especially if they don’t fit his tastes. Worse, if he has a chance of doing so, he’ll attempt to marshal exclusionary influences against such works: for example, by denying their authors access to the relevant professional organizations.

     Tastes, it seems, can be – and are – used to justify just about any other sort of prejudicial attitude. It happens more frequently than we might want to admit. It conceals motivations and emotions whose holders would rather remained unexamined, in some cases even by themselves. And while the stakes are usually small potatoes, the effects on egos can be considerable indeed.

1 comment:

Reg T said...


One word: Brie.

No, actually, I wanted to bring up RAH's _Glory Road_, which sort of qualifies as a romance, as Gordon falls for a "10" on the beach in France and then spends the rest of the book doing all he can to win the lady's affection. Finally marrying her (although it turns out she is just a wee bit older than he is), and we see how that works out for him (Empress of the known universe and too busy for a real life).