What is Good Taste in Books?
How to recognise the social forces that define 'good taste', break free and find out what YOU think is valuable. The advice I would give my younger self!
What is ‘good taste’ in fiction? How do we develop our own idea of what is good and bad? How do we ever know what we like, when we’re bombarded with information about what we’re supposed to like?
The literary canon, the school curriculum, bookstagram, what all the papers are talking about, the book that all the publishers use as a benchmark: there are lots of places we can look to see what particular books and what kind of books are valued in society.
And groups like the Black Writers’ Guild as well as individual authors and commentators have shone a light on the fact that these repositories of value do not have some kind of privileged access to the truth of what is and isn’t good writing; instead they are shaped by the kinds of cultural and social forces at play in society more generally. There have been calls to decolonise the curriculum: stop teaching Shakespeare’s anti-semitic Merchant of Venice as if it is nothing but excellent writing, stop teaching Rudyard Kipling’s colonial and sexist ‘If’ as the pinnacle of British values embodied in exemplary poetry, we’ve had enough of Gatsby as a Great American novel, where is Toni Morrison, or Maya Angelou, where is The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvin, or Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin? There is sometimes backlash against the drive for greater diversity of authors, both new authors and those who are passed over in favour of their male, white, western counterparts in schools and universities. This backlash claims that what is valued is nothing to do with the race or gender of the author. What is valued is excellence. It just so happens that white men have more excellence to offer. It’s a perspective that Yaa Gyasi called out in an interview with Foyles about her book Homecoming. She argued:
"2016 was a year that saw the release of many novels by black writers in America.Colson Whitehead, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Brit Bennett, Natashia Deon and Nicole Dennis-Benn just to name a few. This is exciting, but I don’t know that it represents some major shift in the publishing industry itself. Behind the scenes, the publishing industry is still very much a white industry. It infuriates me to hear editors or agents who never work with writers of colour say things like, 'I’m only interested in excellence.' What that implies to me is that they don’t think that writers of colour are or can be excellent. But of course writing is art and art is subjective and this subjectivity, this matter of taste, is informed by so many things — race is one of them. To not interrogate one’s taste (ie: why you might like what you like, or perhaps, more importantly in this case, why you don’t like what you don’t like) is to work in a narrow-minded way and to risk missing out on a world of important and beautiful work."
If you think that the texts we are taught at school are just the ones that, when all the world’s literature is tested by some empirical standard, are proved to be the best then you are missing something fundamental about taste: we make value, as individuals and as communities. We do not find it.
So the first step of finding your own taste is to recognise what values you have been given by teachers, friends, book clubs, social media, reading communities, mainstream culture, alternative culture. If you think you like something, ask yourself what do you like about it, and when you find out, ask yourself why that is something you like? The results might be personal things to do with the content of a book; you might love Amy in Little Dorrit because you have a sister who would do anything for her family and never gets the recognition, or you might hate Dickens’s characters like Amy Dorrit or Florence Dombey because they model a kind of subservient female subjectivity that you find oppressive in the expectations society puts on you. You might then consider what the differences are between Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, also about being imprisoned and oppressed, and Dickens’s Little Dorrit. How do authors find beautiful ways to express the loss of freedom without elevating the status of victimhood to desirable in itself? The differences between texts, the way they make you feel, the way they deal with something similar from a different perspective or in a different style often exposes the fault lines that break personal taste away from the mainland of public opinion about what is good literature.
But even after the initial renegotiating of your relationship with the texts that were previously passed on to you as the best and most valuable, there is another stage of personal questioning to go through. You have to also ask yourself and come to understand what you think books are in this world to do? To entertain in an a-political universe? To do activist work? To change the world? To offer escapism? These questions go right to the heart of the culture wars going on around literature’s value today. Whilst Yaa Gyasi, in my opinion, is totally right when she says current common standards of value that exclude people of colour are not objective standards of excellence, many who agree with her think that there also needs to be space for literature to do something other than activist work. An author shouldn’t be published because they are black, or Asian, or white or any other race; there should be a way of seeing the skill of a writer, the beauty of the story they tell, or the important ugliness of it, that is not about political point scoring around the author's identity. And that is hard, maybe even impossible.
In discovering that the social and cultural supremacy of whiteness and masculinity is what conferred value on the texts we are taught to celebrate today, we lose faith in the idea that there ever could be an a-political and purely literary standard of excellence. Has there ever been one? It doesn't seem like it.
This is why I would advocate a golden rule for finding and then preserving your personal taste in reading: don’t include things just because of your politics, and don’t exclude things because of your politics either. Don’t let your breakaway from one political outlook lead you to just conform with another ideological position on what is valuable. Not everything written by a person of colour is good. And not everything written by an old white man is bad. Cherish the outliers in your general taste, try to understand what it is that you think is redeeming in them. And forget the guilt in guilty pleasure.
I recently read a review of Merky Prize winner Hafsa Zayaan’s We Are All Birds of Uganda in the Guardian. In it the reviewer, Shahidha Bari, keeps finding things she doesn’t like ‘it’s muddled’, it has a ‘weaker subplot’, there are parts that are too close to ‘sentimentality’, the plot movements are ‘clunky’, but she also disavows her reader’s experience constantly; maybe it’s muddled ‘because of a post-colonial culture’, maybe the plot device is clunky because the author is ‘determined we see Kampala: modern, cosmopolitan and yet still scored by racial tension.’ It reads very much like a review by someone who didn’t think the writing of this book was very good but who knew the politically correct things to say about it because it is by a young black woman published in a concerted effort to hear the voices of young writers of colour. The BBC review, too, was at pains to stress the political sensitivity of the content, but had to admit it was ‘a little rushed’ and ultimately only deserving of three stars. To me, it read like a book that wasn’t ready to be published as a story, still in the planning stages of what she wanted to do with it, what message she had to convey, but not fully fleshed out as a story and an elegantly moving plot. And for the editor to have put this out because they knew it would score points in a world asking for more black voices to be heard, is a disservice to both this author who could have worked on the text for longer if there was no PR rush, but also to the many writers of colour who have work that is ready to be published and read. But this risks a digression: the point is that, whilst you might want to see black excellence celebrated in the British establishments of writing, publishing and bookselling, you are not going to be able to like every book by a black author, no matter how politically and personally advantageous that might be! If you should like something, but you don’t feel you do, then there is something worth exploring in that. It might be that you find the work isn't good according to your tastes, or it might be that after reading other similar work, you find that your taste changes as your mind expands to a new style. Decisions don't have to be immediate, certain or permanent.
In the contemporary world, reading – what we read, and just the act of reading itself – is so bound up with ideas of morality and virtue, that it’s hard for enjoyment and pleasure to get a look in. And as Amy talked about in her article all about performative reading, feeling pressure to show others what we read, like and dislike, and putting ourselves up for others’ judgement on the basis of our reading taste can have positives and negatives. Stay strong! Interrogate your tastes, don’t just assume that if you like something there is no cultural or political indoctrination at work, but ultimately, read for enjoyment as well as self-improvement or making the world a better place!
PS: there’s a difference between liking a book and wanting to support an author. If you find yourself loving a book but the author is, in whatever way, ‘a bad person’, then don’t buy the book! Borrow it from someone, loan it from a library (yes, they’ll get a fee but a miniscule one), and you’ll be helping the environment that way too, so you can still feel like a good person!