Popular taste

It’s sometimes said that the internet has brought on a democratisation of culture: anyone can be a critic, or a Youtube film star, or Myspace musician. Access to a potentially large audience is no longer controlled by corporations, and in itself that seems a good thing.

It will certainly be a good thing if what it really creates is a proliferation of niche interests and expression, a way for people to find others who share an interest or outlook, a space where ideas can be nurtured and developed without the pressure of the mainstream.

Perhaps it’s wrong then to talk of democratisation, since democracy implies the empowering of the mainstream, the despotism of the middle ground.

I’m not objecting to political democracy: I’m with Churchill in thinking it the least bad of the alternatives, though it seems to me a distortion of the system when politicians talk of mandates: it’s evident in the UK certainly that few people are sufficiently engaged in the political process to read an election manifesto, so when they vote they are not approving any given programme. Democracy is valuable only because it ensures that politicians ultimately know they will have to answer for their decisions to their electorate.

My real concern here is mainstream or popular taste in culture, and I’ve been prompted to irritation with it because I recently read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Zafon.

The Shadow of the Wind has been an international bestseller. I bought it because the blurb suggested it was “beautifully written” while offering an engrossing story. Well, it’s a good yarn, but it’s depressing to learn that anybody could think it was even well-written. Zafon has a nice touch with weather and colour, but the rest of the book is frequently overwritten and occasionally ham-fisted. Admittedly I’ve only read the book in translation, but I’m talking about the kind of detail that gets included, which does translate, and leaves me wanting to pick up a blue pencil.

I suspended judgement as I read the book, wondering if its clunky overwriting was going to lead some ironic point about stories and truth (which the book is somehow about), but I can’t make the link. It’s just not very good.

If people, even intelligent people, think The Shadow of the Wind offers beautiful writing then I wonder how they would react to something that was really well-written. Could they even tell? If it’s a problem with education it’s not about grammar, but perhaps there is an issue with sensibility: if we don’t give people the experience of genuinely good writing, then it’s hardly surprising they can’t recognise it when they see it (or its opposite).

But who’s going to judge the “genuinely good”? The idea of a canon is now regarded with suspicion, as if this wisdom of our elders was on a par with thinking leeches are therapeutically effective. We have no bearings but our personal taste, and one opinion is as good as another.

I think this is what people really mean when they talk about the democratisation of culture, and it looks like a race to the bottom. It’s not particularly comfortable to find yourself defending something like elitism, but is it so outrageous to suggest that some opinions are better-informed than others? Of course knowledge doesn’t necessarily correlate with good taste, which remains a subjective element in aesthetic judgements, but in aesthetics as in any other human activity there can be an exchange of reason, and some reasons will be more compelling than others.

It’s true that most of the time nothing much depends on who wins out in this exchange: it’s not (for instance) like the imperative to convince someone that his racism is stupid and harmful. But it’s also true though that there are times when these matters of taste and judgement do have consequences. One obvious example is the traditional route to book publication.

Publishing has become a rather mixed-up activity. It has a tradition of worthiness, whereby publishers look for authors they believe in and who they think should be exposed to a wider audience. But it has also become increasingly commercial. You can only afford the worthiness if you have enough revenue coming in from your best sellers. Commercial considerations have begun to take command. Few agents, let alone publishers are prepared to take on new literary fiction, because they know it won’t sell unless it can generate a headwind of approval. Even where they do take it on they are unlikely to publish in hardback. Meanwhile a senior executive at the French giant Hachette suggested recently that the appearance of eBooks with lower pricing could destroy the hardback altogether.

But perhaps eBooks offer a way forward for authors, and indeed for publishers who increasingly find themselves beholden to supermarkets for mass market sales. Unlike a paperbound book, the marginal cost of “publishing” an eBook is zero. You don’t have to take any kind of risk in predicting advance volume sales. You can concentrate on preparing the book and promoting it.

People over 35 mostly seem to feel that eBooks will never replace real books. It’s true that for the moment the eBook experience is not quite good enough, but it’s important to remember that in the musical world MP3s don’t offer anything like the rich experience of vinyl or even CDs, and still have triumphed. Arguably too the iPod was not the best MP3 player on the market, but it looked good, was nice to use, and offered an easy ecosystem in its integration with iTunes. As with most disruptive technologies, left field elements like immediate access and versatility overwhelmed the more predictable factors like overall quality.

I’d bet that paper publishing will continue to exist, serving different needs and tastes, but the eBook will become the mainstream publishing format, and will do so in quite a short space of time. But then as with MP3s, there is little to hold back anyone from publishing an eBook, and the Web offers easy global distribution. Publishing in the past was primarily a distribution business, controlling entry and quality because it controlled distribution. But if the latter control is disappearing, what will happen to its role as a gatekeeper of quality?

Which brings me back to the question of popular taste. In the US last year self-publishing outstripped mainstream publishing. That’s still using paper, but also harnessing the power of the internet and digital printing to produce short publication runs at costs that would have been unfeasible before. If eBooks become the norm, the self-publishing floodgates will open all the wider. Many if not most people seem to feel they have a book inside them, a story to tell. This could well be true. Most don’t have the literary gifts to tell that story, but many try anyway. These books will be available for anyone to download and read.

There’s little doubt that the traditional agent/publisher filter has not been functioning particularly well: inevitably good work is rejected and a lot of mediocre stuff gets through. That’s always been the case but the commercial pressures I mentioned earlier have probably made things worse. In the eBook the filter becomes optional. Do we need it at all?

We assume that if a book has made it into print basic quality issues will have been addressed (it’s not always true, but it’s a fair assumption). Will a deluge of illiterate and unreadable self-published eBooks create a demand for virtual commercial publishing sites, where books of good quality get recommended, in the process re-inventing the filter? Or will tastemaking be a more democratic product of communities of interest spreading the word about writing they have enjoyed? Will this democratic tastemaking bear out the wisdom of crowds or the mindlessness of the mob?

The means to tip the balance one way or another exists outside the digital world: it’s in the vision of our educators. We need to believe in the possibility that not all assessments are equal, that some judgements are better informed or better reasoned than others. At the same time let’s hope that in the free-for-all that is the World Wide Web, peer groupings will not become isolated islands of self-confirming opinion, but will inform each other. Reithian cultural ambition has been looking a little threadbare in the face of reality TV, but in a more interactive world we are no longer in the hands of programmers competing for mass market numbers. In this sense, and to return to my opening point, in culture at least the internet may free us from the despotism of the mediocre.



  1. Seems very simple to me. You are just a snob. You have a pathetic need to feel superior to others and you are clueless when it comes to judge quality. The fact that you feel the need to tell yourself you are better, smarter and more enlightened than the masses doesn’t mean you are. Quite the opposite.

  2. oh dear … there’s me praising the argumentative power of the Web, and here’s a reminder of how often those arguments are just insulting flame …
    Sorry Dennis, but my post is more thoughtful than you seem to think. I am well aware of the elitist/snob accusation and acknowledged the risk in the piece.
    My argument is not “popular taste” v highbrow culture. In my experience people who enjoy Big Brother or Jack Vettriano don’t make any great claims for their enjoyment. It’s just what it is, and that’s fine by me. What irks me is when people take an abstracted notion of popular taste in order to forestall harder scrutiny of what might be good or bad. What irks me is when people take it on themselves to speak for “the masses” when outside the constraints of TV rating wars there is no single voice of the masses. I am looking optimistically to the more granular world of the internet as an alternative to these reductive and mostly false generalisations about what most people think.
    The blurb writers or critics who suggest that The Shadow of the Wind is “beautifully written” are not “the masses”. They are part of an ignorant establishment which can’t tell mediocrity from brilliance. I’m not against “the masses”: what I despise is middlebrow pretentiousness. Call me a snob for that if you please, but it wouldn’t bother me much.
    So yes I do think some opinions are worth more than others … not because I’m a snob, and not because I think it’s self-evident that Hamlet is better than East Enders (I think the latter is well-crafted but I also think the comparison is itself stupid and unhelpful) – but because I think it’s important to set different opinions against each other, and make a judgement between them, and not to succumb to the pathetic cop out which won’t defend a position because somehow these things are a matter of personal taste. I didn’t suggest anywhere that good taste was a given: I was arguing that good taste was arguable, and that good arguments should be respected more than poor arguments.
    This is what I wrote about. If you want to say I’m wrong than please do. But insulting me is not much of a substitute for that argument. If all this seems very simple to you perhaps that’s the story of your life … but I don’t know the story of your life.

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