One of the few times I attended a writer's group in Madison had writers bashing on Leo Tolstoy and James Patterson. I like Tolstoy. I'm indifferent towards Patterson, mostly because his stories aren't my thing.
I rolled my eyes a few times. While I'm not into Patterson, I admire that he is making reading such a joy for both kids and adults. We need more literacy in the world. And Tolstoy could have cared less about what they thought because he was living in communes filled with people who were obsessed with his work. Borderline cult leader and apparent lady's man, that Tolstoy fella.
That's when I said, "You know, I don't yuck people's yum. I can't judge. I like Dean Koontz, and so many of his books have magical dogs as the main characters. I think Walker, Texas Ranger can be a solid way to kill time. I love it when Chuck Norris fist fights a bear."
Art is 100% subjective with taste. I believe in criticizing toxic messages and how minorities are displayed if there's an issue, but if it's just a harmless piece of fun then I don't see the need in mockery. Critique is great when it's accurate or done out of a balanced perspective, but there should always be a recognition of how much hard work was put into something. In other words, don't be a jerk.
Recently, I found myself genuinely struggling with a book I picked up by one of my favorite writers. Instead of simply tossing it aside, I decided to stick with it and finish it and figure out what kind of mistakes the author made so I don't make them. The book was called The Good Life by Jay McInerney.
One of my favorite books of all time is also by him called Bright Lights, Big City. Very few books left me as deeply moved as that one did. It chronicles the quarter life crisis of a 20-something year old writer who is recently divorced and is battling depression in 1980's Manhattan. He is getting sick of the party scene and trying to find his way back to his own humanity. Without giving too much away, the redemption found in the book hit me right between the eyes because I wasn't expecting it. I couldn't believe how well-executed it was and how much it packed in for a shorter book. I think it should be required reading for every healthy deconstruction period or life crisis.
The literary scene at the time was notorious for its nihilistic portrait of yuppy, upper class culture. Most of the novels that come from this period are bleak, because the overarching message in almost all of these books is that consumerism, desensitization from violence, addiction, a disrespect for life, and classism has detached people from their own humanity. What made McInerney's book so amazing to me is that he somehow snuck in a glimmer of hope in the mess - that a better life is absolutely possible when we open ourselves up to the reality that we are redeemable.
So when I picked up The Good Life, I was expecting that same kind of impact. It's about 9/11 and the aftermath between two couples who are having affairs in response to the trauma (and their paths back to redemption too.) McInerney served at a soup kitchen at ground zero and got the idea while serving first responders. I was expecting something like that. It was also difficult to get through because I found it so melodramatic.
The thing of it is that McInerneny's first novel has followed him in an almost detrimental way, and every book of his has been compared to it. He was catapulted into fame when he was married and settled down. Because the image of a writer losing control of his life felt so real to people, his readers assumed he was just like the main character. In reality, he is a quiet guy who spent some time sowing wild oats in Manhattan before becoming a nice, nerdy suburbanite who enjoys wine tasting as a hobby. Perhaps that's why Bright Lights has an optimistic feel.
Then I took a further step back from these considerations I realized that, objectively, the book was good. It had all the right ingredients and it was well-written (according to my own standards.) If I hadn't been exposed to Bright Lights before this, I probably would've enjoyed it a lot more. In fact, if it ever gets turned into a movie, I think it would be great.
This book also tied in as I was reading a Christian book by a famous author. She talked a lot about her own life and testimony, and I appreciated hearing it. However, I absolutely hated the way it was written. It was way too flowery and buried with cliches. But the main message was important, and I realized with that book that it is helping tons of people on their spiritual journey. I don't want my personal snooty opinions to interfere with someone else's potential encounter with God. If I can apply that same kind of appreciation for teaching, I should apply that for storytelling too.
So while I didn't enjoy The Good Life, I ultimately recognize it as a gift that McInerney gave us based off of firsthand experiences. And that's the way most art should be treated - as a presentation into another person's created world and insight.
There are also so many factors in how we choose to enjoy something, whether we're conscious of them or not. For instance, Christoper Nolan's Batman movies were called masterpieces until Robert Pattinson's Batman came out, and suddenly Nolan's movies aren't as respected among fans. It's fascinating to see people's reactions who, less than a month ago, had shrines set up to Christian Bale's performance. (I love both adaptions, but they're completely different - that's another post for another day.) It speaks to the many ways we enjoy art, and it's something we should continually be conscious of with every piece we enjoy or watch.
Criticize, love, hate, etc, any piece of work you want. But be aware of your own nuance and your own lens. It colors more than we think.