No, What You Feel Isn’t Important.

I got into a discussion with a friend yesterday over the “Affection Fallacy.” The fallacy essentially asserts that a work of art cannot be judged by its emotional impact on the reader. I could buy into the “Affection Bias,” or the belief that we often over-favor our personal reaction to a work but that is not the claim here. The claim is that it is FALSE to rely on art’s ability to move us as barometer of its value. I asked in my comment:

“It seems like it is a bunch of Academics who don’t know what they are talking about. How can you confuse a work and its impact? Aren’t they one and the same? Or do we judge art on its grammar and nothing more?”

That is, if we are to exclude emotional impact, what are we leave with? It seems that the alternatives are just as arbitrary and maybe even more meaningless. His response was that:

“The answer, of course, is that people who don’t deserve to have their opinions given much thought do exist. for me, if someone is a huge fan of the left behind series of novels, then their opinion on “war and peace” is essentially worthless. to take this example to an extreme, consider the idea of someone who can’t read english for some reason who attempts to write a review of “the great gatsby”. should we determine that one of the greatest novels of 20th-century america is to some degree confusing and incomprehensible?”

This comes down to the inevitable Locke/Hobbes dichotomy–does the consistency of tyranny compensate for the cases in which it is so dangerously wrong? Or do the risks of group-think that comes from the masses cause greater problems still?

The clichéd argument of course is that it is safer to trust a small group of experts than a million idiots. I think this is the greatest mistake a society can make. The track record of these experts is abysmal at best. Hollywood is the perfect example, it is the epitome of an insulated group of “experts.” Look at what they deliver. It creates an “arbiter class.” It’s the reason that Harry Potter is banned from the New York Times’ Bestseller list and it’s the reason that time and time again, we see artists die penniless only to find success after death. Snobs are so often fucking wrong that it’s not even funny. From their empowerment we get self-fulfilling prophecies like “Men don’t read,” and “That just won’t sell.” I don’t think that Tucker’s book is canon-material, but it does say a lot about its age. That people are laughing–actually laughing as they read–is the cha-ching of value.

Ultimately, I think you have to ask yourself the ultimate purpose of art. Is it not to create a reaction, subtle or overt or otherwise? Instead of trusting the academics, we ought to go straight to the creators and consumers. Robert Evans (of The Godfather) said that Hollywood lost its way when it stopped testing audience response. When they began to judge simply in dollars instead of the boos and cheers, they grew wildly out of touch. He calls today the “age of despair.” I say that the gains you get in objectivity by throwing out emotion pales in comparison to the loss in feeling and resonance. Art is a collaborative process, it is the artist, his subject and the viewer in a continuous feedback loop. Now that loop is running at a greater rate of speed. Embrace it instead of running away.

Yes, Hobbes was right when he claimed that we can escape our brutish existence with the “benevolent” guidance of a supreme authority. But Locke’s not doing so bad either. To say that the masses are too prone to flights of fancy misses the crucial point: if we aren’t producing for the people, who exactly are we producing for? If it just for ourselves then the “affection fallacy” isn’t necessary anyway. And from this light it becomes clear that its only purpose is to control and exclude, something that when it comes to art, we cannot afford. For every “Chicken Soup for the Lesbian’s Soul” that we keep from literary respect, we drive a John Kennedy Toole to suicide. For every professor we allow to feel important by denigrating a successful writer, we leave “Fight Club” sitting on the table, ignored. I have read maybe 10 good newspaper articles in the last month, but I have read so many profoundly great blog posts that my account is overflowing. So really academics aren’t trying to save you from yourself, they are trying to save you for themselves. If they strike emotion from the scoresheet, all that’s left is grammar and vocabulary and irony. And how does that give us meaning?

I’m not trying to say that if it makes you cry, it’s good. That would be ridiculous. But I think the opposite is even worse. Excluding impact puts the bland on a level playing field with the vivid–a thought that I have no doubt appeals to academics for a reason. Acknowledging how a work speaks to a reader isn’t a fallacy, it’s judging the content at its most fundamental and basic level. Quite frankly, we’ve done it their way for about 50 years now and every profound work in that era has been shit on by critics, publishers and distributors. That’s all the proof I need to know that we ought to move on….

Edit: Evidence that “experts” are overvalued.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.