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 del.icio.us 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….
Did you read “The Cult of the Amateur” yet? Your post really reminded me of how I felt reading that elitist, delusional piece of shit. I suggest you check it out.
Dude, you are totally right. That book is awful and the only reason I haven’t mentioned it is I didn’t want to give the book any more publicity…it is that bad. Here is what I wrote down when I read it:
s a very contrarian, snooty book. If web 2.0 is Locke then he is Hobbes..but not that eloquent.
Its not that UGC is hurtful, its that it can never really replace professional content. He doesn’t understand that we are sort of in a limbo right now–where professional content isn’t that spectacular either. Like you said, a lot of bloated execs with no skills are producing stuff. The whole thing is probably going to turn over a few more times before it settles, but ultimately the best stuff will rise to the top–whoever made it.
The book should be about how do you nurture talent in this new age. How do you go from UGC to pro without losing the authenticity that has drawn people there to begin with? Instead its mostly about how we’re losing our culture and our class and all that hysteria. But you know what? I watch tv and movies and most of them fucking suck. The NYT isn’t that awesome either.
He’s basically out there screaming that corporate raiders like milken are ruining the ‘history’ of corporate america type thing. Things change, generations die. Its not always for the worse…
Do you write for Cracked?
Thanks for responding, and yes I do. There’s been less writing as of late and a whole lot more editing, but as far as jobs go, I can’t really complain.
Dropped you an email. Hope you have time to discuss.
This is one of your best posts. I like the Hobbes and Locke allusion.
After I first read this post, my first reaction was to agree with you entirely. But after a few weeks of mulling this over, I think there is room for a middle ground regarding the affection fallacy. You and Tucker both enjoy sneering at academics (often with good reason) but I believe that many ideas coming from academia have practical utility when they are not whole-heartedly adhered to. The affection fallacy strikes me as one such idea.
Objectively judging the quality of art is extremely difficult, and is in many ways a fundamentally flawed process. It seems to me that the affection fallacy could prove useful in this endeavor. For instance, a sex scene from a trashy romance novel may evoke incredibly strong emotions, but most will agree that this is not the same calibur writing as The Great Gatsby. The feelings that a work of art evokes are important, but I don’t think they are of absolute importance. We don’t judge work “on its grammar and nothing more,” but the affection fallacy can remind us to consider other factors–complexity, creativity, structure, etc.
I would hypothesize that much of the poor-quality content which the publishing industry has generated in the past decade can be partially attributed, in separate cases, to too strong or too weak of an adherence to the affection fallacy.
Sorry if this post was too long.
But ultimately, isn’t Gatsby good because it makes you feel? For Gatsby and for Nick and for that longing at the green light?
Those things you listed are MEANINGLESS if they don’t add up to anything. What the affection fallacy says is that they are inherently good–that they are good for their own sake. That complexity is not a tool for meaning but an end in itself.
I agree with you that the factors I listed are meaningless of they don’t add up to anything. But I also think that a work that evokes strong feelings without any complexity, structure, or creativity is equally meaningless.
Why? What if that’s all it takes? You’d advocate a dunk over a layup when a layup was all that was needed?