Some time over the past year, I read Chris Bohjalian’s “The Law of Similars”, which I really enjoyed. Small New England town, homeopathic healer, a mysterious death, unanticipated love, psychological breakdowns. Over the past few days, I read a more recent Bohjalian book, “Skeletons at the Feast”, which I enjoyed much less. It’s a holocaust book, and an unusual one – a prosperous rural German family must leave its farm and trek westward to avoid the Soviet army’s vengeance, a mother, her young son, and her 17 year old daughter, along with a Scottish POW, who had been assigned to help out at the farm and who (of course) fell in love with 17 year old Anna; they meet Uri Singer, a Jewish concentration camp escapee, who goes about incognito as a German soldier, renamed Manfred; and then there is Cecile Fournier, a French/Jewish prisoner of the Germans in a work camp, shuffled from place to place. The conditions (for all of them) are terrible. I have read many holocaust novels and memoirs, and this one is nowhere near the best of the bunch. I thought that much of what I read (including the continual hopeful attitudes of the characters) to strain credulity. I would not recommend that you read this book.
But here is where taste comes in. Two members of my family have, on my recommendation, read “The Law of Similars”. Neither cared for the book very much. And if you look on Amazon, you will see that the readers give it only 3.5 (out of 5.0) rating. But if you look at “Skeletons” on Amazon, you will see that it is a 5.0 book and some of the reviews have praised it to the skies.
So, what is taste? And how do you know if a book is “good”?
I don’t mean these questions as silly. If you “like” a book, does it have any connection with it being “good”? And if the majority of people like a book and you don’t, is the book “good”? In other words, even if there is no such thing as an objectively good book, when can you put this adjective in front of it? Do you measure a good book by the number of people who like it? Or does it depend on who those people are? And what about books that people don’t seem to like when they are first written, but ten years later love? Etc. Etc.
Of course, these questions relate not only to books. Take theater, for example. I just saw Judy Gold’s “Mommy Queerest”, which I didn’t dislike, but which did absolutely nothing for me. I would not call it “good”. But audiences and reviewers love it! So, maybe it is good? I have seen most of Theater J’s productions over the past years, and could put together a year’s worth of shows from them that I would consider top rate. But these shows were not necessarily audience favorites, or the favorites of critics. So many people loved, for example, Motti Lerner’s “Pangs of the Messiah”, which I thought was somewhat trite, and many disliked “The Disputation”, featuring Theodore Bikel as Nachmanides, which I thought was absolutely first class. Would it be correct to call either of these shows, or both of them, “good”?
I remember years ago (50+), one night watching The Ed Sullivan Show with my grandmother. Connie Francis was on, and I thought she was awful, that she couldn’t carry a tune. I said so, and my grandmother looked at me and told me that I was completely wrong and she couldn’t believe that I thought that. “Why?”, I asked her, “what is so hard to believe about that?” Her answer was simple: “Everyone likes Connie Francis. She’s a star.” Already, I was confused. Does that fact that everyone likes her make her good? How could anyone like her? If everyone but me likes her, what does that say about my taste?
I also remember a TV episode of about the same time (I don’t know what the show was), where Mickey Rooney played the role of a very ordinary guy, so ordinary that he knew what TV shows and personalities would become audience favorites and which would not. He was hired by a network that previewed every show for him. Some he would bless, and some throw on the scrap heap. His opinions made absolutely no sense to the TV executives, but they were always correct. Until one day, they weren’t any more, and he was just like everyone else. The show did not explain what happened to Rooney’s unique talent, but again it raised the question: is something objectively good? do you measure it by how it is received by the bulk of its recipients? and is there a way to determine who has “good taste” and whose taste is either idiosyncratic or bad?
And of course, there are underlying questions. How much are people influenced by the opinions of others? And are some more likely to be positively influenced and others more likely to develop contrarian positions? And, finally, are the elements of the analysis the same if you are dealing with politics, or religion, rather than literature or entertainment?
A question to start the new year with.