Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Times Poll Abstainer Speaks!

Turns out that Laura Miller is the critic who refrained from voting in the New York Times' recent poll to determine the Ultimate Fighting Champion of the last 25 years of American fiction. Here, Miller expounds on her silence, if that's not an oxymoron. She claims that her reluctance was not "namby-pamby" in nature, but despite her very sensible comments ("Some people I discussed this with had a hard time understanding that not wanting to exert an excess of judgment isn't the same thing as refusing to make any judgment at all. I don't know why this is so difficult to grasp; it's like the difference between being decently neat and having obsessive-compulsive disorder."), it still comes off seeming a bit...namby-pamby. She writes:
An editor at the Book Review assured me that the list was really a parlor game that I should view in a more cavalier light, like something the obsessive characters in "Diner" or "High Fidelity" might indulge in. But those guys take themselves pretty seriously, and damn if the letter didn't ask for the "most distinguished" American novel of the past 25 years, which sounds pretty sober. I wasn't going to do it as a game when it was likely to be taken in earnest.
Well, OK, yes. But really, the only people more earnest than the guys in High Fidelity are those who, upon entering their record store and being asked to join the discussion of favorite side-ones/track-ones, would refrain out of a sense of obligation to the manner in which they parcel out their critical acumen. I mean: Snore.

(Plus, "Diner" and "High Fidelity"? Totally candidates for my list of 25 favorite movies -- which will be posted soon, Dezmond, I promise. No miserliness with the critical acumen here. No way.)

Plus-plus, this blogger in North Carolina laments the "provincialism" of the vote, since 75 percent of the judges live within "75 miles of Manhattan." My response? Threefold:

1. This guy must have spent way too much time with Google Earth figuring this out.

2. If he's not careful, we'll eliminate southerners altogether next time.

3. On one hand, it's a petty complaint, since it makes sense that a lot of major writers would live near the publishing hub of NYC, the same way top film actors and directors would live near L.A. On the other hand, he's right. Manhattan is probably the most provincial place in the country. On the other hand (if you're deformed), it gets less provincial (in the way we're talking about) well before you've gone 75 miles outside the city, so stretching the boundary of his complaint this way seems particularly weak.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous lfw said...

I'm with Laura on this one. Ranking novels, songs, movies, etc., is pointless at best, and damaging to our conception of artistic expression at worst. I can see how someone might enjoy compiling such a list for themselves or a small group of equally obsessed friends, but attempting to lend this trivial exercise meaning and import by publishing it for a wider audience is just plain silly. It reinforces a negative tendency in this culture to need things to be black and white, to have winners and losers. (Overemphasizing testing for schoolchildren jumps to mind.) Everything must be measurable in order to be understood, or in this case, appreciated.

I don't get it.

11:18 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

LFW, that's the 37th best comment in the blog's history.

Just kidding. But I do think you're wrong on some level. There's a happy medium between Dezmond, who thinks everything in the world can be ranked according to an exact hierarchy, and your notion that any kind of stated preference means making things "black and white." The thing is, subjective opinion often IS black and white. I either like Toni Morrison's work or I don't (in her case, I don't know, because I haven't read her; I know, I'm a cultural drainage ditch). The reasons for liking or hating something might be complex, but the ultimate judgment is less so. I just don't see much difference (philosophically) between a nuanced review that ends up recommending or not recommending a book/cd/movie, and a list doing essentially the same thing. It kick-starts conversations. It's fun. Books, even serious ones, are not above producing harmless fun. I, for one, don't think "everything must be measurable in order to be understood," though that's well said. I just think naming your favorite fill-in-the-blank is a way of appreciating that thing and trying to turn others onto it. Granted, the Times presents this with some self-seriousness, but that's always the case. If you can look past that, and just let it be silly and inconsequential (aside from the temporary boost to Morrison's royalty statement), then where's the harm?

1:10 PM  
Anonymous lfw said...

you're right. of course, if you term the effort "silly and inconsequential," there's no harm done. harm only results when all of this ranking and listing takes itself too seriously and tries to pass as any kind of objective truth. i have, after all, participated in some of this listless list lust in the past, and as long as it's taken for what it is--one person's subjective preferences versus another's, it's all in good fun and, yes, it proves a very effective springboard for discussion. i just have a visceral aversion, i guess, to any notion of objectifying what is most magical and powerful when left to a private alchemy.

1:19 AM  

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