On the Bad Binary of “Good” and “Bad” Literature
Josh Cook on Taking Back the Idea of "Good Taste" from Cultural Authoritarians
Readers all over the country seek out my staff picks. They regularly take my recommendations both in-store and online. I can sometimes hand a book to a familiar customer and tell them to buy it with no other explanation and they will. One reader trusts me enough that she purchased a gift card that she keeps at the store so I can buy and set aside for her any book I see that I think she’ll like.
I think all of that offers evidence that I have good taste in books. I’ve always thought of “good taste” as the ability to discern aspects of things that other people can’t, aspects that have a complexity or subtlety that requires some level of expertise to discern. Through formal training, a lot of experience, and often both, someone with “good taste” can see what other people cannot.
Readers thinking you have good taste in books might be the pinnacle of achievement for a bookseller. It means you can sell a ton of books both in general and in terms of the specific titles you want to support. Whether we’re talking about “good taste” that is rooted specifically in me as an individual bookseller that is built up over a number of successful recommendations or a more general good taste rooted in the fact that I work as a bookseller at Porter Square Books, “good taste in books” is something I want to have and be known for.
But “good taste,” even in books, hasn’t always been used to help people connect to the things they’re likely to enjoy. It has often been used to police access to power, marginalize communities, and reinforce existing privilege, and to argue that some specific experiences, perspectives, ways of creating art, and entertainment are “universal human experience.”
Though there are experiences we could describe as universal, though we’re all born, we all die, we all eat and drink, people in power have often used good taste to argue that their interpretations or versions or perspectives on those universal experiences are “normal” or the “standard,” and to judge art created from different interpretations, versions, and perspectives to be inferior.
This idea of a standard version of humanity is wielded as an emotional weapon. Just about everyone has been made to feel like shit because someone with “good taste” declared that something they love is bad. We’ve been made to feel inferior because someone with authority is shocked we haven’t read this book, listened to this band, watched that movie. Which is not to say that people can’t be inspired to grow when they are shown a gap in their experience, but that there is a significant difference between presenting a gap in someone’s reading to them as an opportunity to grow if they choose and presenting a gap in someone’s reading as proof they are inferior.This version of good taste, then, acts as a kind of cultural authoritarianism, using positions of power and emotional manipulation to homogenize creative expression in service to the culture of systems of power.
No one wants to feel shitty, so we read that book, listen to the band, watch that movie, and make ourselves like it. (Or least we tell people we do.) This version of good taste, then, acts as a kind of cultural authoritarianism, using positions of power and emotional manipulation to homogenize creative expression in service to the culture of systems of power.
The book-world version of cultural authoritarianism most likely calls up the image of the snooty English professor; an elbow-patched, pipe-smoking, grand arbiter of literary value who is visibly appalled when he discovers one of his students hasn’t read Hemingway or Carver. It is one thing for this professor to explain to his student that he designed his course with the expectation his students would have read these authors in previous classes, show them they will have a richer experience in the course if they can catch up on their own, and guide them to the most relevant texts those authors have written. It’s another thing to give them poorer marks because they don’t get references to these works or to call out the student in class. The former is an act of education, while the latter is an act of power.
In the indie bookstore in the twenty-first century, we’re more likely to think of the lit bro who is probably fine if you skipped Papa Hemingway, but smirks with condescension when he hears you haven’t read Krasznahorkai. He may not have the power to tank your GPA, but he certainly has the power to ruin your trip to the bookstore. As much as I want to have good taste in books, as much as I want to use that status to sell books that I think make the world a better place, as a college-educated, cisgender, heterosexual, masculine-presenting white man, I need to be cognizant of ways people like me have used “good taste” as an act of cultural authoritarianism to manipulate culture, denigrate creations from other identities, and empower themselves at the expense of others.
For me, I think the first step in making sure I don’t practice cultural authoritarianism is recognizing a simple fact: No one needs my opinion about books. Even if they ask for it at the store, they don’t need to take my recommendation. This might be the biggest distinction between what I want to do as a bookseller and what I want to avoid. Rather than relying on my position as a bookseller at an independent bookstore, or as someone with a college degree in literature, or as a critic who has reviewed books, or as a writer who has written them, to confer authority on my opinions I need to put in the work to make my opinions influential.
The thing is, I love Krasznahorkai. Sure, he’s difficult. Sure, reading him has become something of a status symbol. Sure, a lot of white dudes with beards and glasses evangelize for him. Frankly, it’s not unreasonable to assume that someone like me recommending Krasznahorkai is going to rely on the emotional manipulation of cultural authoritarianism. But nobody writes sentences the way he does. They move in complex cycles, doubling back on themselves to retread ground in slightly altered ways the second, third, even fourth time around. Rather than straight lines or branches, Krasznahorkai’s sentences could be diagrammed as curlicues and spirals.
Sometimes, as in Chasing Homer, this style evokes a sense of lostness, of turning a number of directions with increasing anxiety before taking a hesitant step. Other times he writes with an almost unsettling precision. Reading Seiobo There Below feels like watching someone repair the same intricate clock over and over again. Other times, as in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming and Satantango, the sentences walk the border between floundering and dancing, so it’s impossible to tell a panicked whirl from a precisely executed twirl.
Even other writers known for their long sentences don’t construct them the way Krasznahorkai does. For example, Proust’s long sentences branch out like architectural plans, enfolding wide arrays of tightly organized details and contexts before tapering back to their focus. Reading one of Proust’s long sentences is like walking through a perfectly organized museum exhibit from start to finish. To me, this style gives Krasznahorkai’s work, no matter how fantastic the events depicted are, a fundamental realism. Most of the time, life doesn’t move the way linear, easily diagrammed sentences do. Life moves two steps forward, one step back. Events in our past return to impact our present. We try the same thing over and over again. We make little hesitant changes. We regret those changes. We regret not changing. In a way, stories composed exclusively in linear sentences add artificiality to what they depict through that stylistic choice.
If the paragraph above convinces you to give Krasznahorkai a try, great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too. In contrast with the cultural authoritarian version of good taste, it really doesn’t matter what you think about my arguments; the fact that I say Krasznahorkai is worth reading is all it takes. In this good taste, who I am is what matters. This is the difference between influence and authority. This is the difference between a version of expertise that helps people make decisions for themselves and a version of expertise that tells people what to do. This is the difference between a version of good taste that accepts that different works will connect with different people and a version of good taste that is used as a justification for denying certain people access to power, influence, and advancement.
So rather than declaring Krasznahorkai better than other writers, in my job as a bookseller I discern and describe what makes Krasznahorkai different from other authors to help readers decide if they want to give his work a try. Some distinctions between books are easy to encapsulate in the descriptions and summaries publishers include on book covers. Anyone can read the summaries of two books, say a crime novel set in the roughly contemporary United States and a speculative fiction set around the Civil War and decide which one they prefer to read.
However, important facets of books are not contained in plot summaries that can fit on the back cover. Plot is only one way that The Trees by Percival Everett explores historic and contemporary American racism differently than does Colson Whitehead in The Underground Railroad. The Trees critiques the police procedural genre in support of a broader interrogation of the relationship between historical narrative and the persistence of white supremacy, while toying with readers’ assumptions about what we should consider “realistic” and what we should consider “fantastic.” It is overtly weird and through that shows just how weird the ideology of white supremacy is.
In contrast, The Underground Railroad combines historical and speculative fiction into a story that will feel traditional to many readers only to dramatically undercut plot as a narrative mechanism itself and critique the ability of stories to reflect reality in productive ways. Rather than using strange events to critique reality, it challenges the realism of any story that does not factor in the random shit that happens in the world. The challenge in fighting white supremacy doesn’t live in fighting its most dramatic expressions but in deracinating its deep and hidden roots from the mundane aspects of life we barely notice.So rather than declaring Krasznahorkai better than other writers, in my job as a bookseller I discern and describe what makes Krasznahorkai different from other authors to help readers decide if they want to give his work a try.
To see and articulate these deeper distinctions of narrative between The Trees and The Underground Railroad one needs to have an understanding of police procedurals, historical fiction, and speculative fiction, as well as some understanding of the techniques of narrative writers use to create emotional and intellectual impacts. It would also help to have read other books by Whitehead and Everett to see these works in the contexts of their oeuvres, along with works by other authors, like Walter Mosley and Toni Morrison, who explore similar themes and experiment with similar techniques.
Cultivating this level of discernment requires reading both broadly and deeply to develop a sophisticated understanding of a wide range of books. In other words, to see distinctions deeper than plot summaries you’ve got to read a ton of books and you’ve got to read them closely.
Articulating these distinctions does more than just help people make decisions. When I describe a book to a reader, I want to do more than just convince them to buy it. Humans are language animals. We understand the world through language. We experience the world through language. For example, until I started reading and paying attention to descriptions of wine, wine always just kind of tasted like wine to me. I could tell a white from a red from a rosé, of course, but tasted with little subtlety beyond that.
Learning wines could be described as having “minerality” or a taste of “graphite” or “grass” unlocked those sensations in my mind. I needed the words before I could taste the flavors. We can’t ask for what we can’t name. Often, we can’t even experience or feel what we can’t name. So that articulation of distinction doesn’t just help people make choices, it also helps them have richer experiences reading the books they choose by giving them language for those experiences.
Sometimes those distinctions do include value judgments. Sometimes I do want to tell a reader that I think this book is better for what they want than that book. But declarations of quality, declaring this book “good” and that book “bad” is a fundamental aspect of weaponized good taste, one that brings together assumed authority and those incorrect assumptions of “standard” human experiences. Rather than thinking in terms of “good” and “bad,” I think about books in terms of “success” and “failure.” Does this book achieve the goals I think the author set for it? Does it meet my personal needs? Is it likely to meet the needs of this reader at this moment? What impact could it have on the social, cultural, and literary context in which it exists?
When I answer those questions, I do so assuming different readers might answer them differently. “Successful” and “failed” are still value statements. I’m still using my expertise in books to assess the quality of books, but “quality” rooted in specific contexts that acknowledges subjectivity is significantly different from a “quality” rooted in an assumption of universal quality. The former rests on acts of influence, while the latter relies on power and authority.
Ultimately, we’re all people with different skills and interests who made different decisions about how to spend our time and so developed different resources. To me, a humane practice of good taste means using the resources I’ve developed to discern distinctions between books and to articulate those distinctions while being honest about my own subjectivity and cognizant of the specific contexts the books exist in to help other people make good decisions for themselves and have better experiences with what they decide to read.
I can do this without denigrating works that I don’t find successful or readers who love those books. I can do this so readers who want to are encouraged to strive for deeper reading experiences outside their comfort zones without depicting everyone who hasn’t read the books I think are important as bad readers. I can open gates. I can lift up. I can inspire readers to want to be lifted.
One might ask: If “good taste” can be used as a weapon of cultural authoritarianism, why bother creating a humane version of it at all? Why can’t we just let people like what they like and find what they find? After all, most of us have access to a near infinite database of books, book reviews, amateur reviews, ratings, and opinions. Perhaps the easiest solution to the historical and contemporary weaponizing of “good taste” is to abandon it all together.
But having a near infinite database isn’t always helpful. If you don’t know what you’re looking for or how to sort that information, it’s easy to drown in that ocean of data. With online shopping, library networks that lend across branches, and websites like Project Gutenberg that provide easy access to public domain books, the contemporary reader can choose from damn near every book ever written. The number of choices we face can be so overwhelming that we are more stressed having to choose than excited to enjoy what we’ve chosen.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this phenomenon the “paradox of choice,” and it is one of the reasons we so often watch the same movies and order the same things at restaurants. (Not that there’s anything wrong with returning to favorites.) Good taste can solve this problem by winnowing down the choices to manageable numbers. If nothing else, “Josh said it was good,” is one solution to the paradox of choice.
But I think humane good taste offers more than just a practical solution to the paradox of choice. First, readers “just finding what they find” will usually find the same books other readers have already found; classics, canonical titles, current bestsellers. They’ll find books already well supported by existing systems. If what’s popular meets your reading needs, that’s fine, but if you want to have a broader reading life, you’ll need to do some work.
If you’re willing to put in the time and you have some Googling skills, you can dig beyond the books currently being adapted into movies and high school English class staples on your own. Many readers do. But if you don’t have those skills or don’t want to spend that time, getting a recommendation from someone with “good taste,” like a trusted bookseller, will help you get to those underknown and undersupported books without hours of research.
More important, we need to recognize that oppressive forces in our society are not “letting people find what they find.” Oppressors in the United States have always sought to control who reads what, from making it illegal to teach slaves how to read to removing topics from school curricula and textbooks to the book bans and attacks on libraries so prevalent in the 2020s. Oppressive forces are doing everything in their power to make sure the only books readers—especially young readers—find are books those forces approve of.
By guiding readers beyond the first page of a Google search return and especially by bringing books by marginalized populations to readers, this humane practice can be an antidote to those oppressive forces. It can lead readers to books contemporary conservatives in particular and oppressive forces in general would prefer no one read. It can open what fascists strive to close.
Furthermore, by guiding readers to less mainstream books and books by and about marginalized identities and communities, humane good taste can de-marginalize those populations. The more we read about an identity, community, or experience, the less alien it is to us. Even if those identities are dramatically different from our own, seeing them with frequency removes the sharp edge of difference that conservatives use to create fear and distrust. This can have a general impact on one’s life as well. Being comfortable reading about specific different communities and identities makes it easier to be comfortable whenever you read something from outside your typical experience.
Also, the language of distinction itself helps this de-othering process. There are good reasons to be wary of people you’ve never met or things you’ve never done. Trying something new can be scary. But new experiences are less scary when you have the tools to understand them. By giving people language to describe what they are reading, those unfamiliar books become more approachable and people are more likely to have a positive experience reading something unfamiliar making them more likely to continue trying new and unfamiliar books.
This isn’t about presenting a homogenized version of the unfamiliar so it is more likely to be palatable. That can often do more harm than good. Rather, it is about introducing what is different in positive ways and giving people the tools to have positive experiences with it. The goal isn’t to make it seem as though everyone is ultimately the same, but to create a culture that celebrates difference.
This, I think, was one of the great triumphs of Anthony Bourdain’s work. He never tried to adapt the cultures he was exploring for his audience. He never took the people, the places, or the food out of their local contexts. Rather, he strove to present what makes these places special in ways that celebrated that specialness. Through this openness without appropriation, Bourdain was able to show, more than any other person I’ve encountered, just how fucking big the world is and just how incredible it is to live in it.
The number of books I’ve read will always be far, far less than the number of books I won’t. It seems like every time I move a book off my TBR pile, three more books have already replaced it. Some might find that expanse of books daunting, perhaps even frustrating. I’m sure many readers feel like their TBR pile will loom over them, scowling with disappointment when they die having left so many great books unread.Ultimately, perhaps the biggest difference between the humane good taste I’m trying to cultivate and the weaponized good taste used as a tool of cultural authoritarianism is the latter is something you have and the former is something you do.
But I am not daunted by the expanse of books I’ll never read. I am thrilled. I think it’s beautiful that I could read books forever, and forever encounter the unfamiliar. To me, that proves the breadth, depth, and fundamental substance and significance of the human experience. To me, reading is an infinite journey and I want to bring as many people along with me as I can.
Weaponized good taste argues that only some of us are truly worthy of the power of art and literature. It argues that only some of us are capable of discerning the true quality in books and that everyone else should follow that vanguard. It can be easy to believe many books are out of your reach, that you are only capable of appreciating the most conventional or most familiar books, that challenging books are just for professors or lit bros who want to show off for each other.
But if you are literate, you are almost certainly a better reader than you think you are. You have the skills to interpret sophisticated images. You can be comfortable with ambiguity. You are capable of approaching the unfamiliar with curiosity instead of fear. You can be adventurous in exploring that infinite world of books with or without a guide. And if you want a guide, I need to continue reading adventurously and developing my expertise so I am always worthy of whatever influence I have.
Ultimately, perhaps the biggest difference between the humane good taste I’m trying to cultivate and the weaponized good taste used as a tool of cultural authoritarianism is the latter is something you have and the former is something you do. Humane good taste is a practice. It’s not about possessing expertise but about using whatever expertise you have developed to enrich the lives of others. It is not about hoarding whatever influence might come with that expertise but about sharing it with others. It’s not about occupying a position of authority but about communicating what I think and what I know in ways that are impactful and evocative to other people.
It’s about what I do, not who I am. The world of books is so fucking big. If I want to claim I have good taste in books, I have a responsibility to bring as much of that world to as many of you as I can.
Excerpted from The Art of Libromancy by Josh Cook. Copyright © Josh Cook, 2023. Excerpted with permission by Biblioasis. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.