Jerry Coyne links to an article by Bim Adewunmi in The Guardian slagging off best-of lists – such as a recent list of greatest movies issued by the British Film Institute (it gave first place to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo).
Like Jerry, I’ll paste in the objections made by Adewunmi, the reasons given for hating such lists:
• They remove originality of thought. Have you ever tried to compile a list of the best books of all time? Have you automatically written down any or all of these usual suspects – Dickens, Nabokov, Austen, or Woolf – without even realising? We’ve all done it. These authors and their many works are undoubtedly excellent, but is that the only reason they came to mind? No, they’ve been “normed” into your life. Who wants to be the lone wolf standing up in class and saying The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic is their favourite book of all time when everyone else is nodding soberly along to Madame Bovary? Break free of the tyranny of lists! PS: the Shopaholic series is a delight.
• They kill joy. We’ve all used the clapping Orson Welles gif to punctuate Tumblr posts, sure, but have you ever watched all of Citizen Kane? All my life, I’ve been told it is the best thing my eyes will ever see. I have Citizen Kane fatigue. This is what lists do – when the hype gets too much, all joy is extracted from the endeavour. For example, I’m fairly obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In previous years, I would wax lyrical about how amazing the show was, sitting people down and explaining – season by season – how layered and brilliantly conceived the show was, before pressing a box set into their hands, telling them: “Just watch it.” Inevitably, my overactive hype machine sucked all the joy from the situation. The simple pleasure of accidentally stumbling upon the magnificence was gone. The expectations are too high, the disappointment inescapable. These days, I’ve scaled back my enthusiasm. If people want to appreciate the wonder of a groundbreaking and perfectly pitched series that exquisitely explored the ideas of autonomy and feminism via a wisecracking teenager who battles supernatural beings, they will.
• They confirm your most depressing fear: you are desperately uncool. By definition, lists are exclusionary, separating the wheat from the perceived chaff. And while we all have views that might be considered a bit left field, we imagine those mark us out as cool mavericks, not social pariahs. But imagine the explicit confirmation that you’re wrong about everything – your favourite film, your most treasured book, your most beloved album. All wrong. Your very opinion: invalidated. No one wants that. The NHS couldn’t handle the strain of all the crushed egos.
Well, what do you think? I can’t take the last point very seriously, and the whole article seems to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. But is there something in any of these points?
I have to admit that I do often see movies or read books because I feel that … I should. But maybe that’s because I have some pretensions as a critic and feel the need to keep up in certain areas (and to be familiar with the acknowledged classics in those areas) partly out of fear of otherwise being charlatan. This might not affect other people, people with fewer pretensions, so much. But even if you do feel some pressure to know the classics, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. There’s something to be said for having at least some cultural consensus, however shifting and contestable, as to whatever the classics are in various art forms – isn’t there? The bit about shifting and contestable is important but all the same…
On the other hand, if I were asked exactly what should be said for this, I admit that I’d flounder around somewhat. I’d find it difficult to come up with an answer that’s both compelling and concise.
Jerry Coyne makes a good point almost in passing: “While taste is subjective, the taste of people who are regularly exposed to film and books, and think about them, tends to run along concurrent lines, and so it’s worth paying attention to their suggestions.” That sounds about right to me. But it raises an important issue for philosophers – are our measures of the “greatest” or the “best” objective in any sense?
I have a long-term interest in whether novels or plays, say, can be interpreted or evaluated objectively. What do we mean even when we make a simple claim such as that Iago is the villain of Othello? That claim sounds like an objective truth – Iago really is the villain, right? But is it really? Should we say that Iago is coded as a villain if you read or watch it in accordance with certain conventions, but that it may be open (in some sense) to people to reject those conventions? Perhaps we can’t make any sense of it without applying at least some of the conventions that we use to construe the action of plays, but perhaps it’s possible to throw out enough to interpret Othello against the usual grain, with Iago as the hero. Yes? No?
Even if that’s not possible, what if we start interpreting the play at a more abstract level – e.g. as a cautionary tale about jealousy? Don’t we need to rely on conventions that are more contestable? And if we are going to evaluate the play, won’t our evaluations depend on our interpretations, as well as on further criteria of evaluation that may not be binding on others?
What I want to say here is something along the lines that there are always institutional and subjective elements in the interpretation and evaluation of artistic works, and yet interpretation and evaluation are not merely arbitrary. There are going to be reasons why certain conventions and standards are more relevant than others, and why skilled critics, or at least those from similar backgrounds or with similar interests, are likely to converge to a great extent on the same interpretations and evaluations. If that’s right, a list produced by people who are generally regarded as competent critics in a particular field will probably contain works that will be valued by anyone who has internalised much the same conventions of interpretation and standards of evaluation. There is, however, always scope to challenge them, at least at the margins … though then again, perhaps you’re best able to do this if you actually understand them.
So, what do you think of such lists? Is there anything about them that’s objective? Are they just arbitrary? Do you, personally, find them of any value, or would you rather they all be cast into the sea?
[Pssst: My Amazon page]