Scott Esposito was for Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections before he was against it:
You know, right when I read The Corrections, I really, really liked it too. (And then I read Strong Motion and had a similarly positive reaction.) Both books gave me one of those visceral reactions that I suppose you could compare to falling in love, or perhaps being powerfully smitten after a night of intense conversation.
And then what happened? I got a little perspective. Franzen started looking less and less impressive to me. Other books and authors more so. In other words, I began to embrace that more active part of discernment and taste…
Esposito’s comments follow some earlier comments by Andrew Seal about the Millions’ list of the best fiction of the new millennium. (I haven’t followed the discussion closely, but I gather Seal believes the list is constricted by design—a product of a poll of people with too-alike sensibilities.) The line of thought here is initially a little off-putting, mainly because it reminds me of the kind of arguments you hear poseurs make when they talk about about music. (“You like them? Hey, 2006 called—they want their taste back.”) Nick Hornby explicitly riffed on this notion in his novel High Fidelity. “Anna’s a Simple Minds fan,” one of the record-store nerds laments as he introduces his new girlfriend to his buddies. “But I think she’s beginning to understand why she shouldn’t be.”
Esposito isn’t that shallow. But his argument seems to dismiss as fraudulent the pleasure one gets as a reader—as if falling in love with a book makes you a sucker, and you need to fight against that feeling. Critics can interrogate books they like just as easily as ones they don’t. There’s no reason why you can’t study the feelings you get while reading a book, figure out whether that pleasure is a result of some explicit manipulation by the author or something deeper in the text. Indeed, that’s the most basic of divisions between the endless parade of Amazon reviewers (“I loved this book so mcuh!”) and a critic who wants to explain not just what a novel makes him or her feel but how the novel generated that feeling.
Intentionally or not, Esposito argues that pleasure resists discernment, that it can’t be a product of discernment—he once loved The Corrections, he writes, but after his first read he acquired the “more active part of discernment and taste.” Taste evolves, and nobody’s under any obligation to keep on loving the books they loved years back—if I went back to the books I loved 10 years ago, including The Corrections, I’m sure I’ll find reasons to scratch my head over my initial responses and convictions about the book. But our reasons for loving a book can be articulated, even during that first read—we don’t have to be struck dumb by that love.