f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: A Question of Taste

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Question of Taste

I attended some training last week. The buzz-word of the weekend was "long tail." (And the best line of the weekend went to Michael Cader, creator of Publisher's Lunch, who said "They use the word 'long tail' now. They used to just call it 'back list'." Seriously folks, that's good publishing humor.

Anyway the "long tail" and the Internet paired with nearly unlimited selection have fundamentally altered our culture. One speaker put up a quote I found interesting:
"We are now a nation of niches. There are still blockbusters...but fewer capture the communal pop culture spirit. The action is elsewhere...." LA Times critic, Patrick Goldstein.

What this immediately brought to mind was Veronica Mars. Of course.

Veronica Mars is a TV show. The titular character is a high school (now college) student who solves crimes. It's a bit like MTV crossed with Nancy Drew. I like mysteries and the show has perenially received fairly good reviews, so I was always interested in viewing it, but never tracked it down.

Then the DVDs swept through BHP. A handful of co-workers watched it, loved it, and assured me I would, too. I took Season 1 home and sat with the wife. Long story short: We didn't like it. At all, really.

And here's a few observations:

1. The "nation of niches" thing also means nation of devotees. Sure, most of America will watch and chat (tepidly) about Pirates of the Caribbean, but the most rabid discussion about pop culture now most often occurs outside the "mainstream." And so finding another person who drinks the same Kool-Aid as you about The Decemberists or NewsRadio or Richard Powers somehow feels doubly important. Like two nearly-extinct animals finding each other before slipping off into oblivion.

Or like a small outpost besieged by invading forces. And so like every outpost, people get a bunker mentality. They entrench in their position and neither reason nor entreaty will budge them. (Even cancellation sometimes doesn't end their ensconcement. There are TV fans (like me a Freaks and Geeks) who are the equivalent of those mythic Japanese soldiers still fighting WWII into the 1950s.

2. Even as my co-workers turned deaf ears to my rationale for disliking the show, I noticed something interesting/disturbing in myself.

I began focusing in on the things I didn't like in VM. The best thing would've just been to stop watching--but since we didn't do that, every episode became an exercise in picking things apart. The objective or even appreciative eye had been replaced--not by the critiquing eye but by the critical eye.

The critical eye seeks, first, failures in a work. And, if they're like me, then they fixate on them and aren't able to look past them. And so we become as blind to a work's positives as those devotees are to its weaknesses. There's no common sense analysis. You're either, in the inimitable words of our Prez, "for us or against us."

3. We are in a nation of critics now. Amazon.com gave voice to everyone with an opinion to share in a way that I don't think was seen before. I think it's created a din, an ever-increasing din leaving us with three options.

1. Shout louder than everyone.
2. Stay quiet.
3. Say your piece and hope you're heard.

I've tried all of them at various times--and frankly they all have their place. Number three seems the most sane, though. And I think it's where I'd like to spend most of my time moving forward.

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