I have never seen the movie “Life Is Beautiful.” I haven’t seen it because when it came out, everybody, and I do mean everybody, told me I had to see it, that it was too good to miss.
Maybe it is. All these years later, I’m still not inclined to find out. The critical collective spoke too loudly.
My spouse and I call this the “Life Is Beautiful” problem. It applies to books as well. I thought about this recently while reading novelist Michael Cunningham’s two-part “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury” in the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog.
You might remember that the Pulitzer board caused a fuss this past spring when it decided not to hand out a 2012 award for fiction. This decision appalled a lot of people who care about such things, including the three judges who’d spent most of a year picking three finalists for the award.
Cunningham was one of the judges. In his two-part letter, he wrote about the lack of an award this year, and the uncertain nature of literary prizes. You can find Part One here.
Both parts are thoughtful and worth a read, especially if you wonder how three well-read people go about picking three finalists out of hundreds of published books. What’s stuck with me most is an argument Cunningham makes in Part Two, about how hard it is to predict what the future will decide is Great Literature:
We may be castigated by future generations for failing to nominate a book we dismissed early on, because it struck us as trivial or overwritten or sentimental.
Which is probably one of the reasons those of us who love contemporary fiction love it as we do. We’re alone with it. It arrives without references, without credentials we can trust. Givers of prizes (not to mention critics) do the best they can, but they may–they probably will–be scoffed at by their children’s children. We, the living readers, whether or not we’re members of juries, decide, all on our own, if we suspect ourselves to be in the presence of greatness.
That got me thinking: Do we living readers really decide “all on our own” what’s great? I’m not so sure. Critical judgments start to pile up around books even before they’re published, and now those judgments travel quick as thought–quick as a tweet or a link to a blog post can circulate. It’s the “Life Is Beautiful” problem again, accelerated by digital life.
For example, by the time Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild came out, it had already gotten the collective thumbs up from the writer/editor/publisher/reader circles I pay attention to. Most of that conversation happened online, which means it happened fast and traveled quickly.
I haven’t read “Wild” yet. True, I’m free not to read it. I’m also free to dislike it if I do read it. But there’s already a critical consensus to struggle against or argue with. I’ve absorbed the message that I should feel like I’m in the presence of greatness when and if I read the book..
None of this is meant as a negative comment on Strayed or Wild, which may be truly wonderful. I haven’t read it, as I said. But I know it has arrived in my world with credentials that are hard to ignore.
That’s also true of a contemporary series I am reading: the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn. I picked them up because several writers I admire kept saying what a tour de force they are. Again, I was primed to like them because the collective judgment around them told me I would (or should). And I don’t entirely like them, and I don’t know what to do with that reaction. It’s not the one I expected to have, and one I feel a little bit like I shouldn’t be having–or, just as uncomfortable, that everybody else was wrong and I’m right.
I realize it’s not as simple as thumbs up or thumbs down, and that art’s powerful in part because it’s subjective and hard to pin down. And sometimes the popular wisdom does point me toward something I fall in love with. But sometimes it just makes me want to read something old, something that critics are done bothering with, something that can be mine, all mine.