Anyone is a Critic — but Shouldn’t be

I’m not sure what got me started on this yesterday.  It could have been the fact that I was in a bookstore to pick up something I probably won’t have time to read soon.

The book is Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson.  Pamela is an Eighteenth Century epistolary novel which I hadn’t heard of until I read Vivien Jones’s 1996 introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

I had already finished reading Pride and Prejudice by the time I looked at the introduction.  Ms. Jones alluded to Pamela, and made it clear that the book has more substance than most current readers will recognize.  She mentioned a passage which will make most women uncomfortable, and suggested we stay focused on the more universal human aspects.

I don’t know when I will read Pamela (there are library books in the apartment that will have to be read first and returned), but I hope I will remain calm and open-minded enough not to make a fool of myself when I finally get around to it.

Political correctness can wipe out our familiarity with the past.  During the most recent holiday season, Frank Loesser’s 1949 song Baby it’s Cold Outside became an object of controversy because of the way the lyrics are interpreted now.  However, there’s no indication that Mr. Loesser was endorsing sexual assault when he wrote the song.  KOIT in San Francisco removed the song from the station’s holiday playlist, but then restored it after an online listener vote was held.

In fairness, there are good reasons Baby it’s Cold Outside is upsetting to some women now.  I was glad KOIT reversed its decision to ban the song, but found it distressing when I heard it while shopping in a store.  I’ll never enjoy that song, but I’ll still respect the history behind it.

There are people who wouldn’t mind seeing some creative work deleted from all existence just because they personally don’t care for it.  There doesn’t have to be a tender subject involved.  Just aesthetics.

I thought of someone I used to know.  She and I were so-called friends for more than twenty years, and I finally had to give up on her because of a lot of tension that isn’t worth describing in graphic detail now.  It’s always difficult to end long friendships, but she was cruel and a constant source of worry for her friends.  Some of her other friends and I burned out on everything that was going on with her, but she was still running full blast.

Although we were usually within local calling distance — and spent a lot of time on the telephone — for about ten years we also wrote letters back and forth.

Most of our letters were lightweight, even when they were long enough that they needed extra postage.  The missives from each of us lacked substance, but I remember making an effort that she didn’t support.

I received letters from her which were handwritten in fountain pen ink on linen notepaper.  To look at the unopened envelopes, you might think there was something really special in there.  That was misleading, though.  Usually, she just raged about how stupid one thing or another was.

Although she liked instrumental classical music, one of her pet peeves was opera.  Come hell or high water, she never saw it as something that just didn’t appeal to her.  She was adamant that the whole genre was a con job, all sopranos screeched, and all the costumes were elitist jokes.

I heard similar commentary on popular music from someone else.  That person had high-brow taste, and was adamant that jazz, blues, standards, rock, country (heaven help the person who got him started on a country music rant) were for people who just didn’t know any better.

I never want to be that way.  Although I’m convinced a lot of things in popular culture really are just profit-generating trash, I have fond memories of reading pointless books, listening to pointless music (that disappeared after running its course on the Top 40 list) and watching pointless movies.  Some of those apparently substance-free adventures in entertainment were comforting when I was lonely, ill or just stressed out.

When dubious creative work doesn’t do it for you, remember there’s a potential for it benefiting a larger audience.  Although our point is well taken when we complain that most people have no interest in anything that’s going to tax them intellectually, we should also think of the painfully shy thirteen year-old who finds comfort in romance novels and her great grandmother with dementia who stares at the TV all day long in the nursing home.  There may be a good reason that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

Likewise, we can avoid looking ignorant if we don’t have too much to say about real art that doesn’t appeal to us.  You might hear only screeching during a soprano’s performance, but some people you respect may understand the unique talent and hard work involved in something you just can’t hear.

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