On my first day of a 100-level English course with Dr. Diana Glyer, she made a table on the whiteboard. As she drew, she explained to us that there is a difference between objective quality and personal preference, that some movies are magically enjoyable even though the acting and script and editing is not, and that some really well-made films are just awful to sit through. We nodded, providing some examples. Of course, there are great movies that also fit one’s personal preferences, and terrible movies that are also no fun. We provided examples of those. As we spoke, Dr. Glyer filled out her table. Finally, we were left with a chart we could all live with, that included things like Full House, The Lord of the Rings, Schindler's List, and others.
Of course, this was English class, and we were supposed to do two things by the end of it: understand the difference between liking something and thinking it is a work of high quality, and to be able to identify quality when we saw it. I can't be certain, but I think there's also the underlying goal of improving our tastes as we went along, to develop it to favor the works of genuine quality. Somehow, I got it in my head that my tastes would improve and I would lose my enjoyment of things of lesser quality (if you've seen the Buzzfeed videos about cheap coffee or wine reviewed by professionals, you'll understand where the confusion came from). After that class period, several students dropped the course. I stayed. I was entranced.
Fast forward three years: I graduate with my Master's in English. That means, I assume, that I have learned the difference between works of superior quality and those of lesser quality. That means my taste has improved: I enjoy high-end works of art much more thoroughly than I did at the beginning of my studies. And, so I assumed, I wouldn't really enjoy the lesser works of art.
Except I still did.
When Fuller House came to Netflix, I spent my set aside T.V. time (away from my thesis) watching it. There's no argument to be made for the quality of that show. it's absolutely awful. And delightful. I found my tastes enriched upward, but it wasn't like climbing a mountain. It was more like wading out into the ocean. Now I can deep-sea dive into movies and literature, but I still enjoy splashing around in the whitewash and getting tumbled by the shorebreak. I read The Divine Comedy this year, and I also read Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. Guess which one I enjoyed more?
That's not to say my program didn't work. It's to say that learning how to identify quality didn't take away my ability to enjoy the things I like naturally, or to enjoy relaxing with media. Just because I can analyze, doesn't mean I have to. Occasionally, during my degree program, well-meaning colleagues or professors would indicate something along the lines of "well, we've all got our little hobbies" when I'd mentioned what I'd watched that weekend (usually, if I confessed a love of anime).
A year out of school, I find myself revolving around quality. Sometimes, I'm in the mood to read something that will challenge me, and I enjoy the challenge. Some days, I want to read about what it was like to play Nellie Oleson on T.V. Some days, a podcast feels like sensory overload. I'm learning that all of it is valuable. I'm learning what I like, and what makes something charming, even if it's not high-end. I'm learning what needs to be good for me to enjoy it, and what doesn't. I'm learning how to apply my skills of engagement to pleasure as well as criticism. It's a lesson I'm enjoying, and one of the many reasons I'm glad I have some time off between programs. If nothing else, I'm learning what my tastes really are, newly developed, and some that I come back to time and time again.
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