First of all, Hallberg takes the "we started a conversation and conversations are good" line of argument. I would offer that there is an important distinction between starting a conversation and hosting a conversation. By its actions, The Millions was clearly hosting a conversation, and therefore had some additional obligations to uphold. More than just kicking things off and seeing where they rolled, I feel that there needed to have been more of an effort at engaging voices from different sectors of literary activity—not just writers and critics, but translators, booksellers, librarians (a group I didn't even think of in my first post), academics, and publishers. So, yeah, it's great that some conversations got started, but that could have been done with a single-line post: "Best Book of the Millennium: discuss." By assuming the authority of a host, The Millions needed to do more than get people talking.
Secondly and maybe more significantly, Hallberg takes issue with what he calls "the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism," which he ties to Bourdieu, although it could probably be more generally tied to the "hermeneutics of suspicion," a fellowship which also numbers among its members Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Here's what Hallberg finds aggravating about it:
As Carl Wilson notes in Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, there’s a tendency among the commentariat to view aesthetic experience through the prism of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction – to assume (brace yourself: I’m about to vulgarize this) that people mostly love the things they love for what loving those things says about them. This may be true, in a sense broad enough to be almost tautological. People who responded to The Corrections – people who were, yes, moved by it – may have been united, among other things, by their desire to be united by an a novel that moved them, and moved by a novel that united them. But to push this anodyne observation into an accusation of illegitimacy or blindness is to fashion it into a boomerang: it redounds upon the one hurling it, and promptly plants itself in her forehead. That is, it makes her appear far more attuned to where a work sits on the popularity-backlash curve – and far more anxious about what her own position thereupon may say about her – than the reader who simply allows herself to be, or not to be, seduced.As much as I dislike the plumped-up "I know you are but what am I" tone of the argument, let's just take a step back and ask what really happens when a critic attempts to account for another person's taste by means of situating them within specific social formations. Hallberg's argument for how to account for taste is not exactly coherent (it reduces to a sort of "if I say I like it, I just like it, okay?"), but his assumption that the Bourdieusian stance is primarily a way of setting up an "anything you can do, I can do meta" game seems to be a common one, and a difficult feeling to shake off.
To put it another way, the Bourdieuvian [sic] posture – I’ve come to think of it as the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism – may may be as much an infection as a diagnosis. It seems to have invaded, unexamined, online discourse about books, movies, music, and art. And it seems to prompt the very flocking pattern – hype, backlash, counterbacklash – it purports to expose. At any rate, insofar as it annihilates its own object, it is transparently poor ground for any debate about value.
First of all, there is buried in Hallberg's argument a deep resistance to thinking of taste as anything that we consciously manipulate (or try to manipulate), an assumption that all manipulation is beady-eyed calculation. We are "moved" by some art, and the set of unmoved movers forms our taste; I find this a fairly narrow view of appreciation. The effort to comprehend a work which does not initially appeal to me often leads to a deeper integration of that work into my way of thinking; wrestling with its lack of appeal or mixed appeal is, I think, stronger grounds for what could be called "enjoying" it than an automatic rush of pleasure when I first encounter it. Taste is absolutely a conscious process because it is precisely how we discern between things that are unappealing and things that are bad which forms what we mean by taste, and the only way you can make that discernment is by active conscious manipulation.
Secondly, the resistance to an idea of active manipulation of one's taste leads directly to a fear of the unconscious self-manipulation of taste—the idea which he thinks Bourdieu is trying to get across, that some unconscious or half-conscious desire to look good guides all our decisions about what to like and what to dislike. (Bourdieu's is considerably more complicated than this, but I was hoping to post soon on a section of Distinction I just read for a class, so I'll get back to what's in fact more complicated in a bit.) The "Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes?" posture he says characterizes this mode of criticism is just this: a fear that my conscious rationales for my taste aren't accurate, that "your lying eyes" see what I cannot—my unconscious attempts to like only advantageous things.
There is certainly a malefic cross-pollination which sometimes occurs where a critique of taste gets spliced with good old vulgar-Marxist thunderings about "false consciousness"—the "you only like that because you're deluded" argument—but I think that Hallberg assumes that this splicing always happens and is, in fact, more of a feature than a bug—for him, it seems analyzing the way that taste is formed is always an accusation of false consciousness.
But I think you'd only think that way if you do believe that taste has got to be something entirely visceral, something you don't (and don't want to) consciously manipulate. Otherwise, false consciousness doesn't need to come up—if I think of taste as something that I work on or work over, is a critique of my taste an accusation of delusion or a commentary on the work I've done? Obviously the latter.
I think of the judges on The Millions panel as active participants in the formation of their taste. Obviously some structural boundaries are placed on what they're exposed to (and to some degree the manner or timing they are exposed to it), but I assume that they are just as active in working on and over their taste as I am. It is just that in a fairly homogeneous group (like the panel), there aren't going to be so many different ways of working on/over taste represented. Writers, in part because their structural boundaries overlap to a substantial degree (being subject to similar situations and possessing similar goals), are going to work over their taste in broadly similar ways—the space of the workshop shows them one way, the market shows them another (or maybe the same way), and many of them accept one or both. That was what I was pointing to in flagging the number of hybrid-fiction books and the number of short story collections on the list; the members of the panel had largely worked over their taste in a similar fashion and had produced a specific kind of list, one suited to that fashion.
Critiquing taste isn't about trying to ride just ahead of the wave and looking back to tell everyone behind you that they're just pathetically trying (consciously or unconsciously) to be cool. Analyzing how taste is formed isn't an aesthetic Ponzi scheme; handled correctly, it produces real dividends, even if some people are unhappy seeing it work.