It’s an old joke. A masochist and a sadist are walking down the street together. The masochist says ‘hit me,’ and the sadist says, ‘no, I won’t.’ A great number of people find this joke to be funny (I’m one of them), and I suspect an even greater number don’t. Such is humour: a personal, subjective response. One person’s hilarious is another person’s, ‘what the….?’
And so it would seem that the task of judging which joke is funniest, or which song or novel or movie is the very best, is a fool’s errand. After all, aren’t we, almost by definition, stuck at, ‘well, here’s the one I like best, but that’s just me’? And yet, in most entertainment categories, awards exist, and these apparently aspire to do something more than throw out selected personal responses to the work in question. They aim to identify and reward work of the highest quality. And by attempting this, they are surely claiming that there is more to the judgement than a purely subjective response: that it is possible, with some degree of accuracy, to sort the wheat from the chaff.
This has been on my mind lately because this year I am one of the three judges for the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, and with that goes the responsibility of trying to steer parents, teachers, librarians and, most importantly, children to those books most likely to repay their time and effort. And this would appear to run up against my instinct that our tastes in things like art, wine, literature and music do not actually reference some platonic notion of excellence. I have always seen my response to a piece of art as a highly personalised process. So, does that make me a hypocrite, or is it possible to be both a judge and a subjectivist? I think there is, because as with so many things, this is much less a case of either/or than it first appears. I think there are two reasons awards can provide a useful function, even in a world where the individual remains the ultimate arbiter of taste.
The first argument relies upon the observation that the potential readers of these books will have a huge amount in common. Subjectivity doesn’t of itself imply randomness. In fact there are a great many patterns to the way we respond to words, images and stories. So, while there is plenty of room to disagree between the order of the top three books in a category, for instance, almost everybody will be able to distinguish between a very good book and a very bad one, in the same way that even a novice can tell the difference between a fine wine and vinegar. And the expert should be able to do rather better than that. There is a difference between well constructed narrative, with tension, pace, linkages and resolution, and a bunch of unconnected events. There is a difference between a perceptively drawn character and a caricature, an apt observation and a cliché, dialogue that flows and dialogue that is stilted. Again, the finer the distinction being made, the more personal tastes will diverge, but at the broader level, subjectivity need not be the enemy of consensus.
One way of looking at this, I think, is not to expect everybody’s favourite to be picked as the winner, but to expect most people’s favourites will make it on to one of the short lists.
The second point brings me back to the masochist and the sadist. While it is perfectly valid to look at the joke and not be amused, because it just doesn’t appeal to your sense of humour, it is less valid to think the joke is crashingly unfunny simply because you don’t know what a masochist or a sadist is. Sometimes, perhaps very often, we misjudge the quality of a piece of work because we don’t attend to it closely enough, or we lack the skills or background to attend. We miss something crucial. In this way, with exposure and education, our tastes in very many things become more refined. Often this is mistaken as snobbishness, a small elite claiming the right to define quality on behalf of the uneducated masses. But against this, to pretend that my tastes in opera, say, where I am spectacularly ill informed, are in some way as valid as those of an expert, is to make a fetish of ignorance.
And this is one of the key reasons why awards are often judged by panels. It provides the opportunity, when tastes appear to clash, to ask that most vital question, ‘what am I missing here?’ Sometimes the answer will be nothing, and it will just be a matter of tastes diverging, but other times there’s an opportunity for your colleague to gently pull you aside and explain that a sadist is somebody who enjoys, you know, other people’s pain.