The Firehose Of Certainty

I recently finished a gig which entailed looking at and writing about the well-appointed homes of various New Yorkers, which made me eager to do something to make my own home more well-appointed. We have glass front bookcases in the dining room, which doubles as playroom for my two kids, and is also where I work. The bookcases are crammed with books and trinkets, and toys are everywhere; it’s a riot of visual stimuli.

I decided to buy some fabric to pin under the glass. I went to eBay, where I was drowning in options: an insane modern toile by Alizée Freudenthal, a graphic Greek key, a bright animal print, and so on. They were all nice. But which one did I like best? How would I know?

Not long ago, I interviewed a well-known author about her career. I read her entire oeuvre—five novels and two story collections. I decided to base my interview prep solely on the books; reviews and interviews were ignored.

The paperback editions of the novels open with pages of accolades, italicized sentences excerpted from various reviews. This is the publisher’s antiquated pitch to the casual bookstore browser, if such a thing even exists anymore. “Ah,” you’re meant to say, “the Christian Science Monitor liked this novel, so it must be good!” I skipped those.


I didn’t read the synopses on Amazon, didn’t visit Wikipedia, didn’t read the jacket copy or blurbs, and didn’t read the press release that accompanied the galley of her to-be-released novel. I wanted to weigh the books’ merits on my own, so much so that I didn’t even look at the colophon. (I still don’t know who her publishers are.) I just read the book and then had to decide: Did I like it? I was not sure.

Is deciding what you like an instinct, a sense that arrives as swiftly as my autoimmune response to cat dander? Or is it the result of reasoned consideration, the way wine tasters swish pinot noir around in their mouths, spit it out, and reach for complex metaphors about chocolate and tobacco? Do you even really decide what you like, or does that fall to Janet Maslin? Or to the waitress who praises the pan-roasted chicken so rapturously? Or to that stranger on Twitter, whose avatar, for some reason, is an egg?

On Twitter you’re not that likely to follow people with whom you disagree anymore than you’d engage deeply with people with whom you fundamentally disagree in real life. (One study (PDF) found that retweeting of political news takes place in extremely “homogenous communities.”) You might follow Ramesh Ponnuru because it makes you feel conscientious, much as you might shout down your homophobic cousin at Thanksgiving. But for the most part, Twitter is a mutual admiration society.

Everyone on Twitter—everyone on the Internet—seems so damn certain. Brevity doesn’t allow for nuance, and it’s a nice complement to confidence. The best tweeters dismiss Maureen Dowd or praise a particular restaurant in a way that leaves little room for argument.

I try for certainty, too. I said something mean on Twitter about Delia Ephron’s essay about pastry and having it all. But a number of people I follow, many of whom I consider like-minded, said the opposite. They praised her humor, her insight, or sent the link out into the world with “This,” which is probably the most ringing—and lazy!—endorsement you can make on Twitter.

I am not anti-Internet, and I don’t think smart phones are a social ill. I just think most people are boors. Checking your phone during dinner is no less rude than reading People during dinner, which I once saw a woman do at Blue Ribbon Brooklyn as she dined with her husband/boyfriend/whatever. I tweeted about it while my date was in the ladies room.

I still don’t care for Ephron’s essay. At least I think I don’t. Maybe I do? Maybe I like the Internet so much I no longer know what else I like.

Who are professional critics to decide what movie/book/restaurant/dance performance is worth seeing? This familiar plaint is most often offered by someone who’s had work they directed/wrote/cooked/choreographed critically filleted.

That’s part of what we love about the Internet—that civilians, armed with Blogspot and a digital camera can make themselves into powerful critical voices. There’s clout and there’s Klout. You no longer need to be under contract at The New Republic to wield influence. With some confidence to declare your likes and dislikes in a handful of characters, anyone can be Ellsworth Toohey.

Many, myself included, still defer to the professional critic—in my case, perhaps too much. For months, I have excitedly anticipated Norman Rush’s new novel, Subtle Bodies. Michiko Kakutani, as is her wont, dismissed it as “totally annoying.” Ruth Franklin gave the book a more considered but no less severe drubbing. It sucks, but I’m now less excited about Rush’s book. However I finally feel about it, I’ll never know how much my judgement is colored by these critics.

Some take pride in declaring the unheralded or overlooked their favorite—arguing that Alice is their favorite Woody Allen film, say. (Woody Allen rather trollishly claims to love Zelig.) I can see that esoteric taste makes you cool but I have always been conventional. When a critic is hard on something I love—Norman Rush, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, “The Golden Girls”—I question my assumptions and my taste. I worry I don’t know how to like something. I know taste is subjective, I know everyone has her own top ten novels. But I don’t want to know what you think of mine. I don’t want to know if you don’t like Mating. I’m scared I’ll start to question my judgments, my taste. I don’t want to lose them.

I can be opinionated on Twitter, and try to be confident, but my tweets aren’t snap judgments; they’re canned judgments. I can tweet about disliking Andy Borowitz without having to put any thought into the matter. The rest of the time, I’m faking it. I don’t really know how to make judgments; I am just pretending that I do. I might seem exasperated about Junot Diaz, but it would take me a long time and far more than 140 characters to work out how I really feel about his work. I worry that this means my mind is feebler than the modern mind ought to be.

Malcolm Gladwell probably wrote about snap judgments being the right judgment, that you’ve made up your mind after thirty seconds, so you don’t need to stand there pondering that Gerhard Richter for ten minutes. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe deciding whether you like something or not demands reflection, demands time. I don’t really know what Malcolm Gladwell said about it because I don’t read him; I don’t really like the things Malcolm Gladwell writes about. At least, I think I don’t?

I recently sat with two other editors at a magazine, and reviewed the work of about five-dozen up-and-coming industrial designers. I’m a writer, working for magazines and in advertising, and am often asked to make judgments, quickly, that relate to matters of taste. The meeting was forty minutes long, so we spent seconds discussing each possible product, and we decided right on the spot if the work was correct for the magazine. The junior editor presented the work, the senior editor considered it. Sometimes they would turn to me and say, “What do you think?”

This senior editor was knowledgeable and experienced, surely the key components of taste. If anyone has taste, she does. Yet she wanted to know my opinion, because even someone with finely-honed taste worries, at least a little bit, about being alone in her opinion. Taste may be subjective, but we still want our judgments to be affirmed by others.

Increasingly, everyone seems so confident and clear about their likes and dislikes. Enthusiasms and disdain pile up on one another in my Twitter timeline. People click that little thumbs up on Facebook (responsible, perhaps, for changing the very meaning of “like” to something more like “acknowledge”) whenever they encounter anything—to register that they see it, they like it, they agree, they have taste, they are participating, they feel something, they matter.

I’m overwhelmed. I no longer know what I like. I double-check my list of favorite books, just to be sure they still seem good to me. I’ll hear someone argue that something I thought was terrible is great and I’ll freeze. I’ll worry that I’ve been wrong about every opinion I’ve ever held.

You may think taste is as specific to you as your fingerprints, but it’s more like your preferred method of taking your coffee: there’s a spectrum of proclivities for the latter (just cream, black with two sugars, imbued with the sugary cinnamon that’s marketed as pumpkin), and you fall somewhere on the scale.

You don’t develop taste within a vacuum; it’s molded by your parents and peers, by your class and education, by magazine editors and television executives, by ad people and marketing people, by people exactly like me. When you see those two dozen DESIGNERS TO WATCH, know that I had a hand in yea-ing or nay-ing them and who the hell am I? I’m someone who can’t pick a piece of fabric. I’m someone who isn’t sure if he liked a book or not.

If you have it within you to declare that a book sucks, that a movie is the best, that a television show is a major cultural achievement, I’m in awe. I appreciate your confidence, your perspective, even if you’re just recycling received ideas. I admire that you have convictions. Mean or not, Dale Peck or Christian Lorentzen, I don’t know how critics decide what they think about something week after week.

I should probably stop with Twitter, take a break from the Internet generally. I am surrounded by confidence and all I feel is ambivalence. I am so cowed by how everyone else seems to know their own mind that it’s hard for me to exercise my own. Maybe I’m fatigued. After looking at all those well-appointed homes, I’m not even sure what well-appointed means to me. The cultural conversation leaves me feeling like Whitman listening to the learn’d astronomer drone on and on; I’d like to step outside and look at the stars and remember what I really like. I’m not sure how to do that anymore.

Rumaan Alam lives in New York and for now can be found here: @Rumaan.