Sometimes, my memory is okay. For example, I am essentially correct in my memory of a Calvin Trillin piece for the New Yorker, describing a blind wine-tasting in which experts could not tell red from white when it was served in black glasses. But I was also right to do a little checking on the Internet before I wrote about it; it turns out that the so-called Davis test was conducted on aroma alone. However, I found a blog by a wine lover who tried his own version of the test, and his results were interesting. (http://community.winepressnw.com/node/247) In short: some well-educated palates got it wrong and while the blogger himself scores a small triumph when someone tries to fool him by blending the red and the white, he calls himself “lucky.”
Today, in The Baltimore Sun, there is an article about Stephen Hunter, my former colleague, and it quotes our former boss. (To clarify — Hunter, a widely admired thriller writer, is now the Washington Post’s film critic; our former boss, Steve Proctor, has ended up at the San Francisco Chronicle.) Hunter, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism a few years back, is generally regarded as a very gifted stylist and epic storyteller; IIRC, Marilyn Stasio once compared him to Homer. And his own literary idol is Hemingway. So why, the reporter asks, is his work regarded as genre fiction?
Here’s Proctor: “The ability to empathize and understand all kinds of characters is the difference between popular writing and serious fiction.” (He was building on the writer’s opinion that female characters have not been Hunter’s strong suit.)
With all due respect to my former boss — that would be none, by the way — genre is a label, placed on books for the consumer’s (and book reviewer’s) convenience. It is an external value, a marketing decision, not an inherent measure of worth. If we weren’t told what books were, we would have to sift through all the titles on our own. It would be the equivalent of drinking wine from black cups, and even some educated palates might be misled.
Just this morning, I tried on some outfits in anticipation of an engagement later this week. The outfit I ended up choosing is, according to the one outside opinion I sought, “classy and becoming.” It also is a) twelve years old and b) from Banana Republic. But no one will know that unless I wear it inside out. My hunch is that the context of the engagement — not to mention the killer shoes — will lead people to think the outfit is nicer than it is. Unless you read this blog, in which case, if you catch this particular gig, you’ll probably be thinking: “I can’t believe that Laura is such a dork that she’s wearing a 12-year-old Banana Republic outfit.”