This Mysterious Notion of Quality
People blessed with this amorphous attribute we call “taste” like to congratulate themselves for being able to discern the difference between that which is good and salutary and that which is bad and degrading. (Those who are too busy or distracted to make such distinctions rely on taste consultants known as reviewers.) Books, music, paintings, wine, Nigerian mahogany carvings — there are guidelines and standards in every aspect of our cultural yearnings. Fulfilling these standards allegedly imbues a work of art — or a bottle of Burgundy — with the magic that any self-respecting consumer feels he ought to capture, particularly if the price is right.
Participants on both sides of the equation — creators and consumers — play along at this aesthetic charade, pretending that the patina of quality somehow matters more than anything else when determining an object’s worth. The truth is much less highfalutin — and, especially to those who still hold fellows like William Shakespeare and Franz Schubert in the highest esteem, a bit depressing. It is not quality that matters but the illusion of pleasure, usefulness, importance, and rarity.
This manufactured package of desirability, which we might call “Kwalitty,” is the most crucial function of marketing. For without a compelling reason to buy, say, one book instead of another, the average consumer wouldn’t have the time (or the interest) to determine what is truly good and salutary and what is bad and degrading.
I myself have seen Kwalitty do its nefarious work on my own writing success. My current book, “In Search of Burningbush,” is the best work I’ve ever done. By my set of admittedly subjective standards, it’s a literary achievement of extremely high quality. But because it hasn’t attracted the hallmarks of Kwalitty — no advertising, few reviews, no “buzz” — this little masterpiece is losing the battle of the marketplace to others that have been marketed and hyped more effectively. These better-selling books, despite their banality, have mysteriously radiated the aura of “quality.” And because they are commercial successes, no one would dare argue with their essential worth. With their Kwallity.
Conversely, the first book I published, “The Man With the $100,000 Breasts,” got the royal treatment from radio and television producers, major reviewers, and just about everyone else who is more important than the author in determining a book’s fate. The book featured an entertaining story about a weird guy with surgically implanted tits; ergo, the book was of extremely high Kwalitty.
No, the world is anything but a meritocracy. And, yes, anyone who has bothered to examine the best-selling movies and records and books our culture produces will eventually conclude that Western Civilization is hurtling toward its smelly conclusion. But while we slide gleefully toward our doom, let us not forget to congratulate the geniuses who have figured out the secret tricks of the marketplace. Their triumph, the victory of Kwalitty over that ancient and mundane notion of quality, is no small accomplishment. It’s not easy to sell inedible slop when the vast majority of people are still suffering from the misapprehension that having good taste somehow matters.