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“It Really Matters If Somebody Has Bad Taste”: An Interview With Book Critic Becca Rothfeld

Englishmen in Paris gathered in Galignani’s library, 1820. English gentlemen read books, newspapers and periodicals. Doctor Syntax discovered by his wife in a bookshop. Handcoloured copperplate drawn and engraved by Charles Williams from Doctor Syntax in Paris; or a Tour in Search of the Grotesque, W. Wright, London, 1820.
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I first met Becca Rothfeld when I pitched her back at the end of 2020. She had just joined The Point Magazine as a contributing editor, but I reached out because I loved her essay “Same As It Ever Was,” published in a magazine called Cabinet. The piece was about the Talking Heads and heaven, two interests of mine that dovetailed, in Becca’s hands, into a piece of music criticism, theological meditation, and stylistic excellence. At a time when the rigidities of certain kinds of cultural criticism resulted in boring, ambivalent, even outright combative writing (frankly, this is still a present issue), Becca’s work stood out to me. 

Since then, Becca’s writing has only become more varied and frequent. She’s appeared in a bunch of places, including The New Yorker, Bookforum, The Nation, and The Baffler, and, as of spring 2023, she’s the Washington Post’s non-fiction book critic. She has a background in philosophy in the Ivy League area of academia, which means she’s more likely than most to use words like “adduce” and “ontological,” but what’s special, and I think vital, about her work is her ability to engage a reader's intellect on a complex yet intelligible level. In other words, she makes you want to think a little deeper, a little harder. 

The public estimation of cultural criticism has fallen sharply in the four years I’ve known Becca. Part of that seems to be a spreading resistance to the idea that there is such a thing as moral or ethical taste, that any one person should be allowed to pass judgment on a cultural object that, as detractors often whine, brings other people joy. As Becca put it to me once, “Now more than ever, I think, the public, of whom reviewers sometimes seem to have insultingly low expectations, feels entitled not only to her tastes but to assurance that her tastes merit praise.” 

What critics like Becca do so well is convincingly make the case for a higher form of discernment. We should be asking more of our art and the ways we engage with it. More than that, we should be practicing this discernment often, with generosity but also specificity. Ahead of the release of her excellent first book of essays, All Things Are Too Small, but really because I wanted to put her on the spot, I spoke to Becca about all of the above. We talked about David Cronenberg, desire, equality, @dril tweets, and what it means to hone one’s aesthetic judgment. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Let's start with your recent essay in the New Yorker, “All Good Sex Is Body Horror,” an excerpt from a chapter in the book called “The Flesh, It Makes You Crazy.” At one point, you write what serves as a fair description of that piece, “What I discovered the summer I met my husband is that falling in love is more like turning into a fly or contracting a parasite than it is like working out a problem in economics.” Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to write that chapter?

I think it manifested organically. It took me a really long time to start writing the book. I started writing it right when the pandemic ended, so I was sort of re-adjusting back into society. And because I'm so used to writing with an editor appearing over my shoulder, it was weird to just be off by myself. I had told my editor I wanted her to impose deadlines and boss me around and she kind of didn't do that. Some people's book editors are really hands off and she did great at it, but she did leave me to my own devices. So it took me six months to start writing the book, which was bad because I had a year and a half. 

But in the interim, I had just gotten married and I was thinking a lot about desire. I couldn't really help thinking a lot about that. In addition, every October, I try to watch a horror movie every day because I love horror movies. So I just happened to watch The Fly and became obsessed with it. Then I watched every Cronenberg movie before I began writing anything. That essay wasn't in the book proposal. Essays about similar themes, that I abandoned, were in the proposal, but I didn't know that I would write an essay about Cronenberg in particular; the subject kind of took a hold of me.

There’s a thread prevalent throughout the book where you write about love and desire in this way that preserves, or at least highlights, the erotic aspects of desire in a way that I feel cultural criticism seems to really shy away from. Talking about the erotic and desire, it tends to be either made fun of in this squeamish way or just talked around. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about your approach to it. 

It feels to me that, in recent years, a lot of the discourse about desire and sexuality has been about the ethics of it and has tried to rigidly separate questions about the ethics of morally acceptable sex from questions about the quality of good and enjoyable sex. I don’t think that’s always been true. Of course, there have been earlier thinkers—people like Bataille, people like Colette. That’s true in lots of literature, lots of novels. But in a lot of the theoretical considerations of sex recently, I think there has been a discussion of what is morally permissible and almost no discussion of how that relates or doesn't relate to what might make sex fun. 

I understand why that has happened. I think it's a corrective to centuries of sexism and the like, but I did find that to be a major omission in these discussions and it's an area of interest for me. I wanted to read something about it. And since there wasn't that much about it, I felt that I had to write it because I do feel that there is a closer connection than is usually acknowledged between ethically good sex and satisfying sex. Namely, that both involve allowing the singularity of another person to shock you out of your sense of self.

That’s a perfect segue because I wanted to talk about the chapter “Only Mercy,” which gets into the complexity of desire as entangled with politics. It’s one of the book’s longest chapters and also the one about which I can see people most intentionally reading you in bad faith. I'm gonna quote you (sorry): “Feminism was never supposed to serve as a balm for breakups. No amount of political ‘posturing,’ feminist or otherwise, can ward off the pain and humiliation that attend human romantic interaction with as many small insults and many large mortifications. Heartbreak is not a gender-specific liability, nor is it tied to the sexual act in particular.” 

I highlighted that because I feel, post-MeToo, rethinking the bounds of feminism and how that relates to interpersonal relationships, whether romantic or not, has morphed into this conversation of like, political tools for going on first dates. Not policing necessarily, but stratifying the way that we interact with each other, especially in terms of gender, along these political lines that don't really seem to cash out that way. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

I do think that a consistent theme in the book is: Egalitarian political conditions are the necessary prerequisite for good social interactions, good political interactions, good sexual interactions, but those things don't ensure and shouldn't ensure that the subsequent interactions are egalitarian. Egalitarianism should be the backdrop for chaos and various sources of asymmetry. Of course, I think that sexual relationships and romantic relationships should be equal in certain respects; there's also an essay about that in the book. 

I think that this is one problem with a lot of contemporary discourses, that these two things are conflated. I think that there's lots of good arguments for ensuring that the conditions under which we embark on first dates are more politically egalitarian than they are. But I think people then assume that that's going to make the relationship that arises ordered, as opposed to unruly and disordered and chaotic and overwhelming. Not only do I think that assumption is false, but I think that it would be undesirable for our romantic and other emotional relationships with other people to be ordered.

Do you feel like that's a product of something specific or a trend that was already in the culture? 

That is a good question and one that I'm not sure I know the answer to. The necessary caveat whenever I give a spoken answer to anything is that I think so much better in writing that I'm never confident about things that I say. I guess I think that this is maybe the product of a conceptual error, a conceptual slippery slope. That, because there are so many good reasons we should be promoting equality in the political and economic domain, and because people have made so many good arguments for political and economic egalitarianism, people are just not thinking carefully about separating that from domains of life where egalitarianism shouldn't penetrate. 

One of the arguments in the book is that, because leftists like myself have so utterly failed to secure political and economic egalitarianism, we turn to the domain over which we have power. I suppose this is a psychoanalytic argument almost, one people like Phil Christman have made, that because we feel such painful impotence in the political arena, we turn to the arena over which we have some control, which is the cultural arena, and try to enforce egalitarian dictates there. But not only is that impossible, they don't really belong there and result in the sanitization of things that shouldn’t be sanitized. 

One of the things that I really appreciated about this book is the lack of a recourse, that I think has become a sort of cultural critic knee-jerk reaction, to lay blanket blame on technology or a specific event as the reason why everything is bad. In your book, there are these manifold ways of thinking where you draw from literature, from movies, from your personal life. It bears out this tapestry of thought and experience that is able to get at the thing you're thinking about with more nuance and depth. Where did you learn that? Is criticism only something for rarefied individuals? 

I’m a PhD candidate at Harvard, unfortunately, so that doesn’t help with the “elite” facade. I think about this a lot because my husband is a social scientist. He's a sociologist and his area of expertise is something called causal inference, which is where he does things with statistics that I don't understand that make him have a greater level of certainty in the idea that one thing causes another. So we've had lots of conversations about what I think the epistemic contribution of criticism is and why it's useful in a world where people can be doing causal inference. I think one thing is that, much like dreams for Freud are a sort of repository of our pathology, I think that cultural products are calcifications of cultural pathologies, or just cultural tendencies. It seems like they capture a greater range of things than could ever be captured by the stuff that can be measured in a quantifiable way. 

I also think that criticism is a helpful and human way to think through things that people are experiencing. It feels natural to me, it's not really something that I feel that I learned at any point to do. It's something that I feel I just couldn't stop doing, even in contexts where my husband has demonstrated to me effectively that this isn't a helpful way to think about things. There's lots of people who say these irritatingly sentimental things about how modernity has ruined our conception of society as holistic or whatever. That is kind of a misapplication of cultural criticism and there are probably empirically determinable reasons why that's happening. But even in those cases, my tendency, maybe just as a matter of temperament, is to at least investigate the cultural phenomena as refracted through artistic products. 

You’re the non-fiction book critic at the Washington Post. In All Things Are Too Small, we get to see you in a different register, writing both more personally and about fiction. Specifically, I’m thinking of the chapter “More Is More,” where you write about the decluttering fad a la Marie Kondo in conjunction with a really detailed, sharp critique of the contemporary fragment novel (heads up to fans of Dept. of Speculation). Can you talk a bit about the differences between your day job and the kind of work put into a piece like “More Is More?” And also if “fairness” plays a role in your critiques, especially when it comes to negative reviews? 

Yeah, I think the reason why essays like that are rare is because having the time or space to write an essay like that is kind of impossible, especially with a newspaper that comes out every single week. I spent months reading for that essay and it took me months to write it so I had the time and space in writing the book to be careful and attentive in a way that I wish I did when writing a weekly review. 

As for being fair: What I'm gonna say is not that critics should be unfair but that a crucial part of criticism is having a personality or a stylistic template that functions as the lens. The reason why people read your criticism, as opposed to just reading the objects under critique, is because you are interceding between the person and the object with a particular point of view. I think it's OK to have a particular point of view. It's okay to have particular preferences and aversions—possibly reasoned preferences and aversions so that you can share the reasons, but ones that might not be perfectly objective. But I do think that one should try as best as one can to approach things with a spirit of compassion. 

The way that I approach this kind of stuff is, I read a lot of stuff and then I begin to notice a pattern. That’s where that chapter came from. I was reading a bunch of contemporary novels and I began to notice commonalities between them and then it accreted into an essay. I think the thing that one should try not to do is to approach a particular book with a very particular agenda. Even if, of course, you approach every book with your point of view and that's part of what criticism is. Getting the balance between being totally biased and having a perspective and a point of view, it's a thin line. 

When you're in the process of writing a review, are you seeking out other criticisms of that thing? Or do you try to preserve your own perspective, write it down, then look at the work of your peers? 

Generally, when I have time, my process is: I try to read everything that the author has written, culminating with the book under review; formulate my own opinion; and then I read as much as I can about the person. Not because I'm going to change my aesthetic assessments, but because other people's interpretations are interesting and can inform my own. I do think that criticism is instructive. It can help you see things in art that you didn't see before or maybe you can disagree with it. But part of just being informed enough about a particular work of art to write about it, I think, is understanding how it’s been received by others. Sometimes I change my mind. Rarely do I change my mind completely. 

What happens when you engage with something recommended by a person whose taste you trust and you end up hating that thing? Does it mar your admiration for that person’s taste or do you chalk it up to preference?

It depends! I think part of taking aesthetic judgment seriously—anyone who is a professional critic takes it deadly seriously, it's the stuff of your life—is you think it really matters if somebody has bad taste. You might even think that it's a moral failing if somebody has sufficiently bad taste of a sufficiently bad kind. I mean, I do. I think there are other sorts of cases where you can recognize why somebody would like something, you think it's bad, but you can see that there's arguments for both interpretations. For example, the novel Stoner by John Williams, I think I can make a case that it's a bad novel, but there's lots of people who have made cases that it's a good novel and I can see their reasoning. So I think it depends on the way in which the thing is praised. A lot of critics love Sally Rooney and a lot of those people I think are smart. There’s nobody with whom your taste will converge completely. There’s different kinds of disagreements. Ones where you think this person does not have good reasons and/or the object that they like is so debased that no sane or moral person could like this. And ones where you're like, “I can see how somebody would like this more than I do.”

In this conversation, and in your writing, you’ve talked about the moral and ethical dimensions of art and culture. How does someone develop their own sense of the moral and ethical? I know that’s a big question, but it’s one I’m interested in given the prominence of the “Let people enjoy things” mindset. 

People should enjoy the right things! [laughs]

Of course! On its face, I understand what people mean. But it also seems that there’s this push against expecting more of people and their taste. I’m interested in how you developed your compass in that regard and, if possible, how you think someone could or should go about doing the same. 

Possibly because my background is in philosophy and I'm not entirely unsympathetic to Kant, I do believe that there are right and wrong judgments, things that are good and bad and that those things are universal. I think that there are universal truths about value. I don't think that any person can have perfect confidence in their judgments of what is good and bad, but that doesn't mean that there aren’t facts about it. I think criticism is a blend, to some extent, of identifying what is objectively good that others should appreciate and adducing universally applicable reasons for others to appreciate things, and expressing one’s own personal point of view. Reconciling those two things is the challenge of criticism and trying to figure out how they interact with each other is a challenge I'm working on right now. 

I'm writing a paper about criticism for an upcoming conference on the epistemic contributions of criticism. I'm thinking through the relationship with those two things. So I don't think that taste is entirely subjective nor do I think it's entirely objective. I think that it's about both having a character and being responsive to reason. It's not like I like chocolate, you like vanilla because that's not something that lends itself to argument. That’s a matter of taste in the non-discerning sense. But aesthetic judgments are arguments and that's sort of the basis of criticism. The idea that you can get other people to see things the way that you see them by providing reasons why they should see them that way.

As for cultivating your own taste, I think that's a matter of cultivating your own character, of trying to educate yourself and respond appropriately to the reasons that critics are giving. That's a vague answer and “reading as widely as possible” is a maybe more concrete but still not very concrete answer.

You begin the book with this bold stance about living lives beyond survival, specifically in terms of art and individuality. You write, “In concrete terms, material security frees us to devote ourselves to more than subsistence. Only when we have managed our daily acts of bodily housekeeping, only when the dishes are done and the bread is won, do we have time and energy for the improvidence of art—and only when we are assured of obtaining the means of survival can we create the oddities that the market may not reward.” Can you talk more about that? 

I do think that material inequality is contributing to poor taste. One reason is that people don't have time to engage in aesthetic education independently and a lot of what is offered up to people is just crap. I mean, there are lots of places where movie theaters play basically only Marvel movies. I think that the task of criticism is to fight against this, to provide people who are busy, who are living their lives doing important or unimportant things, a perspective. 

I have a friend who’s a public defender. She's really busy doing stuff. She doesn't have time to go out and read everything. That's my job. So I think that lots of people just don't have lots of time because of the way material inequalities work. Things are distributed in such a way—films, maybe books to a lesser extent—that if you don't have lots of time for independent investigation, and don't have an aesthetic education that allows you to select certain kinds of things quickly, the things that are going to be easiest for you to find are things that are most widely promoted. So I think that's one problem. 

I also think there's a problem of a lack of equal resources. Lack of equal access to aesthetic education gets back to this problem that we talked about before, which is the need for egalitarianism of access, but not for egalitarianism of outcome. People don't have egalitarianism of access, so what they fight for instead is egalitarianism of outcome. But if there were egalitarianism of access, I would feel, and others perhaps would feel, less bad saying, “No, your tastes are wrong.” A lot of my public intellectualism is fueled by optimism and a belief that people do have good taste at their core. Everybody has the capacity to have good taste. 

As a critic at a newspaper, as part of your job of being an active member of a community of intellectuals who are critiquing and looking at certain cultural objects, does that then extend to the ways that other people are conducting that same work? In which case, I mean: Do you watch YouTube videos? Are you on TikTok?

I do think it is knee-jerk snobbery to dismiss different forms of criticism. My basic view about this kind of thing is that there are very few genres that are intrinsically fucked. I think you can find good entries in pretty much every genre. For example, @dril’s tweets are amazing artwork. You can find gems on YouTube. I find it actually quite heartening that a lot of efforts at what I would call public criticism are happening. For my own part, I like writing and reading. I don't like talking that much and I don't like listening to things. I'm not a big podcast person, or if I listen to a podcast, it’s going to be some absolute trash podcast. I’m currently listening to one about a woman who faked her cancer for eight years or something. So I'm not gonna listen to anything serious, that’s just not the way that I process information. I need static objects that I can work on and sound passes by too quickly for me to sort of cling to it. So I'm a reader and a writer, but it's not because I think that those are superior.

[Becca’s phone dies. Our call resumes about five minutes later] 

Sorry, brief interlude!

It’s OK! We were talking about YouTube. 

I like Contrapoints, she’s pretty much the only video essayist I watch. For me, social-media videos are the medium that allows me to let my brain liquefy into slush. I watch a lot of TikToks about Mormon housewives. That’s not because I think the medium is bad. But I’m a critic because I like writing. 

About two years ago, back when I was freelancing for Gawker, I was putting together a critics panel and I interviewed you over email. That piece never came out because Gawker got shuttered for the third time, but you were kind enough to answer a bunch of questions I sent. I was reading through them recently and in one, you said, “Most of my life is an exercise in complaining. Most of my life is spent doing criticism of the non-written variety.” I wonder if you can speak on what criticism can and can’t do, in the sense that I’m sure many detractors of cultural criticism write it off as some random person’s complaint. 

That's a good question. I honestly don't know. Part of what I'm thinking through right now is this very potent but cryptic passage in this paper that I love by Stanley Cavell called, forbiddingly, “Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy.” It's a much more interesting paper than the name makes it sound. There's one passage where he's talking about the impossibility of paraphrasing a poem and he says something to the effect of, “It is possible to paraphrase the compositional content of a poem but it's not possible to capture the effect that the poem has on a reader. The only thing I can say to someone who reads a poem and isn't moved by it in the way that I am is that they're not of my flesh or they're not of my world.” 

I find that really provocative, but I think that that is probably wrong because I think it is the job of a critic to at least try to usher people who are not of the world of an artwork into that artwork’s world. I think that must be possible because I see it happening all the time. It happens to me all the time. Often I don't feel that I'm of the world of an artwork until I read a good piece of criticism about the artwork. I don't completely understand yet, and may never know, how that happens exactly. That's what I'm thinking through in the process of writing this paper. But I do think criticism often originates as complaint at a personal level. I think that there's two separate stories to be told: one about the value of cultural criticism for society and the other about how one finds their way into criticism. When I find something that’s consistently irritating me for a long period of time, I often reflect on why and then find it's something larger than just knee-jerk hatred. Sometimes it is just knee-jerk hatred and I try not to write about it.

You also talked about how two friends talking about a movie after they go see it is criticism. Fostering a sense of engaged discussion or debate is good.

It’s a commonplace in the history of academic aesthetics that aesthetic judgment is a one-off and fairly immediate thing. If you read Kant and commentaries on Kant, the sense that you get is: I go to the art gallery, I stand in front of the painting, I decide this is a good painting, and then I leave. In reality, criticism is a protracted process. People are doing criticism all the time with their friends, with each other, by watching YouTube videos, just by thinking through art in an extended way. The best-case scenario is that criticism is a lifelong project of engaging with different kinds of art and honing your understanding of the beautiful that way. 

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