March 5, 2014

Who Wears the Black Hat?

I'm obsessed with this question: How do we decide what to dislike? This is the unusual topic of Chuck Klosterman's book of essays I Wear the Black Hat. It covers everything from hating certain rock bands (the Eagles) to not hating Muhammad Ali (who smeared the reputation and ruined the career of a good man, Joe Frazier, who had been particularly good to Ali himself). He observes that, regarding problematic TV figures who become fan favorites, "audiences supported whoever the narrative told them was the hero." He makes simple but innovative statements like: Nobody really thought much about TV before the late 1990s. And questions like "How do you know the program you're watching is supposed to be art?"

Klosterman's comments about the cinematic allure of the charming con man made me think about why I like David Mamet's House of Games so much. I like it for the same reason that I like Lolita: It cons the viewer/reader. At the end, you're proved a fool, if you're smart enough to know it. It's amazing to me that there are still people who think Lolita is about the dicey-but-let's-be-honest real attraction of the barely legal rather than the extended kidnapping and rape of a child.

The reader of Lolita is tempted into that former interpretation because Humboldt is sophisticated and clever and Lolita's mother is stupid and insecure. It's fundamentally the same reason every Jane Austen lover hates Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park: She's the one Austen heroine who is good without being witty—and ultimately we'd rather be witty than good.

The nuances of our pop culture judgments are myriad and contradictory. If you like to think about them, Klosterman is a good confabulist.

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