The comedian David Mitchell once told a joke about how the neutral, in their neutrality, can never understand the passion of e.g. football fans and, indeed, that their very common sense neutrality (oh, it doesn't matter who wins, just jolly nice to see two teams having such a jolly good time) was far more absurd than the passion of the fans that they so ignorantly lampooned. Of course, when he told it, it was funny. (And he is equally funny laughing at fans too -- this YouTube video is wonderful.)
Criticising someone for their taste is plainly silly. Liking one particular cultural artifact over another does not and cannot make you a better human being than anyone else. We like what we like. Doesn't criticism takes that for granted? In the same way, we accept that e.g. football isn't the be all and end all of everything... and then we enter the fray regardless; and, on entering, at that point we believe with Bill Shankly that football is not a matter of life or death, but actually much more important than that. We cast off our neutrality because engagement is life. This is not too far from the view held by Alain Badiou when he argues that it is only through passionate allegiance to an event that we become authentic subjects...
If you were to come to tea at my house, you'd no doubt be bombarded by some weird music (György Kurtág anyone? Machinefabriek? Keith Fullerton Whitman?) and then we could settle down to a Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr film. Or, just as likely, we could kick back with some Friends repeats on E4, grab a pizza, and then watch a RomCom: Notting Hill or Four Weddings anyone? You decide! If the former happened, would you think me pretentious? If the latter happened, well, how would you judge me then?
Regardless of this pastel-coloured relativism, however, evaluative practices are inevitably part of how we talk about the arts and how we try to understand them. Not understanding that is a little like being one of the neutrals that David Mitchell poked fun at at. In What Good Are the Arts?, John Carey is right to argue that liking opera does not, and cannot, make you a good person. As I've said, that is surely a given. Further, it'd be a difficult task to argue that opera, say, was better (or worse) than rock 'n' roll. But it would be interesting, informative, educative, and possibly surprising and entertaining to know why a particular critic thought Schoenberg's Moses und Aron was better or worse than Berg's Lulu. If we were lucky enough to read two critics evaluating both we'd inevitably make judgements on which critic most persuavely persuaded us of the case for which of the works we should make sure to seek out.
And so to fiction... If it needs repeating: like and enjoy whatever you like! But evaluating, judgement, is part of what we do as soon as we (try to) engage with something. And engaging with something can be one way of deepening and extending our enjoyment of it. If we want to make an evaluative move, to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of one text against another, first we need some common ground. Genre fiction -- except when Ian Rankin starts his especially specious pleading -- is normally content to evaluate itself againt other books in its field, so a new crime novel might say that it is pacier, gritter, knottier, more honest, more gripping, more realistic, more harrowing, the denoument more startling than another in its field. And, if we accepted that, we'd be a good way to being able to say that the new crime novel was better than the old one. The trouble with the genre of Literary Fiction, however, is that it puts itself up against literature. And, if it does that, then it must be expected to be judged against it. Literature -- like art itself, as Carey found -- might be treacherously hard to define, but if we triangulate Proust, Beckett and Dante or, say, Shakespeare, Kafka and Blanchot we might get somewhere near to being able to think about what something we call literature just might be. Rankin can go head to head with Agatha Christie and we can make sound comparisons between their writing and their plots (and we can, regardless, enjoy either, neither or both) but if he suggests he writes literary fiction, and by doing that makes claims to be writing literature, then he is going to be going up against Proust and so he needn't be surprised when he comes off looking decidedly worse for wear!
However, beyond the evaluative move, a move that inevitably happens as soon as we engage with any artform (even if that evaluation leads us to say nothing more exceptional than e.g. they are both good, but in different ways) there is the question -- and it is fiction here that is my concern -- that is much too rarely asked: what does literary actually mean? The question can only be answered from within literature itself: not when literature is arch and awkwardly self-ironising (the postmodern gesture), but when the existential question of literature's being is revealed to be the internal secret, and heartbeat, of the text itself. "Literature begins," as Blanchot famously says in Literature and the Right to Death, "at the moment when literature becomes a question." And so reading begins not when we mark books out of ten, but when we let them mark us; not when we question how good they are, but when they themselves question what they are and, simultaneously, undermine the certainty we feel when we make those inevitable evaluative moves.