Saturday, June 28, 2008

Reading: You're Doing It Wrong

I've been meaning for several days to post about this Times Online article by Rod Liddle, linked to by Bookslut, about highly acclaimed books that don't survive their era, and whose popularity comes to seem, only a few decades after their publication, inexplicable:
The columnist Catherine Bennett chose “the entire Virago imprint”, bemoaning the fact that, for political reasons, she had felt duty-bound to plough through Rosamund Lehmann and the like when there was Philip Roth waiting there, unread. ... Meanwhile, the historian Michael Burleigh suggested all “angry” black novelists (along with Herbert Marcuse and EP Thompson). Here’s a bunch of stuff we were all told we had to read by the political and cultural climate of the day; because it would be good for us and because, way beyond this, it was our responsibility to start patronising writers from minorities because it was only the oppressive white male cultural hegemony that kept them in an ethnic- or gender-defined ghetto.

...

What draws these nominees together? They perhaps captured a certain spirit of the age in which they were written, replete with its fashionable literary conceits, its political leanings (or lack of them), its mannerisms. And this is what characterises almost all of the books that were nominated. They were not so much deemed to be shocking at the time, or too difficult, or experimental – there is no Henry Miller on the list, or Robbe-Grillet, or Sartre. Instead, they seem to be books that fitted in far too comfortably with the sensibilities of a certain chattering-class elite when they were published.
There's a valid point hidden somewhere deep within this article, in that there are books whose popularity is very much a matter of capturing the zeitgeist, of being at the right place at the right time, and therefore ephemeral and puzzling to anyone looking back at it. Fashion also plays a major role in this process, and like shoulder pads there are some book fashions that people will look back on and cringe. But for the most part the problem here seems to lie less with the books in question and more with the people reading them. Leaving aside the point made by that Alison Bechdel comic strip that everyone has been linking to, that telling someone that a certain book will be good for them is a great way to ensure they won't enjoy or even read it, anyone who chooses books in order to make a statement about themselves, in order to be seen as progressive or even in order to support a political agenda, in short, anyone who makes reading choices based on anything other than their tastes and interests, is being very silly, and deserves exactly what they get.

It's a foolishness that goes entirely unacknowledged by the article--even as the people interviewed within it lament their misguided choices of decades past and the vanity that led to them, Liddle assumes that present-day readers are motivated by the same vanity. I wasn't terrifically impressed with it myself, but I'm fairly certain that most of the people who liked Zadie Smith's White Teeth did so for reasons that went beyond the fact that it was written by "an articulate, photogenic half-black writer." We're often told that the books we read reflect on our personality, but sometimes our reasons for reading, or not reading, them, are just as telling.

4 comments:

Nic said...

Good points all.

What irritated me most about the article, though - and the comments - was that old (and equally rooted in vanity) chestnut, "I didn't like it/don't like it now, therefore it's rubbish and anyone who says otherwise is deluding themselves/being PC." Also a strong strand of people hating the experience of reading something in school, and concluding that it was the book's fault rather than, say, the teaching style, their immaturity at the time, or the very fact of being made to read something.

Though I'm right there with those who disliked Fowles' _The Magus_... :-)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

that old (and equally rooted in vanity) chestnut, "I didn't like it/don't like it now, therefore it's rubbish and anyone who says otherwise is deluding themselves/being PC."

Yes, I much prefer my version: "I don't like it, therefore it's rubbish and anyone who says otherwise is wrong/has no taste/must be argued out of that opinion." :-)

I'm right there with those who disliked Fowles' _The Magus_

Oh, totally. But The French Lieutenant's Woman is excellent. A good part of my disappointment with The Magus is down to my picking it up so shortly after being blown away by Lieutenant and expecting the same quality of writing, plotting, and characterization. Now I'm not sure which one of them is representative of his work, which is why I haven't read anything else by him.

Foxessa said...

Thank you so much for linking to the Alison Bechdel comic. "Authors" was a favorite card game with my siblings and me on days it was so hot we tended to stay in the house during the afternoon -- much to the stress of our mother, doubtless.

Love, C.

Sarah said...

"anyone who chooses books in order to make a statement about themselves, in order to be seen as progressive or even in order to support a political agenda, in short, anyone who makes reading choices based on anything other than their tastes and interests, is being very silly, and deserves exactly what they get."

Love it. I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to add this to my favorite quotes on Goodreads.com.

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