“Difficult” books, snobbery, and poptimism
My thread on career building in the age of freelancing sidetracked (by my own digressions) into mainly being a thread on what kind of art people like and why and snobbery, or the illusion of snobbery.
This is a subject I’ve considered writing about for a while because it has been going across the Internet for the past few weeks.
The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead started the new discussion with an article that lamented how “difficult” reading is often considered to be the opposite of fun (1). Ms. Mead is distressed about the false dichotomy on how books are either to be read for pleasure and should be light and frothy or books that are dense and serious are more for education and self improvement. She writes “The distinction partakes of a debased cultural Puritanism, which insists that the only fun to be had with a book is the frivolous kind, or that it’s necessarily a pleasure to read something accessible and easy. Associating pleasure and guilt in this way presumes an anterior, scolding authority—one which insists that reading must be work.”
On the other side of the debate, Elizabeth Donnelly at Flavorwire believes that book criticism needs a Poptimist Revolution (2). Donnelly considers the book review pages to be outdated and snobby. She wants them to consider why 50 Shades of Gray became important and best-selling because 50 Shades of Gray effectively subsidizes the often poorly selling literary fiction that is so loved by people like Rebecca Mead and also by me. Ms. Donnelly thinks that book review space should be given to the more enthusiastic form of book liker who read popular fiction because “when you meet people reading popular fiction, by contrast, you find that they’re excited about their books. They read voraciously. They may not be bragging about it online on a cool site, with photos of their long-lasting TBR pile. But they’re reading.”
Ms. Donnelly is seemingly part of the “Everything is Awesome” school of cultural thought.
I think the problem with the Everything is Awesome school of thought is that it exists more in theory than in fact and a lot of Poptimists do buy into the dichotomy that Rebecca Mead observed above. Reading can be divided into schoolwork and pleasure and for many people never the two shall never meet including people who read frequently.
I’ve encountered this in various forms during my reading life. If I mentioned that I am reading a social and cultural history on 18th century London, or a book on the history of Liberalism, or the Spice Trade people tend to give odd looks instead of saying something affirmative. The best comments try to say something like “I suppose that is interesting” but the voice betrays the actual thought and it sounds like “Why are you reading a book for school?” Other people are more blunt and say “When I read I read for pleasure.” The implication in the last sentence of course being that it is impossible to read a book on the cultural history of 18th century London for pleasure. Or to read Edith Wharton or Joyce or Beckett or Thomas Pynchon or Virginia Woolf for pleasure. All those authors are merely read by people looking to come across as smart but in their true hearts there is a secret desire to just read Harry Potter or C.S. Lewis and snack on cookies and milk. Or as someone once said to me, “people won’t think you are less intelligent if you like something silly.”
I probably do react against silliness a bit too much but I also resent the idea that serious reading whether fiction or non-fiction is automatically against pleasure or needs to prove its pleasure. Reading about 18th century London does take you to a different world with different people, smells, tastes, sights, sounds, experiences, ways of doing things, etc. The same is true for the Age of Innocence or The Tale of Genji. The world is old and filled with many different cultures. I don’t see why I need to read Lord of the Rings to experience world-building especially when Tolkien’s world is basically a romanticized pastoral England/Europe that never was.
I honestly don’t know what it is about Harry Potter that caught the zeitgeist. I read them when I was in my 20s and found them to be decent enough but not as amazing as the rest of the world. J.K. Rowlings writing began to bug me after a while especially the repeated and not very funny joke about how Wizards could never get a hang of dressing like non-Wizards. The Nazi-WWII analogies were a bit heavy handed and it is a bit odd to me to see adults declare themselves to be House Ravenclaw or whatever. Perhaps literary and genre readers are looking for something different from their books? I love Murakami and Anthony Powell but I am not looking to attend Anthony Powell or Murakami conventions. It is nice to see someone recognize Robertson Davies when I read him on the bus or in public though. The genre world seems much more intense and personal in terms of the reader and author relationship. A woman I know from undergrad is starting on a career as a romance novelist/writer. I sometimes see how she interacts with her fans and other romance writers on facebook. There was one time recently when facebook informed me “Your friend commented on so and sos status.” So and so was a romance writer who was given her fans a breath by breath update on the medical condition of her child who might have been developing hyperglycemia or childhood diabetes. I found this to be perplexing and also a bit wrong because it seemed like there was potentially a profit motive in the status update with the kid along with genuine concern but her fans ate it up and frequently wrote about how they loved how said author kept them informed with breathless updates.
The problem is that this becomes a never ending cycle of accusations of snobbery and reverse-snobbery. I think our dhex is right and certain phrases like difficult, literary, and “reading for pleasure” need to be retired from the conversation. The default assumption should be all reading that is not officially assigned or immediately connected by work or school is for pleasure.