25 July, 2008 by Miranda Ward
On the one hand, we have our bog-standard, supermarket specimens: paperbacks with gaudy covers and gaudier stories, sold next to checkout counters the world over and in alarming quantity at airports and train stations. We like to frown on these: they aren’t literary. Often they’re poorly written, if not poorly constructed. They’re what’s known unflinchingly as “trashy.”
And on the other hand, we have the revered literary specimen: the classics, the Booker prize winners, the inscrutable and the un-understandable. We have Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie. We have academics writing in a secret language; and War and Peace, and Swann’s Way.
What’s in between? Well, not much–we only have two hands, as it were. For as soon as something finds a home at Tesco, it automatically loses a chance at existing on an intellectual’s bookshelf–and vice versa. In a Guardian article today, Stuart Jeffries discusses our inability as a culture to read–that is, to finish books we start, or to start books that we’ll actually like. He suggests that the problem might be largely due to a sort of collective guilt–we read (or attempt to read) the books we think we should, and when that fails (just because it’s on some obscure list of “the greatest 100 novels ever written” doesn’t actually mean it’s good, or compelling, or the sort of thing that you are interested in) we sink into a depressive reading slump.
“According to the Office for National Statistics,” writes Jeffries, “a third of Britons read ‘challenging literature’ in order to seem well-read even though they could not follow what the book was about. It has always been thus: ‘challenging literature’ is an eternal mystery, like women or, if you prefer, like men.”
And we’re enchanted by the mystery–or the possibility that the mystery holds, anyway. We’re told that literature is the key to intellectual discovery, that we’ll never be the same after we’ve read Dostoyevsky or Wide Sargasso Sea. What we’re told less often, sadly, is that we’ll also never be the same after we’ve read Agatha Christie or Harry Potter; what we understand sticks with us.
What gets left out is this truth: that it’s story we identify with, and language, and nothing else. We will not be changed as people because someone has deemed a particular book Booker-prize worthy, but we will be changed because we find something embedded in it that rings achingly true.
“Challenging literature” is an art form, but not necessarily a good one. I’m sure that Salman Rushdie has only earned such prestige because everyone is afraid to admit that they’ve read his books and not understood them (or, worse still, not finished them)–I can see a whole slew of academics thinking, “Oh! this must be brilliant, if even I can’t get through it. What a genius this man is!” (I’m doubly convinced of this after hearing him speak at Hay-on-Wye in a mystifyingly packed makeshift theatre.) The only Rushdie book I have finished happily is the one he wrote directly after The Satanic Verses (which confounded me completely): Haroun and the Sea of Stories. But it’s essentially a children’s book, dedicated to the author’s son, interpreted by some as his attempt to explain the Fatwah in easy metaphorical terms; and it’s far less lauded for it.
Academics, you see, are a notoriously exclusive people (if you’ve ever tried to read the TLS, you’ll understand this automatically). Though I suspect there are some out there who earnestly have a passion for their studies and would be perfectly happy to see the whole world fall in love with the same topic, with varying degrees of success, the overwhelming impression is that academics actually like being obscure. It’s a brand of triumph to be able to to appeal only to a tiny, select group, and a kind of failure to attempt to cast one’s net wider.
But where’s the point? If we can’t understand what we read, then we may as well not read at all. The joy of reading is not to be able to list off the classics we’ve downed (it isn’t a drinking game), but to be able to say (or simply to feel) that we have found something in the writing that
impacts us, or speaks to us, or that we like, or that, in fact, we dislike, for some other reason than that it bores or baffles us. If that happens in a Tom Clancy book, that’s great; but there’s also nothing to preclude us from also foraying into the forbidden fields of intellect and finding whatever we damn well please in Joseph Heller. And at this point, only we can narrow the literary class-gap.