Thursday, 29 July 2010

Thoughts on the bookshelf (and a gentle rant about artistic snobbery)

When you visit other people's houses do you take the chance to take a peek at the bookshelves (assuming they're the sort of folk that have such things, of course)? And do you consider that the bookshelf tells you a thing or two about the people you're visiting?

I find that books do tell you something about a person - my bookshelves (part of the biography section is in the picture above) will tell you that, when it comes to literature, we're pretty middlebrow - there's no Jane Austen, no Thomas Hardy and very little in the way of 20th (or 21st) Century literary novels. But then, as the shelf above tells you I'm firmly in the "Tolkein was the greatest 20th century writer" camp and watched with enormous pleasure a few years ago as The Lord of the Rings pipped Pride & Prejudice to the title of best ever book (or whatever). And the greatest pleasure came from seeing the disappointment of the clever-clever luvvies who would never admit to liking the book!

I'll be honest. I've tried to read these 'great novels' that make up the canon of English literature. I really have. But I can't get into them. The stories are thin, the characters are unattractive, the writing is stolid and you get page after page of 'oh so clever' description. Give me a good science fiction novel or a decent thriller any day - real stories with beginnings middles and ends. Yet, such delights are seen - somewhat sniffily - by many literary folk as somehow not proper writing even when they write the stuff. Here's Jeanette Winterson:

I hate science fiction. But good writers about science, such as Jim Crace or Margaret Atwood, are great. They take on science because it’s crucial to our world, and they use language to give energy to ideas. But others just borrow from science and it ends up like the emperor’s new clothes, with no understanding of the material. But you shouldn’t fake it because science is too important, it’s the basis for our lives. I expect a lot more science in fiction because science is so rich. I certainly learn from my books as I go along.

See what I mean? And we get round the problem by calling Margaret Atwood's science fiction, 'speculative fiction' instead. Which rather makes the point - most people can't see beyond the politically-correct banalities of Star Trek or the childish good humour of Doctor Who. Such people don't consider Frankenstein to be science fiction yet it undoubtedly qualifies - after all it explores the use and abuse of science, the ethics of humans creating life and the problem of identity (explored also by Asimov in 'I, Robot' and, delightfully, by Douglas Adams in 'The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy').

But I ramble - the point is that my tastes are mine. They are not better or worse than those who like literary novels and have read 'Sense & Sensibility' for pleasure. So why do people who have those highbrow tastes feel qualified to peer down at us lesser folk? Why is it that the great and serious literary discussion on TV and radio is always about the latest batch of dreary novels selected as some prize's shortlist (unless, of course, that prize is for horror, for crime writing or for fantasy)? The truth is that - just as is true across all of the arts - the public likes what the public likes. And the great and the good discuss the stuff most of the public think is crap and bemoan the fact that romance novels, musicals, twee pop songs and Jack Vettriano are preferred by us proles!

And Jack has it about right too!

"Every year the national galleries are given a budget from which to purchase new work for the collections and that money is the taxpayer's, but it seems to me that they take little notice of the taxpayer's money. Maybe, if they did take notice of what the taxpayers wanted then the b––––––– would actually show my work."


1 comment:

Edward D. Casey said...

Well said! I think where science fiction (or fantasy) goes wrong is when authors forget that sci-fi is a setting, not the story itself. Great stories are about believable characters we can relate to, whether they are in Victorian England or on the bridge of a starship. I think you've hit the nail on the head that it is a matter of taste. Unfortunately, some are a bit prejudiced about sci-fi simply because of the genre. And that's too bad... some of the best stories written are "speculative".