Monday, 27 December 2010

Why I hate English Literature!

Its funny isn’t it, those things which we get chippy about! And the sheer hypocrisy of such chippiness. However, this blogpost is about my shoulder-based chip and why it is important.

My chip is with English literature. Not the books themselves – although if I’m honest, I have tried and failed to read those books beloved of English teachers. I’ve set out to read a Jane Austen novel or two, I’ve struggled through a few chapters of assorted Brontë sisters writing and I’ve banged my head against D H Lawrence. All without success – I can find no joy or pleasure from such reading.

Nor do I find more recent writings any better – I waded my way through ‘Midnight’s Children’ although to this day I’m not entirely sure why I ploughed on through the indulgent, impenetrable prose as it gave me no satisfaction. And I could go on – every now and again one sets oneself to read one of these books so praised by the cognoscenti. And the result is inevitable disappointment.

So this is my chip. The intelligent press and media whenever it speaks of literature, speaks of these books. And I feel the weight of arrogant, smug, superiority from these literati – the clear impression that they are so much cleverer, so vastly more impressive since they can speak the language of “English Literature”!

So when I write words like this I mean them:

They don’t want to bury themselves in what some smug literary critic (in this case from the Guardian) calls “thought-provoking books” because, to put it pretty bluntly, most of the literary novels that clutter up the prize shortlists are really dull. A little bit of me smiles with pleasure at the fact that Katie Price (or rather whoever wrote the book with her name on) outsells the entire Booker shortlist!

This isn’t inverted snobbery – I don’t think that the potboilers churned out under Ms Price’s name are great books. But equally, I do not believe that a great book is defined by a narrow, self-referencing audience such as that which decides upon the Booker Prize shortlist and, ultimately, that prize’s winner. Such writing shoves aside – and the cognoscenti dismiss – whole areas of writing as mere ‘genre fiction’. No science fiction or fantasy book has ever graced the Booker shortlist for the simple reason that those who decide on that list believe no good writing exists within that genre (and more to the point wouldn’t be caught admitting to reading any of it).

I recall an especially snide article on science fiction in The Spectator. What struck me wasn’t that the author was snide – he’s entitled be so – but that it was abundantly clear that he hadn’t read a single SF novel and was basing his dismissal of the genre entirely on having watched a few mainstream science fiction TV shows and films.

So yes, one of my favourite TV moments will always be the expression of utter disappointment on Clive Anderson’s face when he had to announce that “The Lord Of The Rings” was the greatest English novel (or so the public had voted). And I smile serenely at some of the frothing antagonism (and allegations that the books vote was somehow fixed by hordes of “well-organised” Tolkien fans) that followed. Like from some writer I’d never heard of called O’Hagan:

O'Hagan, who was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize with his novel Our Fathers, expressed anger that the show is based upon public opinion.

"Somebody said that The Big Read was not just un-literary but anti-literary and I think that's right," he said. "It is based on the assumption that the opinion of the public is always beyond reproach."

O'Hagan added that he "hated the opinion of the population".

"Their choice in books is bound to be emetic, and so it has proved to be."

You do see why we hate the literary establishment now don’t you?



SadButMadLad said...

I also thought the literary cognoscenti bit up themselves just like art critics who stand in front of a picture and spout out utter nonense about the artist's drive and meaning etc when the artist usually just splatted some paint onto a canvas and the most original part of the painting is the name of it - as in "Blue". Some of the most popular painting haven't been hung in the national gallery - like Jack Vettriano.

Sometimes the worst books are said to be literary masterpieces probably because to read it shows you are a glutton for punishement and therefore you can be part of the in-crowd.

Some of the best books aren't necessarily those that make you think, but those that immerse you in a total virtual world. Terry Pratchetts books are one of the best examples of this.

Neal Asher said...

One of the classic moments in that 'Big Read' was when a certain fat female comic said she didn't like science fiction, but listed 1984 as one of her favourite books.

Anonymous said...

I hate some of the books you picked and entirely see your point... and it's my job to get 15 year olds to love them :-)

However, who can't be wowed by Orwell, tickled by Chaucer or transfixed by Shakespeare? Erm, maybe most people, I suppose.