Thursday 10 July 2008

How to be a book snob and still read crap

I like to complain about the ass-hattery of a lot of books and tend to subtly imply, if not loudly and obnoxiously proclaim, my superiority in taste to the readers of said shiteous books. Yet, as you've no doubt noticed, I also read some crap, such as Bernard Cornwell and Terry Pratchett. How can my claim to literary superiority be maintained, then, you wonder? Do I deserve to be beaten over the head with my hypocrisy?

To these fair questions I say: there is one crucial difference between the crap I read and the crap I make fun of, and this difference resides in how seriously authors take what they write. I think that if you asked Cornwell, who writes in more efficient and hack-like fashion than either Wodehouse or anyone who skulked about on Grub Street back in the day, whether or not he writes literature, he would laugh and assert that no, he writes fiction.

This is not a merely semantic distinction. Literature may be hilarious but to be literature it must transcends some kind of basic assumption, genre expectations, and/or blow your mind in some way - it may be enjoyable but it's not necessarily comfortable. Fiction is written for a mass, and dare I say undiscriminating, audience, often according to formula, and often without any particular interest in language except for the way it can get across the 1/2-inch deep tale being told. There's a reason that most bookstores distinguish between literature and fiction, with the latter section being filled with mass market paperbacks by the likes of Danielle Steele, V.C. Andrews, and Nicholas Sparks.

The literature section is, of course, filled with the Classic writers - Dostoevsky, Dickens, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Faulkner, Eliot (x2), etc - and the vanguard of what will be Classic in 50 years - Mitchell, Marquez, Pamuk, Sebald (not Sebold!!!), Carey, Y. Mishima, etc. But it's also, unfortunately, filled with books that are in evil disguise, written by authors who desperately want to write literature (with a capital L!), and which some evil marketing exec has decided he or she will package as literature and therefore fool a whole bunch of people into buying AND make the Steele-ites feel suddenly more cultured. It's brilliant, really, but it's evil. (I wish the preceding run-on sentence were half as brilliant or evil.)

So, this is what it comes down to: I like crap books that know they're crap and don't try to be anything else. Such books are usually really fun and often funny and provide just what they're meant to provide, which is mental candy - you can get more nourishing stuff with the Russian masters, thank you very much, but right now it's time to give yourself a sore belly, a toothache, and a sedated mind (for the most perfect fulfillment of this kind of experience, I highly recommend The Shadow of the Wind). That's fine.

No, it's the ones that offer nothing healthier than boiled potato with boiled potato sauce but claim to be a 10-course meal from the best gourmet restaurant in town (which happens also to be very good for you) that make me want to rend my cheeks, gnash my teeth, and tear my hair. These books often win the Booker and Giller Prizes.

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