Friday, 25 July 2008

Reader's Block, AKA a Justification for Reading Grazia

I've always thought Guardian journalist Stuart Jefferies was a bit of a self-obsessed, moaning dilettante. Now I know he is.

Because I should be completing my thesis, I'm going to disagree with this article in bullet point form.

1 - This article is predominantly composed of references to books that its author clearly hasn't read. As I've no doubt rambled on about elsewhere, mentioning Heidegger's Being and Time in a broadsheet article does nothing but create a shared sense of superiority among people who have heard of Being and Time. This is how broadhseet newspapers work. They flatter the intelligence of their readers with clever references to texts, creating the impression that everyone concerned has studied the minutiae of Husserl or Merleau-Ponty. If you track the references to Freud in broadsheet literature articles that aren't written by dedicated practitioners and historians of psychoanalysis (Adam Phillips* et al) you'll notice that the version of Freudianism presented is, to all extents and purposes, the one you'd get in Friends.

2 - He seems to be suggesting that White Teeth is as important as Finnegans Wake. It isn't.

3 - I read modernist novels and poetry on the train. Am I trying to impress anyone? No, strangely. I just like reading modernist novels and poetry.

4 - For the last time: IF YOU KEEP ON TELLING PEOPLE THAT JOYCE IS INACCESSIBLE, THEY WILL BE PRECONDITIONED TO FIND JOYCE INACCESSIBLE. What the hell is it with the broadsheets vested interests in literary realism?

5 - If Mariella Frostrup, queen among all the metro-class, pseudo-liberated harpies, told me to read something, I'd avoid it on principle. Even if it was Kafka, or Henry Green. Why do people like her judge literary prizes? Oh, I get it. It's because people like her - mini-Mariellas - form the biggest purchasing constituencies for Borders and Waterstones. I'm surprised the Orange Prize hasn't been given to the Boden catalogue yet. Can you imagine Frostrup meeting Gertrude Stein? It's okay though, she knows everything about sex.

6 - If you can't finish Brideshead Revisited and Wuthering Heights, you should not be allowed to make analyses of a nation's literacy standards in a broadsheet newspaper.

7 - If you think Brideshead Revisited 'drops off halfway through', it's probably because you want the book to have the same emotional emphases as the (admittedly excellent) television series which you no doubt saw first. I really don't think you can accuse the 'Orphans of the Storm' sequence of lowering the pitch of the novel.

8 - This is all a dressed-up sneering exercise at those who have the temerity to enjoy 'difficult' books wholeheartedly, isn't it? A jealous assassination of people who would genuinely get more excited about reading Robbe-Grillet or Thomas Mann than Paulo Coelho?

In short: if you don't want to read books, don't read books. If you feel that you have to read books to assuage your anxiety and bulk up your oh-so-artsy image, then you'd be doing it for the wrong reasons. Having a Kandinsky print on your kitchen wall and being familiar with the works of Jim Jarmusch does not make you into Baudelaire. There are people in the world who would kill for the opportunity to read or, god forbid, study literature: I can't imagine that they'd be putting Brideshead Revisited down on the cistern 12 pages in and justifying doing so with reference to last year's most misunderstood chattering-class manual. I really don't care one iota what Pierre Bayard has to say any more, and whether his supposedly 'Lacanian' bent provides a rigorous intellectual basis for his argument. The fact is, we all discuss books we haven't read in their entirety, or at all. This is kind of inevitable. But isn't there two different ways of doing this, and one is markedly less cynical than the other? I talk about things I haven't completed to glue ideas together when I simply don't have time to comb through every last paragraph of Proust (if only!) I don't do it because I'm having a dinner party next week and I'm worried my image will suffer if I can't manifest some kind of familiarity with Anne Enright or Paul Auster.

What I'm trying to say - I think I'm starting to sound like B.S. Johnson here - is stop spoiling it for the rest of us: colonising the things we care about and tainting them with your cynical, metropolitan, insecure bullshit. You could always try listening when the people who actually care offer some kind of informed opinion instead of falling back on the same old anti-academic crap: 'Joyce is difficult'; 'Prynne is difficult'; 'Zadie Smith should win the Booker for restoring realism.' Once more: don't read if you don't want to. The future does not rest on whether an incestuous set of food photographers and deli owners have read Rilke.

Sorry, another rant. Now I must write my PhD.

* And yet the 'Phillips Paradox', the trademark of the 'shrinking woman's crumpet' (for fuck's sake), is the ultimate form of Guardianista flattery: take a simple and minor contradiction, and dress it up in the language of mournful impossibility. It makes them feel like Derrida, over their organic cereal.


Attic Fantasist said...

Joe, this is brilliant. I agree with everything you say. I never eally bget hot'n'bothered about Guardian journalists in this way, but now I think I should. You're spot on about that crowd. And I couldn't agree more with you about Mariella Frostrup (an absurd name, if ever there was one - outa Jilly Cooper). Your're dead right, you're right: why do our papers never stand up for modernism and reading rich, complex works. Sometimes they do, but the stuff of Jeffries gets more of an airing. The Saturday Review always has stuff on literary realism; the only modernist that seems to count is Lawrence (which is through the back door, to my mind), except if they want to delve into the sex lives of those 'inaccessible' writers! Their lives count; their works don't.

Joe said...

Comment humbly appreciated, Chris -thanks very much for this. Jenny and I spend a lot of time with steam coming out of our ears about this kind of thing: it's nice to know we're not the only ones.

I don't know if the British Poetry Revival is something you're interested in, but I found a lot fo solace in reading Robert Sheppard's The Poetry of Saying and, to some extent, Andrew Duncan's The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry. They're decent handbooks to the ideological history of antimodernism in Britain, and very worth reading.

Thanks once again, and hope you're well,