Last week I came across this article, featured on Andrew’s site. A literary agent is seeking to set up a new prize, feeling that this year’s Booker shortlist had sought ‘readability’ above all else, and was therefore unjust to more literary works. This caused a very interesting, if well-rehearsed row in the comments. Do have a look as it’s all quite amazing, but it’s repetitive and circular, so I’ll summarise the main points:
– pleasure in reading is subjective, but many think they know which literary qualities deliver and, as such, ought to be considered objective.
– the quality of ‘readability’ proves as difficult as any other to measure in terms of its value in a book, but the desire for a fixed scale of values continues unabated.
My personal observations on the argument are as follows:
– The argument played out between 15 men, 7 women and 7 ungendered aliases (of which I suspected the majority were men, buy hey, I could be wrong). Mostly men attacked men and stepped over comments by women as if they weren’t there.
– Those in the literary camp were more tenacious about refusing any olive branches offered by the folks with balanced, diplomatic opinions. In fact they often seemed to end up arguing with people who were actually on the same side.
– The ‘readability is all’ camp were by far and away the more daft and provocative. Here are a few exemplary gems: ‘ “Artistic achievement” is incredibly subjective (and sadly sniffily restrictive to the masses)’, ‘there are still people working in publishing who are more obsessed with a work’s literary merit than with any sales potential’, ‘Snobs. All of you.’
– the uncertainty about the value of another prize is a reaction against multiple ways of judging books. Both opposition camps want their own values to be held in highest esteem.
– the argument provoked Susan Hill into making a list on twitter of unreadable books, including the usual suspects, Virginia Woolf, Joyce, etc. I thought this was funny, as I find Susan Hill’s books unreadable. She is so sadistic towards her readers, stripping them of any emotional comfort or reassurance (which is my definition of unreadable.)
These are just my observation, and in keeping with the topic, I should point out that other readers will undoubtedly react differently. But what I wanted to extract from this argument is that the intellectual tone it seeks to wrap itself in is a decoy. This is fundamentally an emotional argument, which is why it’s so bitterly fought and so impossible to solve. Underlying the clash are two insults that never seem to go away:
– people who read only ‘easy’ books are lazy and stupid.
– people who champion ‘literature’ are flogging a dead horse – it’s pretentious and boring and elitist; no one wants it.
Both of these arguments attack through humiliation, so they pretty much guarantee an ugly fight. Plus, people only respond angrily when they perceive a threatening grain of truth in their opponent’s stance (and often that threatening voice is also located inside them, undermining them from within in a way that’s scary and hurtful). It’s true that easy-reading thrillers and romances and so on do not stretch the brain, and it’s true that literary works have always had to fight deplorably hard battles to reach their audience. The former does not reflect on the ability of the reader to read, the latter does not reflect on the value of the writing produced. But as I say, this is all highly emotional; to be made to feel stupid or not wanted is deeply unpleasant.
Hostile argument seems to be a feature of the book world, and a pleasure in itself to some readers (although that’s not something I respond to emotionally myself). The way I look at it, though, literature is the underdog here. Because we live in a world so obsessed by economic arguments and so unwilling to attend to spiritual matters (quite possibly the two are linked), literary works have a harder time than ever in finding their way to the market place. Literature will always be available as there will always be people compelled to write it, (and as human beings we will always have a fundamental desire for meaning and enlightenment) but there will be ever less money in recompense, which in turn reduces the field of people who are capable of producing it. As to why you should read literary works, I’ll direct you to my friend, Jeff’s article on the subject, which says it all much better than I could. I will say only that any wisdom I have gained in my life, I owe to books, and books of ALL kinds. So my perspective here remains the constant desire to help people get more out of their reading, because they feel good when they do so.
Books do these two essential things; they reassure and they challenge, and the very discrepancy between those actions illuminates the origin of this age-old argument. We need all kinds of books, with all kinds of qualities. In the true spirit of literature we should really champion solidarity between all readers, and diversity between all books.