The Neverending Argument

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.

21 thoughts on “The Neverending Argument

  1. I’m going to read the fight, it’s interesting. Another prize? pfff, there are already too many of them.

    I think:

    – “better read anything than not read at all”. So let’s go for commercial books, some readers may cross the bridge and read more challenging works after. How do you start to read when you’re an adult and aren’t used to reading? You need a step or two between nothing and Virginia Woolf. Otherwise, it’s discouraging.

    – commercial books are useful, Gallimard earned so much money with Harry Potter that they were able to buy out their financial shareholders. The publishing house now belongs to the family, which is a good thing for literature.

    – the best book I know about reading is Comme un roman by Daniel Pennac, where he lists the 10 Inaliable Rights of the Readers, which are

    “1) The right to not read,

    2) The right to skip pages

    3) The right to not finish a book,

    4) The right to reread,

    5) The right to read anything,

    6) The right to “Bovary-ism,” a textually-transmitted disease

    7) The right to read anywhere,

    8 The right to sample and steal (“grappiller”),

    9) The right to read out-loud,

    10) The right to be silent.”

    I love his casual relationship with writers, his passion.

    PS : Have you read “A Novel Bookstore” by Laurence Cossé? The story of an elitist bookstore which would only sell great literature.

  2. Emma – I agree with you absolutely on all these points (and the Pennac is wonderful). I do feel that poor old literature has it tough at the moment though, and that it’s ethically right to give a boost to the underdog. I would like to encourage readers to try all sorts of books, because you never know what your tastes and preferences will turn out to be other than through trial and error. (And you yourself are reading and enjoying Proust, no? Who would be first up against the wall in the opinions of many commercial-is-best readers. ;))

    Oh and to add – I want to read the Cosse but haven’t yet. I will, though!

    • I’ve read (rapidly) the comments in the article Andrew linked. It’s appalling. Sounds like a testosterone-driven fight of highbrow readers. Yuck. Exactly why people who don’t read sometimes don’t let themselves try.

      For the record, I love Proust AND I enjoyed Harry Potter and Twilight.

      And I don’t know what “readable” means. There’s no word for it in French.

  3. Litlove: Are you aware that someone using your email address is claiming to have been robbed in Spain and asking me to send money? I know you have a husband who could help you, so I think this is a scam. I can send you a copy of the email. You may have to change your email address and not post it on your blog.

  4. I saw that post on Andrew’s site and couldn’t even comment beacuse A) I was suprised “readability” was requirement and B) What does readable mean. As you just pointed out for you Susan Hill isn’t readable. Readable for me means easily accessible and entertaining. I think she is both of that.
    On the other hand I find a lot entertaining that others would consider unreadable.
    When i saw the choices for the Deutscher Buchpresi and also started to read a few I was sort of happy to see that readable wasn’t a criteria. They are fanatstic books but not easily accessible. Could this be a reason why not more German literature is translated.
    Hostility is offputting, I agree.

  5. Not to interrupt the discussion at all – but I HAVE been hacked on my yahoo account so IGNORE all messages purporting to be from me asking for money (the spammers sent one to me, duh). I’ve changed the password and only hope it will stop.

  6. Ugh. What an exasperating argument to read. Everyone seemed to be reading with an eye to demolishing one another’s arguments, not with an eye to understanding what the others actually meant. (In contrast, see the civilized discussion about the prize over at Savidge Reads. Not everyone agrees, but no one’s being mean about it.)

    As for the prize itself, the one things that piques my interest about it is that it will include books from the U.S. I can’t think of any big prizes aside from the Orange and the IMPAC which does that. I’m eager to see how that shakes down. As for readability vs. literary merit, it’s all so subjective. For me, the best books are both readable and meritorious, but my definition of both those words is my own definition. I can’t even put it into words for myself, so how can i expect others to follow my definition?

  7. In the library world there is the maxim “every book its reader,” meaning no matter what the book might be there will be someone who wants to read it. Granted, there might be only one or two people but they and the book should not be spoken of badly just because there isn’t a queue of 200 people wanting the book. Likewise that book with the long waitlist and the people waiting for it should not be spoken of badly either. One person’s trash is anther person’s treasure as the saying goes. Judging any book is always a subjective endeavor and what is readable to one is unreadable to another as you point out so nicely and neither reader nor writer should be deemed better or worse because of it. Yes, some books are more challenging than others, some books are complex and some just pure escapism, but we need the full spectrum. If I had to read Joyce and writers like him all the time I would go looney not matter how much I might enjoy that kind of book. I am a reader who needs variety. All that to say, I so agree with you Litlove! 🙂

  8. The whole debate about “readability” reminds me of a focus group my partner got recruited for 10 years ago or so, for Coors beer. The quality they were looking for in the beer, on which they wanted the focus group participants to rate the different samples, was “drinkability,” which they didn’t define but which seemed to mean “inoffensive” or “possible to drink in great quantity without realizing how much you’ve had.” In Portland (the artisan micro-brew capital of the US), this seemed like a fairly paltry standard to live up to—which is not to say that a nice Heffeweizen or whatever doesn’t have that quality in addition to more subtle charms, but there are also plenty of beers that are heavier or more unusual, or claim one’s attention more peremptorily. But whatever, “drinkability” is what people expect from Coors. I can understand the frustration from those who don’t necessarily expect that “readability” will be the leading criterion for the Man Booker.

    That said, I wholeheartedly agree with your points about the ugliness of an essentially emotional argument parading as an intellectual one. And this post further cements my hunch that I do not need to attempt any of Susan Hill’s books, not if she finds Woolf “unreadable.” Isn’t she also the one who said she just “doesn’t understand” literature from anywhere but the US and UK?

  9. It’s sad to see such a fight going on, and as you say it’s not a new one. I find that the comments section of articles in magazines like this often gets toxic very quickly, and try not to read it if possible (I was lucky – I read this particular article shortly after it was posted, so there weren’t many comments at that stage). I think that on blogs like this one, people have some respect for you and your space, and also mostly give a real identity and/or link to their own blog, so are accountable for what they say. It’s a bit like a conversation in your house, where people wouldn’t start shouting and abusing and ridiculing either you or your guests. I’ve got a lot from the thoughtful comments to this post, particularly Emma’s idea of the rights of readers and of the need for a range of books as a step between nothing and Woolf. I think it’s incredibly important to maintain and support literature that is not commercially-driven, but can appreciate the other arguments given.

    On a magazine or newspaper it’s completely different, and depresses me. Have you read the comments to Guardian articles? Horrific! I don’t think it’s limited to literary arguments either – I’ve seen the same or much worse on politics, sport or pretty much anything else. And funny that you say most of them were men – I get that impression too a lot of the time, and as a man I find it depressing and embarrassing. An argument can be a great thing when both sides listen to each other, but when the intention is to win at all costs, maintaining a predefined position no matter what and humiliating any opponents, it’s just stupid and infuriating, and leads nowhere.

    • Andrew,
      It was Daniel Pennac who invented the rights of the reader in his book “The 10 inalienable rights of the reader” where he relates his experience as a literature teacher in high school.
      It’s an ode to literature and a plea to make good literature known to students. He treats great authors in a casual way to remove the daunting from the texts and puts stories and plots before analysis, thinking “pleasure first, analysis after”

  10. One of the things I just love about your blog is the openness to all kinds of books. It makes your blog highly “readable” meaning enjoyable and thought-provoking, blending intellect and emotion seamlessly. On the other hand, emotional debates veiled as intellectual debates by literary fascists totally exhaust me. I find them unreadable. They remind of an old Ken Brown cartoon I can’t find on the internet but I will never forget in which a roomful of male scientists were comparing “missile size” by drawing diagrams and holding their hands apart to each other.

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  12. I absolutely love your last paragraph (well, the whole post really, but particularly that). Yes, we need to celebrate all kinds of books, not just because readers are different but because people want different things at different times. People’s refusal to acknowledge that this is an emotional argument is the main cause of my frustration with this kind of debate. You’re absolutely right, some readers really enjoy these discussions, but I also don’t respond to them very well myself. Thank you for saying it all so wisely.

  13. Emma – Barthes uses these two words: ‘lisible’ and ‘scriptible’ to describe books that make readers passively sit and soak up information (the readerly books) or make them work to create the story because they must fill in blanks in the narrative (the writerly books). Are these made up words in French, then? I’m very intrigued as I never knew for sure. It’s another way of looking at the same divide. Oh and I agree, those testosterone-driven arguments are so off-putting. (and I enjoy both Proust and Harry Potter too!)

    Caroline – the concept of ‘readable’ is so very subjective, isn’t it? I cannot read books that manipulate my emotions shamelessly – those are the only books I find really unreadable, oh and most horror, I suppose. I think what gets people’s goat is the idea that a prize should reward any qualities they do not appreciate themselves. I can sort of understand that, but on the other hand, there ARE lots of prizes out there and if they reward a range of qualities, where’s the problem? Plus, one might hope that a literary prize would bring publicity to books that haven’t had much limelight but are worth reading. I don’t know why more German lit doesn’t make it into translation – it’s a shame. So much in German lit history to love.

    Teresa – you say it beautifully – and hit several nails on their heads. Why was that discussion all about qualities of reading being conducted by people who didn’t want to read each other carefully? It makes no sense! And exactly – my idea of what is most readable to me is constantly changing over time, with very few books that ever really fall into an ‘unreadable’ subset. And what that really means is simply that they don’t appeal stylistically. Oh and very interesting too about including American literature in the mix; I’d love to see how that shakes down too.

    Stefanie – I think your comment and Teresa’s could replace my post! I love the librarian’s maxim of ‘every book its reader’, that’s so nice and exactly right. I cannot see what value comes out of dissing other people’s reading choices! Live and let live. We’re talking about books, for heaven’s sake, not social welfare policies!

    Ms Thrifty – lol! Or you could turn it on its head and think that you win both ways? 😉

    Emily – the comparison with drinkability is spot on. In the end it comes down to which beer or book is least offensive to the greatest number of people. And much as that may be a quality of value, I cannot really think it is the most valuable quality in literature. I also think you could live life happily without reading Susan Hill, although I would never encourage anyone to avoid an author! She is the only writer I know, though, who has utterly enraged my easy-going husband. You don’t forget that sort of thing easily.

    Andrew – well, bravo to that! I do agree – the comments on the Guardian online pages have absolutely horrified me at times, and made me feel very ashamed of my fellow web browsers. Just because one can be anonymous here doesn’t make the internet an invitation to offload the most negative and vitriolic parts of the self. The malicious hatred and envy displayed is very disturbing, particularly when it often refers to people who are no more than 2-d images to their audience. It would be good to have such pages properly policed by mods, but what could the fine be for those who overstep the mark? Perhaps you’d have to make them write essays about the benefits of compassion and sympathy! I love my blog because I have always found the contributors here to be polite, engaged and intelligent. No matter what forum I’ve ever visited, I’ve ended up leaving after a few sessions because the ugliness gets me down. So I tend to think of blogs as a special online space, but it doesn’t always hold true – some of the political blogs will singe your eyebrows!

    Squirrel – oh I love that cartoon – wonderful! And I know just what you mean about those awful debates – they sap a person’s will to live, somehow. My son has been making me laugh this weekend with his latest phrase off the internet – white people’s problems. It refers to all those things that outrage certain people that really aren’t a big issue, like what gets rewarded in literary prizes! Life really is too short, isn’t it? And thank you for the lovely compliment – I will cherish it.

    Jackie – oh thank you so much! That really does mean a lot to me. Thank you.

    Nymeth – I have so often benefitted from your beautifully reasoned blog posts! Those are the kind of arguments I really enjoy, when the whole picture is laid out clearly and the reader understands a range of perspectives. I can’t quite put together in my head the concept of people who love to have their minds broadened by literature and people who long to fight tooth and nail to protect their concept of what books should do. Why reduce it so? Part of the magic is not knowing what will be illuminated next. Thank you for the lovely comment.

    • I’ve never read Barthes except for excerpts in prep schools. I don’t know the word “lisible” in that context. For me, it’s a down-to-earth word: lisible/illisible: good or bad handwriting, letters well visible / partly erased. I’ve never heard of the word “scriptible”. I think those words are academic jargon, not that it’s a bad thing. Every discipline needs its technical words.

      From what I understand of the word “readable”, it seems to have a twin brother named “bankable”.

      • Emma – lol! Oh that’s a good one! That made me laugh. And thank you for the insight on Barthes – you know, I hear these terms and never know for sure if they are real words, or words with a special definition placed on them, or entirely made up! I needed the enlightenment.

  14. Hear hear! I think those kinds of emotional arguments are so vociferous because they are less about what people think then about who they think they are and who they belong to. Us and them. When it can be you and me, then dialogue can occur.

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