The Republic of Reading

Peter Stothard, chair of the 2012 Booker prize judging panel, says book bloggers are harming literature.

Should I rise to the bait? Consider the history of this kind of article. Am I supposed to believe that The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal invited A.S. Byatt and Harold Bloom to comment on the Harry Potter series purely out of an altruistic desire to discuss literary culture? Let’s face it, it was partly a blood sport in which the literary terriers were unleashed upon a pit full of J.K. Rowling fans. The editors knew there would be howls of outrage, but also crowds of fascinated onlookers.

I am conflicted. On the one hand, I think comments like Peter Stothard’s drive people away from reading and books. On the other, I fear he may be right about the deluge of opinion.

I want the book sections in The Guardian and The Sydney Morning Herald to expand, not shrink. I want journals like Literary Review to go on. When I’m undecided about what to read, I rely on the books I’ve already read to lead me to others, as well as outlets such as The Guardian. To be honest, I find reviews by the likes of John Sutherland (or even the parodies of John Crace) more reasoned and reliable than the recommendations of friends or fellow bloggers, at least so far.

It’s dispiriting, of course, that some of the space critics would like to devote to the books they believe in has to be surrendered to commercial considerations (i.e. talking about the latest bestseller instead of tomorrow’s classic). When I worked in book publishing, I learnt to reduce books to dumbed-down and oxymoronic sound bytes (“it’s Kerouac’s On the Road meets Almost French, with a flamenco soundtrack”) and I had to accept that for business reasons, intelligent and well-written books would be rejected in favour of the latest ghost-written celebrity book (“to get breast implants or not to get implants, that is the question”). Unpaid bloggers like myself are not compromised by such commercial issues, so we can read and comment more widely than journalists. If I have a weakness as a book blogger, it is that I’ve been too in awe of some authors to be absolutely frank, too concerned about leaving it to the ‘experts’ who have the power. Stothard’s comments have made me want to be more rigorous.

Presumably, when I blog about books I could draw on the critical weapons with which my lecturers armed me, since my qualifications include a degree in literature. Or could I? The academics who taught me were in thrall to the post-structuralist theorists who had reigned in Europe twenty years earlier. The approach they took made Shakespeare no more legitimate than a TV advertisement or a comic strip. Everything was a system of signs supporting an ideology. They taught me to give post-structuralist, psychoanalytic, Marxist and feminist interpretations of the ideology of every ‘text’, but they did not teach me how a novel works, what techniques writers use or why one book might have more lasting value than another. These are things I have had to learn and am learning for myself.

You see, sometimes the self-appointed custodians of culture get it wrong. They are subject to fads and petty rivalries. Indeed, my university lecturers would have been right at home in David Lodge’s campus novels, scrambling to keep up with theoretical fashions while bedding each other’s partners. Literary critics outside academia often have the same flaws. The worlds of book, literary journal and newspaper publishing are so small that rivalries and pissing contests diminish objectivity.

And then there are the biases and prejudices of those who have created and supported the idea of a canon of Great and Serious literature. For too long they excluded writers who were women, or gay, or working-class, or not Northern Europeans. Even now the bias continues. Take, for example, the preponderance of white male critics in the literary journals and newspapers, or the sexism of Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots.  Booker can’t resist patronising interpretations of Jane Austen’s novels as the autobiographical outpourings of a clever girl (“Elinor Dashwood represents another aspect of Jane Austen as the patient, high-principled young woman”), rather than the creations of a skilled artist. It’s a shame that Booker’s ideas about the purpose of stories are undermined by a fundamental failure to respect women writers and the people who buy the most books: women. The books pages of newspapers do much the same.

Looking at the academics and critics fighting each other or publicly humiliating writers, hearing the dismissive way in which they speak of the ‘commoners’, their reading habits and their blogs, why wouldn’t many people turn away and either avoid reading as an elitist activity, or abandon the fourth estate to start their own? How does belittling readers help literature?

I sometimes think that it’s not the rise of the blogger and social media that threatens critical thinking and discussion about literature, but the way that critics denigrate certain books, writers and readers when they should be devoting that column space to championing the works they value. Reading requires active engagement, so it’s hardly surprising that readers want to be involved in the discussion, not just passively receiving pronouncements (and insults) from on high. The reader has a mind, if not a room, of her own.

Alan Bennett’s comic allegory, The Uncommon Reader, is a far more persuasive argument for reading with discernment than any critical attack on popular books and blogging could ever be. Bennett draws the Queen, and the reader, into the Republic of Reading. Instead of firing at bloggers from the battlements, perhaps academics and critics should drain the moat, let down the drawbridge and inspire us.

© JD Ellevsen

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