I just read a provocative post from a fellow blogger, which posed the question: are you a book snob?
Would I, for example, pick up Fifty Shades of Grey in a bookshop without cringing a little inside? Isn’t it better to spend our precious reading time with the classics than waste it with shallow drek? (I summarize and simplify for effect).
Well, it’s certainly true that I have been the snobbiest of book snobs. At the end of my sophomore year at university I bought a Euro-Rail pass with the idea of travelling around Europe for a month. In the event I spent a week in (the former) Yugoslavia and the rest of my month touring Italy. Somewhere around the middle of the second week I ran out of reading matter. I’d packed four books, but I’d read them all by the time I got to Florence. Panic started to set in. I probably started to twitch. I get like that when I’m not in the middle of a book.
Fortunately, I was on my way to Rome, and someone told me about a bookshop which sold second-hand paperbacks in English for next to nothing ( I was on a pretty strict budget). When I got there my heart sank. The shelves were heaving with beach reads (Harold Robbins was a particular favourite at the time) – books that I wouldn’t or couldn’t bring myself to be seen dead with. There were only two books I could bring myself to consider: a collection of short stories by J.D. Salinger (For Esme, with love and squalor) and a book I’d never heard of by Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey). I’d never read any Austen, I’d always imagined her books would be girly and full of fluttering hearts. Nobody told me they were funny. Nobody told me they were hilarious. So my snobbery worked out quite well on that occasion: it opened my eyes to one of England’s geniuses.
It hasn’t always served me so well. In my early teens I read a lot of horror, and in my mid-teens a lot of science fiction, but I weaned myself off them because there were too many other ‘good’ books to read. It wasn’t until comparatively recently therefore that I was persuaded to pick up and read something by Stephen King: Misery. I was surprised. Shocked, actually. That experience put a little dent in my self-confident snobbery.
I’d like to say the decade since has been replete with similar epiphanies. I’d like to but I can’t. Every now and again I’ll pick up a best-seller to see what all the fuss is about (yes, I have read The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Twilight trilogy, but I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey). More often than not I find myself feeling a little disappointed by the end of the book. Cheated even. Why? Usually it’s the quality of the writing. The Hunger Games is something of an exception. The writing, especially in the first 100 pages or so, is tight, and the usual, rookie mistakes are absent (he said, sneeringly). Suzanne Collins has a good eye for an apt metaphor. She is over-fond of cliches, to my taste, but of course cliches make ideas that much easier to digest. The plot is well constructed, and she (generally) shows us rather than tells us. Still, I didn’t love it enough to want to read the 2nd and 3rd books in the series.
You might say it’s a matter of personal taste, this book snobbery thing. Why should I look down my nose at books that other people enjoy? If they are entertained by them, if they are drawn into the worlds created in these books, then surely any subjective judgement of mine (or anyone else’s) that they are ‘bad’ is irrelevant?
I think there are three separate points to be made here (maybe more, but I’m going with three). Firstly, I think it is absolutely true that it’s better for people to be reading ‘bad’ books than no books at all. Nobody starts with Tolstoy, Stendhal or Austen. We have to graduate to them. Not everybody will. Some people (maybe most people) will be happy to stick with the easily-digested Pablum they started with. But others will move on to better books — books that stretch and challenge them, and that’s a good thing. Harry Potter launched millions of new readers, gave a generation of children an immersive and transformative experience of reading that will stick with them through their entire lives.
Secondly, I’ll accept that certain aspects of book snobbery are ill-informed and small-minded. We’ve come a long way since the great Victorians. Nowadays a story doesn’t have to be told in a ‘literary’ voice to be literary. In fact we’ve come to understand that distinctive, ethnic or cultural voices are as literary as the refined, highly polished voices of, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton. That’s why books like Half Blood Blues can win literary prizes. We may prefer the more polished sheen of former eras, and that’s our prerogative. Until around 1998 I read very little that was written after about 1903, but then I ran out of things to read, and I had to start to dabble in modern fiction. I’m glad I did.
Finally though, I will say this. Arguments about subjectivity can be set aside when it comes to matters of craft. From a craft point of view it is absolutely possible to brand a book bad: that is, poorly written. Read any two books on writing craft and you’ll find that they agree on certain fundamentals — things that are relatively easy to erase from your writing once you’ve grasped them. It’s not going to make your book ‘good’ if you do so, but it will prevent it from being obviously ‘bad’. In the case of the books I’ve mentioned above they are chock full of these fundamental errors (by the way, in case you’re wondering, Stephen King’s books are not. In fact, King’s own book on writing, called simply On Writing, is well thought of amongst writers generally). What that says to me is that the authors of those blockbusters don’t really care about, or believe in, their craft.