Write what you know and read what you like

My university years.

A story on Slate has sparked a bit of commentary about reading and snobbery. I suppose it’s easy clickbait – nobody wants to feel inferior about their choice of pastime – but once you read the sell, there’s really not a lot more to it:

Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.

Hm. Throughout there’s more of this looking-down-the-nose kind of thing, somehow suggesting that eye-rolling and enjoyment of what may be crap-lit are mutually exclusive. What I don’t understand is where speculation like this

These are the books that could plausibly be said to be replacing literary fiction in the lives of their adult readers. And that’s a shame.


But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.

comes from. I mean, aside from hanging the whole thing on what adults might be doing.

Plausible? Yeah, hell, I suppose it could be. I’m not reading as much Chaucer as I might’ve done once upon a time. But my level of reading enjoyment hasn’t diminished, and most importantly, nor has my desire to read more, always read more. Nor am I eschewing anything Super-Serious because I now have relaxed enough to realise that it’s absolutely fine to defrag your brain with some popcorn literature. (Man cannot live on Spenser alone, and believe me I’ve tried.)

Yes, Dan Brown may be reading from the Umberto Eco for Dummies but when you’re stuck in an airport, fatigued and unable to really concentrate, it’s superb. (An aside: A stupid fear I have is that I’ll die before I read everything I want to – but on further reflection, if there was no longer anything I wanted to read, would it be worth living? )

Don’t worry, I get the snotty, snobby impulse the author believes is theirs alone, in our read-what-you-like world. I studied English Literature (note the impressive caps) at university to honours level, and though my thesis probably gave Edgar Allan Poe more reasons to fret his way through the afterlife, for a shining decade or two I too was a Book Snob.

You know what it means. Eschewing populist stuff. Buying mostly Penguins or Picadors. Reading lots of archaic poetry. Cultivating reasons to validate why you’re labouring through Clarissa. Looking down on anything even remotely airport. And why was I like this? Because I was a teenaged jerkass. And there’s nothing the internet grows stronger, like weird spores in Marrickville, than the teenaged jerkass – especially the middle-aged silverback version.

Yes, I’m still somewhat selective about my reading material and -much moreso- my choice of listening. But I’ve realised – something the author of the article mustn’t, given their impetus to write such a thing – that I’ve reached that point where you accept that some stuff just isn’t for you, and, more importantly that you don’t have to like everything. 

I haven’t read Twilight because I’m not the target market for it, and it doesn’t really appeal to me. But I’ve read Anne Rice, which (so I gather) is practically the same thing, only it’s taken slightly more seriously by doyennes of velvet and clove cigarettes. (And maybe The Tea Party and magick happens stickers.)  And are we really going to get into pissing contests about which supernatural romance is more valid? Apparently so, as that’s what the internet is for. And it’s what Anne Rice did. Even though, yanno, her creation was turned into a movie in which the sexiest undead bloodsucker in history was played by Tom Cruise. Because once you get into my-novels-are-better-than-yours, either from the perspective of author or reader, it’s turtles all the way down.

Or silverbacks in a back-slapping contest.

A couple of things broke me (mostly – I still have occasional breakouts) of this. It was stomped onto life support by my age, really: I’ve needed to change my way of handling stress in recent years, and I’ve become slightly more skilled at ignoring things which will just incur a round of head-desking. I accept that not everyone likes Keiji Haino albums (though you should!), and that I’ll probably never be a fan of Hilltop Hoods. They’re just not for me. And that’s OK. Being musically inquisitive doesn’t mean you have to like everything!

Oh, and I caved and got a Kindle, because I didn’t want to take a foot of books on holiday overseas, and found it wasn’t the book-destroying deathmachine I thought it’d be. Funny that.

But what really sparked the whole thing was a job. Working for TV Hits magazine. It was my first job out of university, and it was a fun, silly place to work. Let’s put this in perspective: I’d spent the past however many years of university and school being mopey listen-to-music-in-the-dark, avoid-the-mainstream, smartness-is-better-than-popularity type guy, and suddenly I was at the sharp end of giving kids what they want – pre-internet info about bands that’re basically manufactured, or exist to sell lots of merch.

This was when Backstreet was well and truly back, when 5ive raised no eyebrows about pronunciation, and when Leonardo DiCaprio was the heartthrob du jour, no matter how many cold sores we had to airbrush out of shots.

(There was one guy who listened continually to Hanoi Rocks, though, so it wasn’t quite the culture shock it could’ve been.)

I wore my You Am I fanboy nature to work, and pooh-poohed a lot of what passed through the office as terribly inferior to everything else I was listening to. But eventually I came to realise the people making this… pop… weren’t different to the bands I went to see. They were shooting for different ages, working in different genres, but most of the artists I’d dealt with or had to check up on – particularly in full-length interviews, a scant amount of which would generally be run – wanted the same thing as Tim Rogers and co: to be heard. To send their music to a receptive audience.

And I realised, too, how difficult it is to make a pure pop record. For a single to work. How much effort’s required. You can talk all you like about how a Merzbow record is better than a Britney Spears track, but Britney’s music has to work out of the gate. Pop gets none of the slack Sonic Youth do – you’ll persevere with SY until you find the melodies there. You’ll put Ornette Coleman on repeat until his path through the world is clear. But if Britney’s track doesn’t grab you straight away, you’ll bin it and never give it another thought.

This made me question how much slack I was cutting some musicians because I wanted to like them. Not because they had chops – hell, a lot of the stuff I listen to is raw and pointy and less than skilful – but I started to see how I was denying myself possible enjoyment because I was worried about what some nebulous entity would think of me for liking that less-than-cool stuff. And that’s stupid. I realise it more now, though.

Amazing what happens when you allow yourself to be open to the possibility you don’t know everything, and that something you don’t know might actually surprise you. Funnily, some great stuff passed through the office, too. Stuff you wouldn’t expect. Massive Attack. Frenzal Rhomb! Hell, the first time I heard Elliott Smith was in the TV Hits office, and it was a revelation.

Back to books. I think this shit-book-snobs-say article is about right, and I quite liked this response to the article. It covers where I’m at with fantasy and sci-fi.

For years, I’ve subscribed to what I discovered is Clive James’s view on things – have nothing to do with any artform which has dragons in it – because I thought they were lesser genres. Other than The Lord of the Rings, I’ve avoided SF/fantasy through my life because I somehow had it pegged as lesser lit. I don’t know if it stems from an irrational hatred of Terry Pratchett, but I recently have made efforts to conquer this idea as enough people I know not to be dickheads are into both spaceships and dragons.

Consequently, I’ve vowed to read my way through the Fantasy Masterworks list and the SF Masterworks list. I’m not sure if I’ve had good luck so far, but Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series – which manages to be both genres in one – was gripping enough to see me through to its completion, and has resulted in my current read-A Song of Ice and Fire-cycle project. So far, I’m not regretting it. I may, eventually, when I’ve elves out the arse, but not yet.

Matt Haig has some great things to say about book snobbery, and his follow-up article is worth a read, too. The first point from the original would be the most important, I suspect:

People should never be made to feel bad about what they are reading. People who feel bad about reading will stop reading.

And that’s where we are. Anything that encourages reading is fucking brilliant and should be encouraged, regardless of whether you think it’s a load of arse. Because eventually, we all end up like this:

Stupid cumulus.

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