Some Thoughts On Reading

'Reading Woman' by Poul Friis Nybo (1929)

Gwenda Bond has a great post1 on her blog about what she calls “The Reading Police”, in which she says (among other things),

“I have zero patience for reader shaming or for making people feel lesser or unwelcome or clueless because they haven’t read the same things you have from some inevitably problematic canon checklist.”

I don’t like Book Snobs, either. And it was interesting to me that Ms Bond’s post was mostly about Science Fiction/Fantasy, because I’ve found certain fans of that genre to be among the Snobbiest of All Book Snobs2. I recall, for instance, an SFF-loving bookseller throwing a tantrum after a friend said something along the lines of “I’m not sure that’s my kind of book, because I don’t read a lot of fantasy.” Note, the friend had not said, “Fantasy sucks” or “People who like fantasy are idiots”. She had simply expressed an opinion about her reading preferences after being pressured to read a certain book, and in return, she received a blast about how that book WASN’T FANTASY, IT WAS URBAN PARANORMAL, plus a whole lot more, none of which made me want to read the book or ever visit that bookshop.

I think SFF Book Snobbery often comes from defensiveness. If you’ve spent the formative years of your reading life being sneered at for being a nerd and a geek, then it makes a kind of twisted sense that you would seek to exclude others if your club eventually becomes cool and popular (which SFF is, now). So, I do have a bit of sympathy for these people. I have a lot less sympathy for those who believe that only people with PhDs in English Literature, ideally old white male people, are allowed to have opinions about books. I have read a few reviews and articles written by such people lately and they annoyed me. This is why I was happy to read the following in a collection of David Malouf‘s work:

“I would just remind you, as gently as possible in this age of education, that the great books of the world survived into the twentieth century without being institutionalised in literature departments, and that readers got by, till very recently, without being tutored in the handling of a text.
I say this, not to indulge in that popular local sport of academics-bashing, but to suggest that the professional handlers of literature have no special authority in the making or breaking of canons – they are readers like the rest of us – and to claim as well that the only real training we need as readers is got by reading itself.3

I agree that it’s possible to be a thoughtful and critical reader of fiction without having any formal qualifications. But then, my formal study of literature ended in senior high school, so what would I know? Here are the only memories I retain from Mrs Jordan’s Higher School Certificate English class, none of which have much to do with literary theory:

1. Reading Wuthering Heights, at the same time that a particularly annoying ad was being aired on television, in which one sibling locked another out of the bathroom in order to have unhindered access to a certain type of toothpaste. This meant that when our class read Emily Brontë’s famous ghost-knocking-at-the-window scene, it was inevitable that someone would add in a squeaky sibling voice, “Let me in! Let me in! I bet you’re using my Colgate Gel!”, causing every student in the class to fall about laughing, while poor Mrs Jordan wondered what was going on. I have never been able to take Wuthering Heights seriously since that moment, but let’s face it, it’s a ridiculous book. Read Jane Eyre instead.

2. Studying the play Equus, and then Mrs Jordan putting on the R-rated video and saying, “Please don’t tell your parents about this!” Technically, she shouldn’t have been showing us the film because most of us were under eighteen, but believe me, none of our parents would have cared what we were watching. They were just pleased we’d stayed at school till Year Twelve and weren’t out roaming the streets being juvenile delinquents. What I was outraged about was that the film got a Restricted rating due to male nudity and not due to the violence against animals. Because apparently the censors thought Peter Firth’s penis was more horrifying than HORSES GETTING THEIR EYEBALLS SLASHED. I say “apparently” because I couldn’t bring myself to watch the eyeball scene – I got my friends to warn me when it was approaching, then I clapped my hands over my face. (I did watch the nudity. I don’t think that caused me any permanent psychological damage.)

3. Reading Jane Austen’s Emma, at the same time that The Sydney Morning Herald was running a series of articles about the life of a real Year Twelve student named Emma. I should point out that our year was the first to be subjected to a new, ‘improved’ version of the Higher School Certificate, so we were known as the Guinea Pig Year and there was considerable media attention paid to us, or at least to the Year Twelve students who attended exclusive private schools in the posh areas of Sydney and whose parents were doctors or politicians or Sydney Morning Herald columnists. So we spent a year learning about how difficult Real Emma’s life was, having to fit in her private tutoring sessions around debating practice while filling out applications for Oxford and Harvard, not to mention enduring terrible traumas like that awful time the family’s Rolls Royce suffered a flat tyre on the way to the Sydney Opera House where she was due to perform a violin solo . . . I am exaggerating, but not very much. Eventually Real Emma became aware that Year Twelve students in badly-resourced rural state schools (like mine) were less-than-sympathetic about her travails and she wrote an article along the lines of, “Don’t hate me just because I’m so beautiful and intelligent and talented”, which did not improve matters. But, as I said, our class was also reading about Austen’s Emma, who was equally annoying, and the two Emmas merged into one Super Annoying Emma in my mind, and that’s why I decided I hated Jane Austen. (But luckily, a few years after high school, I happened to read Northanger Abbey, which was hilarious, so then I read all the other Austen novels and they were excellent. Except for Mansfield Park, which features a heroine even more annoying than Emma.)

I did spend quite a few English lessons exchanging notes with a friend about Scritti Politti lyrics (that’s literary analysis, right?) and I also spent a lot of time staring out the window, making up stories in my head, which is good training for a future novelist, so I can’t say the classes were a total waste of time. And, despite my lack of literary qualifications, I’ve gone on to read and enjoy and think about a lot of books, and have even written a few of them myself.

So, in conclusion, Book Snobs of the World should just go hang out with Real Emma and Austen Emma, somewhere far, far away from me, and everyone will be much happier.

_____

  1. Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.
  2. The least snobby are probably Young Adult literature readers, possibly because it’s a relatively new category of books, so there isn’t a vast canon. Romance readers are also fairly unsnobby, in my experience, except for the ones who think Real Romance can only be heterosexual, which is just silly.
  3. From ‘The Making of Literature’, the keynote address at the 1986 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, which was later published in both Overland and in the book I’m currently reading, David Malouf: Johnno, short stories, poems, essays and interview, edited by James Tulip.

I Hate Your Characters, So Your Book Stinks

Australian author Charlotte Wood recently wrote* about how she is troubled by readers who “seem to base the worth of a novel on whether or not they might be able to make friends with the characters in real life”. She felt it was a sign of “laziness and immaturity” for readers to care about whether characters were “likeable”, because the really important thing was “that the characters behaved convincingly, rather than pleasantly”.

Ms Wood was talking about fiction for adults (for example, she refers to The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and Jamaica by Malcolm Knox – both novels full of loathsome characters). However, I’ve also noticed a lot of bloggers reviewing Young Adult novels in terms of whether the main character is ‘relatable’. Until recently, I wasn’t even aware that ‘relatable’ was a word, and I’m still not entirely sure what it means in this context. Does it mean: ‘I want to be friends with this character’? Or does it mean: ‘I recognise something of myself in this character, even though the familiar characteristics may be flaws’?

'Lesendes Madchen' by Franz EyblWhen I read fiction, I like to read about characters who are interesting. If I don’t care about them, why should I keep reading to find out what happens to them? Sometimes I find characters interesting because they’re likeable, but other characters are interesting because they’re absolute monsters. For example, I love Mrs Proudie in Barchester Towers and Lady Montdore in Love in a Cold Climate – their very awfulness provides most of the comedy in those novels. My favourite example of an unlikeable narrator is Barbara in Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. There is no way I’d ever want to be Barbara’s friend, or even work in the same place as her, but her shrewd observations and general misanthropy make her wickedly perfect for her role in that novel.

On the other hand, many of the novels I’ve loved reading have included likeable characters, and I don’t think this is a sign that I am lazy or immature (although, of course, I can be both of these, at times). I’d much rather read Pride and Prejudice than Mansfield Park, for instance, because Lizzie is fun and smart and lively, whereas I just want to push Fanny Price off a cliff. Of course, ‘likeable’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect’ – it simply means that I find the character’s flaws natural, forgivable or amusing, rather than irritating.

This leads to the issue of whether authors ought to make their characters more likeable (or relatable), in order to attract more readers. I confess: when I started writing the Montmaray books, I deliberately tried to make my narrator likeable. I wanted her to be intelligent, good-hearted and have a sense of humour, and to learn from her mistakes. But one difficulty, especially with a series, is that if a character is perfectly likeable from the start, there is nowhere for her to go. How can she change and grow over time, if she starts off being wonderful? The other obvious problem is that just because an author thinks a character is likeable, doesn’t mean that readers will agree. Some readers hated Sophie in A Brief History of Montmaray, describing her as stupid, childish and weak-willed. Just as we all have different reactions to real-life people, so we all like or dislike fictional characters to varying degrees. Perhaps, as Charlotte Wood suggests, all that authors can do is try to create characters who convey the messy truth of real life.

*Link to The Likeability Problem by Charlotte Wood (downloadable pdf) was found at this blog post in The Australian.