Archive for October 20th, 2011

The pseuds vs the plebs

So, after all the hoo-ha, after all those silly comments from the panel of judges seemingly promoting populism as a criterion of literary quality, after a speech from the chairman of the panel that raised a few eyebrows, the Booker prize is awarded to a very literary author who takes serious literature seriously. But all these shenanigans have opened up a debate on the populist versus the elitist. Well, not quite a debate, but, rather, what passes for debate on the internet – unthinking soundbites rather than argument, liberal use of terms that are not defined, name-calling,  refusal to engage with any specific point anyone makes – the usual sort of thing that anyone who follows internet “discussions” will be all too familiar with to require further evidence. And on top of all this, there appears to be an assumption amongst many that what they have to say settles everything once and for all. End of. 

So what’s all this about, then? Well, it seems to be that old chestnut about whether fiction should be written to provide enjoyment, or whether it should cater merely for effete, pretentious elites who are up their own arses. No, let me rephrase that. It seems to be about whether fiction should try to understand and to depict the nature of our human lives, or whether it should merely provide banal, unthinking pap for the masses. 

And that’s just the first problem: the two sides can’t even agree on a common set of terms. But let us rush in foolishly where angels can’t be bothered to tread, and try. Let us, at least, try to understand what we mean in this context by the word “entertainment”. 

Many say that anything we like reading is by definition entertaining, because if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be reading it. This defines entertainment as anything we like doing, for whatever reason, and I can’t help feeling that this definition is a bit too broad. There is many a book I can think of which cannot really be described as “entertainment” in the sense in which we normally understand the term. There may be various reasons for this – e.g. the uncomfortable or even gruelling nature of its content, or the effort required from the reader to address its extreme difficulty, etc. These are not, in short, books that provide an agreeable diversion for a few idle hours. Of course, the fact that I (and many others) do read and value such books does indicate, some may say, that they must entertain me at some level. That’s hard to argue against. But if, on that basis, we apply the term “entertainment” even to works as demanding as, say, The Wings of the Dove or The Master Builder or The Four Quartets, it seems to me that we’re stretching the definition of the word beyond the point where it can be at all useful. For even if we consider as “entertainment” whatever pleasure I get from untangling the various difficulties of The Wings of the Dove,  it must surely be conceded that this “entertainment” is somewhat different in nature from the entertainment I get from, say, The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is a distinction, and this distinction should, I think, be acknowledged. For convenience, let us mark this distinction by referring to The Wings of the Dove as “art”, and The Hound of the Baskervilles as “entertainment” – much as Graham Greene classified his works as “novels” and as ”entertainments” – without making any assumption about either being inherently superior to or more worthy than the other.

Of course, it will be argued that the distinction between “art” and “entertainment” is not always obvious, and sometimes not even particularly meaningful: I know this will be argued, because I’m happy to argue this myself. There are many examples of works that fall easily into both categories. And there are also many works that have been written purely to entertain, but in which the level of craftsmanship is so high that the term “artistry” is not misapplied. All this is true. But we must, I think, allow that certain works can have artistic value even if they are not immediately entertaining, and even if they’re not easily accessible; we must acknowledge that certain books can be works of art even if they do not zip along, even if they are disturbing or harrowing, and, yes, even if they are excessively difficult.

At this point, those on the more populist side of the debate may argue that difficulty is merely the consequence of the writer dressing up that which is essentially banal. But I don’t think I’ll be going along with this one. Of many books, this observation is undoubtedly true. But it’s not always true: there are many books where difficulty is inescapable given the elusive or the profound nature of what the author is attempting to communicate. This is not to say that profound works are necessarily difficult, but, in my experience at least, they often are.  And even those which may not appear particularly difficult often have hidden depths: in some senses, these are the most difficult works of all, as it is all too easy merely to enjoy the surface, without seeing what lies beyond it.

So given all this, I’m afraid I do not really understand what the “populism vs elitism” debate – such as it is –  is really about. What is the issue being debated here? That popular books should not be excluded from consideration? Yes, I’d go along with that. Or is the issue more along the lines that difficult books lacking popular appeal should be excluded from consideration? If so, that’s just plain silly: there is no reason whatever to consider popularity and accessibility in themselves as criteria of literary merit. If they were, we should award the Booker Prize automatically to whichever book tops the year’s best-seller list, and dispense with the judging panel altogether.

Mind you, given the kind of things the judges have been saying recently, that may not be such a bad idea!