Archive for the ‘rant’ Category

Putting the plebs back in their place

Imagine that you have a profound artistic vision. And imagine also that you have the ability to communicate this vision. Imagine you have an extraordinary mastery of language, and that there is nothing – no nuance, no shade of thought or feeling – that you cannot communicate with words.

Now, if you are so gifted, what would you do with these gifts? What would you devote your life to? What would you work on assiduously through all hours of day and night?

Keeping the working classes at bay, obviously. I mean, it stands to reason, doesn’t it?

I am afraid this is precisely the contention that is made by many. It’s not new, of course, but I had rather hoped that this kind of nonsense would have run its course by now. So it’s sad to see that it is still very much alive and kicking.

I am not sure when these ideas started, but I first heard them articulated by John Carey, no less. I must confess that I haven’t read the book he wrote on this matter – The Intellectuals and the Masses; but I did see a television documentary he fronted at around the time this book was published, in which he expressed his view that modernists had deliberately made their work difficult to keep the “masses” out. I must admit that what I heard on that programme did surprise me considerably. But I am reluctant to attack Carey, as he is someone whom I admire greatly: had it not been for his brilliant edition of Milton, with its superbly detailed and erudite notes and annotations, I am not sure I could have negotiated my way around these immensely difficult poems.

There are, sadly, a great many other very difficult works of literature that I haven’t, as yet, been able to get my head around – not even with all the critical commentaries available. Yes, I made a few inroads into Milton (thanks to John Carey and a number of other Milton scholars); but the works of Spenser, say, or of the much-loved Donne, refuse resolutely to penetrate through my thick skull. There are other difficult works where, I can see quite clearly for myself without having to be told, my understanding is at best partial: the late novels of Henry James, say (The Golden Bowl especially). Even my beloved Shakespeare loses me with The Phoenix and the Turtle. All these works, it may be noted, are pre-modernist. In short, difficulty is hardly a modernist invention. So it genuinely puzzles me to read something like this:

If more and more working people were reading the classics, if they were closing the cultural gap between themselves and the middle classes, how could intellectuals preserve their elite status as arbiters of taste and custodians of rare knowledge? They had to create a new body of modernist literature which was deliberately made so difficult and obscure that the average reader did not understand it.

This is written by scholar Jonathan Rose, and is approvingly quoted by Matthew Wills in the article I linked to above.

The contention that certain writers, of a certain era, had deliberately introduced difficulty (a quality that, presumably, had not existed earlier) specifically in order to exclude the “working people” seems, in view of the extreme difficulty I encounter in so many pre-modernist works, frankly absurd. It gives me a mental picture of the likes of Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, etc. all getting together & rubbing their hands with glee – “These plebs are getting a bit above themselves, aren’t they? Right, no more easy stuff like Spenser or Milton or Henry James from now on … we’ll soon put the bastards back in their place!”

And so they put all their time and effort putting us bastards back in our place. Because, obviously, it’s such a worthy cause for gifted people to dedicate their lives to.

In my experience, virtually every contention relating to cultural matters that claims to be egalitarian has at its root a barely disguised contempt for the very people it pretends to champion. Behind the contention that the difficulty of modernism is intended to ward off the “working people” is the insulting belief that the “working people”, the “masses”, are less capable than others of negotiating difficulty. The very title The Intellectuals and the Masses assumes that the two are distinct groups – that the “masses” are incapable of being intellectuals; or that, those who do become intellectuals are, by definition, no longer authentically one of the “masses”. In which case the distinction between the two seems to me to become rather inconsequential: what point would such a distinction serve?

Yet, it seems, this continues to do the rounds. The net result is further denigration and belittlement of anything that smacks of the intellectual. Which, I can’t help thinking, has been the aim all along. But since it is impertinent to speculate on what anyone’s unstated motives may be, let us not go there. Let me just restrict myself to saying that I, who am most definitely among the “masses” (since I am still waiting for my invitation to join this shady elite of intellectuals), continue to find the whole thing frankly bizarre.

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A revised definition of “cultural appropriation”

Generally, as we approach Christmas, I try to keep off controversy. It is the season of goodwill, after all. But …

Yes, of course there is a “but”. I’ll try to keep this one short, though.

I have, on numerous occasions on this blog, been scathing about the concept of “cultural appropriation”, arguing that adopting elements of other cultures, far from being reprehensible, is desirable, as the alternative is to create cultural ghettoes. (I won’t link to the various posts in which I argue this case: a quick search reveals them quite easily.) But recently, I’ve been hearing that “cultural appropriation” is not at all about taking things from other cultures: it is about wilfully disrespecting elements of other cultures.

Now, this seems to me revisionism. If “cultural appropriation” is about disrespecting other cultures, then it would have been termed “cultural disrespect”, or something similar. “Appropriation” means taking something that does not belong to oneself, usually without permission from the owner. (I think any dictionary would confirm that.) So when anyone speaks of “cultural appropriation”, I naturally take it to mean appropriation in the context of culture: that does seem to me a reasonable interpretation. And, indeed, all the various manufactured controversies relating to “cultural appropriation” seem to assume this interpretation also: visitors to an art gallery invited to try on a kimono, pop stars wearing sari and bindi, etc. – none of them involving any disrespect at all, and yet all resulting in large numbers of people quite apoplectic with rage. All very comical, frankly, were its implications not so sinister.

However, let us, for the sake of argument, accept this revisionist definition: “cultural appropriation” is not really about appropriation of culture (that would be too simple, apparently), but about disrespect of culture. About disrespect of elements of a culture that have symbolic value for adherents of that culture.

Well, I slept on that for a bit, and it still doesn’t make much sense to me. The most obvious point is that not all elements of all cultures are worthy of respect. Many, clearly, aren’t. The culture I was born into, for instance, has many fine things in it, but it also has this thing called “caste system”, which is culturally very significant. And Brahmin men are supposed to wear around their necks a sacred thread, as a mark of their high caste: it is a significant cultural symbol. Some sixty or so years ago now, my father respected this significant cultural symbol by chucking away his own sacred thread. He did not deem it worthy of respect any more than I do. But that it is a cultural symbol of deep significance is beyond doubt, and the injunction that we must not disrespect it, especially if we weren’t born into the Hindu religion, seems to me arbitrary at best, and, at worst, completely bonkers.

No, I’ll revise that. At worst, sinister and dangerous. For how is much-needed reform to come if that which needs reform is mandated as worthy of respect? How, indeed, can we prevent that which should be reformed from becoming even further entrenched, if it is mandated to be exempt from criticism and disrespect?

And who does the mandating anyway? Who decides what is worthy of respect, and what isn’t? Who are the gatekeepers here, and on what authority?

So really, as far as I’m concerned, if anyone wants to disrespect any aspect of any culture, then that’s fine – disrespect away! Yes, in the course of all this, I am sure that certain things that I myself revere may also end up being disrespected. But don’t worry about that – I can take it! Honestly, I can! And if I can’t, that’s my problem, and not anyone else’s. All this talk about “respect” merely puts me in mind of The Godfather films, I’m afraid.

For consider the implications of even this revised definition of “cultural appropriation”: the worst elements of our cultures become entrenched, thus rendering reform even more difficult; rigid boundaries are set between cultures, with self-appointed gatekeepers; all humanity itself becomes fragmented beyond repair. This is what, it seems to me, many people really want. I, personally, don’t.

Now, I did say at the start of this piece that I will keep this rant short, and I hope I have kept my word. All my posts between now and the New Year will be full of brightness and joy and festive cheer – I promise!

Ghettoisation is liberation

War is peace

Freedom is slavery

Ignorance is strength

To which we should now add a fourth slogan:

Ghettoisation is liberation

Yes, I know I must appear to be no more than an ageing has-been, or, more accurately, an ageing never-has-been, raging furiously at the way the world is going. But I hope that’s not quite the whole story. I grew up in Britain in the 60s and 70s, and, despite everything that is still far from perfect, I do know, for instance, that there is far, far greater racial tolerance now (at least in Britain) than there had been some forty or fifty years ago. I also know that modern advances in medicine and medical technology have saved my life: the chances of surviving a triple heart bypass operation are now far greater than they were back in my day. So I would have to be wilfully blind, and unthinkingly ungrateful, to rage against the modern world merely for being modern.

However, certain aspects of the modern world are nonetheless worth raging against. Certain cultural aspects, which, after all, are the major focus of this blog. And amongst the most insidious of these is the increasingly widespread credo that one’s ethnicity, or one’s gender, or one’s sexuality, defines one’s cultural and moral values – defines, indeed, the very person one is.

Certain things enter one’s mind at so formative a stage in that mind’s development, and stay embedded within it so firmly, that it becomes very difficult attempting to look beyond them, or even trying to understand that there may be valid arguments against them. I appreciate that. And one of those things that had entered my mind at a very early stage was the conviction that one’s cultural values, or one’s ethical values, are not determined by race. Indeed, I have long thought deeply objectionable, and, yes, as racist, the idea that one’s race determines the kind of person one is. One’s person is not defined by one’s race: such a credo, determining human value in terms of race, has always seemed to me the very epitome of racism.

So, naturally, I find myself rather bemused, to say the least, when the very people who claim to be anti-racist nowadays proclaim this same racist credo. Suddenly, it seems, everything I have understood about racism seems to be turned on its head. The very definition of “racism” seems to be changed before my very eyes.

Other definitions seem also to be changing before my eyes. Of poetry, for instance. Obviously, defining poetry has never been an easy task: and, after having given the matter much consideration – or, at least, as much consideration as I am capable of – the best definition I could come up with is that if a piece of writing ain’t prose, then it’s poetry, and vice versa. And prose is written in units of sentences, and poetry in units of lines, which may cut across sentences. Or, to put it more crudely, prose goes all the way up to the right hand side of the page, and poetry doesn’t. But that’s pretty uninteresting, and unenlightening: the question is whether something is good poetry, and that, of course, is another matter. And here, we cannot go by definitions, as there are so many different ways that a poem can be good. But, without going into any detailed analysis, it can be maintained, I think, that just as painting involves the manipulation of colours, and music the manipulation of sound, so poetry involves the manipulation of language – of making words communicate more than merely their dictionary definitions. What “more” it can communicate depends upon the intentions and the skills of the poet: it may communicate multiple layers of meaning, or plumb depths of emotion, or evoke distant associations, or elusive states of mind, or capture the most intangible of human feeling and thought; but whatever the poem achieves, its basic tool is language. To analyse how a poem works – should one wish to do that – it is the language we must focus upon.

But this too seems to be changing. Consider this poem, which, I am reliably informed, is a set text for English literature GCSE this year. As far as I can see, with my old-fashioned and no doubt outdated ideas on poetry, this is poetry only because it ain’t prose: the  lines don’t go all the way across the page. It uses a Caribbean dialect, which is fine, but the dialect is used not to any particular expressive end, but merely to assert the poet’s racial identity. And I cannot help wondering what there can be here that merits teaching. The poem conveys nothing more than what may be communicated by a bald summary of its content: “They do not teach us anything that makes me feel comfortable about my racial identity.”

Of course, how history should be taught is a complex issue, and fully deserving of debate and discussion, but to object to the way it is currently taught merely because it does not make one feel comfortable about one’s racial identity does not seem to me a very enlightening contribution to the debate. And such a simplistic statement seems to me a poor theme for a poem. A good poem lays bare the complexity and the intricacy of our human state: a simplistic statement may make a good rallying cry, but its worth as poetry worthy of study remains to my mind dubious.

Well, let’s not labour the point: let’s just say that this is not my idea of what poetry should be – or, at least, what good poetry, poetry worth teaching, should be. But then again, I am shown rap lyrics which I am told is poetry of our times, and I can see no poetic merit there either, so I suppose all this is no more than an indication of how utterly outdated and obsolete my perspective is on such matters.

And my perspective on what constitutes racism is similarly obsolete, I guess. I have changed my mind on a great many things over the years but one point I have been constant on, ever since I have been old enough to think about such matters, is that I was not going to define myself in terms of my ethnicity, as my ethnicity says no more about what kind of person I am than does my shoe-size. Of course, some others may well see me in terms of my ethnicity, but they’d be wrong, and I am not going to confirm them in their wrongness by agreeing with them. And, since I didn’t see myself in terms of my ethnicity, I thought it only good manners not to see others in such terms either. So it’s quite a shock, as I find myself approaching my sixties, to realise that what I had thought was a liberal position to hold in such matters is now actually considered racist – that people are actually clamouring for their ethnicity to be recognised, and to recognise it in others; and that it is racist not to see people thus.

For nowadays, it is quite commonplace to see individual people in terms of their race. No-one bats an eyelid. Of course, I’d expect racists to place a great emphasis on race: that’s because, obviously, they’re racists. But this is now a mark of the anti-racist as well, and, dinosaur that I am, I really cannot reconcile myself to it. In The Guardian, an avowedly liberal paper, there recently appeared an article written by someone who would no doubt claim to be feminist and anti-racist, headlined “How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Colour”. I appreciate that the author was not responsible for the headline, but on this occasion, it’s a fair summary of what the article says. Back in my own benighted times, an article so racist and so misogynistic as this would not have seen light of day.

For yes, it is racist – at least, given my no doubt obsolete understanding of the term. For how else can one describe making generalisations about an entire race? (And it is misogynist as well, for similar reasons.) I raised this point on Twitter, but I was confidently told that one cannot be racist to white people. I did not quite understand the reasons for this quite extraordinary statement , but it’s widely held, and is something, I gather, to do with the “power structures” of society. (It is astonishing how readily the general public laps up the various bits and pieces of bollocksology that emanate from the groves of academia.) And I was recommended to read a book called Why I Am No Longer Talking About Race to White People. I replied, as politely as I could, that I have too much to read as it is, and that I find the title, unless it is intended ironically, offensive. And then I retired from the fray. What else could I do? (The author of this book, incidentally, is so marginalised by the power structures of society that she recently gave a talk at the prestigious Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, and it was sold out.)

Lionel Shriver, who had, not too long ago, earned the disapprobation of right-thinking liberals for her onslaught on the concept of “cultural appropriation” (an idea so utterly daft that one shouldn’t, one would have thought, even need to argue against it), recently penned an article in The Spectator drawing attention to the statement  made by the UK branch of Penguin Random House to the effect that they are aiming for both their staff and their writers to reflect, by 2025, the distribution of ethnicities, genders, disabilities, and sexualities in wider society. To be fair, Penguin Random House do not mention quotas, but it is hard to see how else this seemingly laudable aim can be achieved without them. And if the questionnaire they sent out to their writers is as described by Lionel Shriver (and I have seen no-one disputing this), then it seems fairly likely that this is indeed the path Penguin Random House is going down. Now, the quota system is controversial, to say the least, and Lionel Shriver is entirely justified in penning a polemic against it – although her means of attack is, admittedly, somewhat ham-fisted, introducing as it does that rather tired and tiresome figure of “a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter”. But her point remains valid. If Criterion X is to be replaced by Criterion Y, then, given that X and Y are not correlated one way or the other, there are bound to be at least some that pass Criterion Y who would not have passed Criterion X. At the very least, there is room for debate. But debate didn’t prove possible: all hell broke loose, with Lionel Shriver accused of racism (when really all she was guilty of was ham-fisted satire); and of saying that “people of colour” (as I guess I have to describe myself these days) cannot write, even though, quite clearly, she says no such thing. She later penned a response, but no-one was really listening by then.

But her point remains, I think, a pertinent one. Looking back, I sat my Scottish O-Grade in English (the equivalent of GCSE) back in 1975, and I distinctly remember studying in class poems by Shelley, by Wilfred Owen, by Dylan Thomas. Even if one thinks more highly of “Checking Out Me History” than I do, it cannot be denied that what is now being taught in English classes nowadays as poetry is not of a standard comparable to what had been around some 40 or so years ago. What can be the reason for this?

The only possible answer I can think of is diversity. (That is, to be clear, diversity as a criterion replacing quality, rather than as an addition to it.) And, also, strangely enough, uniformity. For while we may insist on diversity of ethnicity (and all those other things), we must still insist upon uniformity of outlook. After all, there is no shortage of genuinely fine poets who are black, or South Asian, or East Asian, or whatever, writing poems that display richness of language, and depth of thought. But it’s far easier, and far more convenient, to teach a simple message such as “What is taught does not validate my racial identity, and it’s not fair!” All you do is repeat this simple message, ignore the irony that a poem communicating this very message is now a set text in schools, and, lo and behold, you don’t really need to teach about poetry at all! All that difficult stuff about the use of language, the subtleties of the rhythms, the sonorities, the imagery – the sort of stuff that I was introduced to in the works of Shelley, of Wilfred Owen, of Dylan Thomas, when I was fifteen – can now be safely ignored. And it’s all right, because we have diversity, and that, apparently, is an end in itself.

And meanwhile, it continues. Examples pile upon each other, and it becomes exhausting merely trying to keep up. We keep quoting to ourselves the inspirational line of the late Jo Cox, who was so tragically murdered last year by a far-right racist: “We have more in common than that which divides us.” But even as we repeat this to ourselves, in practice, it is all that divides us that we most insist upon. Human beings are barely regarded as individuals any more: they are white, or black, or brown, or whatever. At the drop of a hat, it’s the ethnicity or gender or sexuality that comes inevitably to the fore, before all else. A published poet feels affronted by an Uber driver saying that he would like to be published, and instantly, she publicly announces that “old white men are exhausting”. Instantly, this taxi driver, who was doing no more than making polite conversation, is not an individual, but someone to be characterised by race and gender (and age), and put down on that score. The tweet has since been removed after heavy criticism, but there has been no apology or retraction.

(I will not link to her poetry by the way, but some are available in Instagram, should anyone wish to see them. I have. As I say, I simply do not understand the criteria of poetic merit any more, so there’s little point my commenting.)

So here I am, wondering why I even bother writing this when there’s so much I clearly don’t understand. Nor, frankly, wish to understand. Foolishly, I really had believed, and believe still, that we have more in common than that which divides us, and still feel very strongly that we have a very long way to go towards racial equality, and, further, that such an end is worth fighting for. But I had imagined that the struggle against racism was to break through the differences, and find that common ground. But that’s all old hat now. The message from all sides seems to me clear: see everyone, including one’s own self, in terms of ethnicity; respect all that divides us; stay in your lane.

Well, I want out. Obsolete  I may be, but I want no part in any of this. Let others fart around trying to find validation in poetry for their racial identity, and judge literary works on such terms: I’ll sit in my ivory tower for as long as I can, and glory in the richness of language and the subtlety of imagery and the profundity of feeling that I found in the English class in the comprehensive school I attended. Especially when the October wind punishes my hair…

Yes, our English teacher taught us this poem by Dylan Thomas for our O-Grade examination. This, of course, was back when people actually believed that poetry, far from being something to validate one’s group identity, existed to enrich our lives.

Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock
Tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning
Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning
And tells the windy weather in the cock.
Some let me make you of the meadow’s signs;
The signal grass that tells me all I know
Breaks with the wormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins.

Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
With fists of turnips punishes the land,
Some let me make you of the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds

Isn’t that just gorgeous?

Like a movie in your mind

On the few occasions I have been on guided tours of Gothic cathedrals – I generally prefer wandering around these cathedrals on my own – I have been told that most people in medieval times were illiterate, and that, as a consequence, the stained glasses telling the Biblical stories were particularly important. Some guides have added that people from medieval days were “more visual” than we are now.

I don’t know how true this is, or even whether such a hypothesis may be ascertained. That most people then were illiterate I accept, although, as that quote spuriously attributed to Mark Twain reminds us, those who don’t read have no advantage over those who can’t. But leaving that aside, is it really the case that mass illiteracy leads necessarily to a greater emphasis on the visual? Seems a bit of a non sequitur to me, frankly. Quite apart from anything else, this seems to ignore the importance of oral traditions: the spoken word can be at least as potent as the written word.

In short, the assertion that more widespread literacy has led to us responding less strongly to what we see seems to me highly spurious. But if – and, I emphasise, if – this is indeed the case, I can’t at times help feeling that we seem to be returning to the state where, once again, we are – as the tour guides would have it – “more visual”.

I cannot insist on this as my evidence is only anecdotal. But let us rehearse a few of these anecdotes anyway.

Take films, for instance. Speak to any graduate of film studies, or any cineaste, or even to any aspiring cineaste, and they will invariably tell you that cinema is, primarily, a “visual medium”. This is not an assertion based on any argument: it is axiomatic. When pressed, they will offer examples: look at 2001- A Space Odyssey, they’ll say; look at Tarkovsky’s Mirror, at Solaris, at the various films of Ingmar Bergman; and so on. In such acknowledged cinematic masterpieces, the dialogue is often sparse, and what little there is of it is of little importance: it is what we see that tells the story, and creates the drama, that communicates everything the film is about. I agree with this, but I offer some counter-examples as well: look at The Maltese Falcon, I say, look at The Apartment, at Twelve Angry Men – and various other films that are still highly regarded, in which it is the dialogue and how it is delivered that tell the story and drive the drama. I am not, I clarify at this point, arguing that cinema isn’t a visual medium: I am arguing against the contention that it is primarily a visual medium. Just as one can think of a great many films in which the visual aspect takes precedence over all others, one can equally point to many other films, as firmly established in the canon, in which it is the spoken word that is central, and where the visual elements act at best but to supplement the story the dialogue is telling us, and, maybe, to provide atmosphere.

I don’t think I have convinced anyone yet, but I argue my case anyway. An argument is always worth engaging in, I feel, even if you don’t convince anyone except yourself. (Or even, for that matter, if you don’t convince yourself either.)

Now let us consider books. My attention was drawn lately to a meme that Goodreads posted recently on social media. Since the meme is now in the public sphere – and has been reposted a great number of times – I think it is OK to reproduce it here:

goodreads

“Do you ever get so engulfed into a book it plays like a movie in your mind?”

This has received a large number of positive responses. The answer to the question posed is, almost invariably, “yes”: books can, indeed, be so very good, that they are just like movies.

Now, I am not such a pedant that I am bothered by grammatical incorrectness, but I do find myself, I admit, vexed by inelegance; and when that inelegance comes from an organisation that aims to encourage reading, and should therefore have, one might at least have hoped, some concern about how words are put together, I find myself quite considerably vexed. Such propensity for being vexed at trifles light as air is, I own, but an eccentricity on my part, but there it is. “Engulfed into a book” may be perfectly correct – I am no expert on grammatical matters – but “engulfed by a book” sounds far better to my ears.

And the latter part of that sentence – “…it plays like a movie in your mind”: once again, this may well be, for all I know or, frankly, care, perfectly correct grammatically, but it sounds to my ears clumsy and cumbersome. If you want to encourage reading, I feel, you should take some care over the words you use, and how you put them together: otherwise you’re missing the point.

But a little more thought into the matter perhaps indicates that it is I who have been missing the point. I had assumed above that those who aim to promote reading should have some concern about “how words are put together”. But let us consider what this meme is actually saying. It seems to me to be saying “Has your experience with a book been so good that you can visualise it as if it were a film?” That is the criterion of literary merit that is put forward – not whether the prose is elegant; not whether it is expressive, or whether it is capable of communicating thoughts that are subtle and profound, or feelings that are elusive and intangible; not whether the pacing and structure satisfy aesthetically; not whether diversity of content is accommodated within the unity of form … No, the criterion is “Could you visualise it, as if it were a film?” And when that is your criterion of literary excellence – “does it aspire towards the condition of a movie?” – who cares about how you put your words together?

I suppose I could bemoan this trend towards the visual, as I bemoan everything else. I suppose it could reasonably be argued that since my evidence is all entirely anecdotal, there is no reason to bemoan any trend at all, since there is no trend, except in my increasingly saturnine imagination. And if we are indeed moving towards becoming “more visual”, as the tour guides insist our medieval forebears had been, then building a few more magnificent Gothic cathedrals would be no bad thing, would it?

Books we don’t read

For a long, long time now, I have been banging on to anyone who will listen (not many, admittedly) about declining literary standards. And now, here’s further evidence.

Only 4 years ago, a list was compiled (don’t ask me how) of the books we tend most to lie about having read. Topping that list were Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Nineteen Eighty Four and The Lord of the Rings – all sturdy, time-honoured classics. A similar list recently published is made up of books that, whatever merits they may have, are nowhere near so highbrow – The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and the like. Even The Da Vinci Code.

(The only title the two lists have in common is The Lord of the Rings, and there, I do actually sympathise with the lying: I’ve lied about this one myself, as I explain here.)

One lies about books primarily, I guess, in order to impress. If I were to lie about books I have read, I’d say I’ve read The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the like – books that will make me appear fiercely intellectual, or, at the very least, a bit less of a shithead. I don’t really see why I would want to lie about having read The Da Vinci Code. I don’t really see why anyone would.

And here, it seems to me, is irrefutable evidence of the decline in our literary standards: we’ve stopped not reading challenging books.

O tempora! O mores!

Penny-in-the-slot criticisms

TRIGGER ALERT: This post contains some intemperate views, and expresses no small degree of irritation on my part regarding various comments I have seen online over the years. If such things trigger you, then I would advise giving this one a miss.

There is a kind of criticism that I have heard referred to as “penny-in-the-slot criticisms”. Which means that these criticisms are automatic reactions, instinctive and unthinking – reflexive rather than reflective.

When it comes to literature, and to books in general, there is a set of criticisms that, I think, could come under this category. Perhaps the worst thing about these criticisms is that they are immutable: no matter how vehemently you may argue against them, you won’t change anyone’s mind, because your argument will not be engaged with. Not that your argument was necessarily right: one is – or, at least I am – grateful when one’s argument is shown to be flawed, and one is forced either to refine one’s ideas, or to rethink them, or even to withdraw them altogether. But no, in an environment in which even to questions someone’s opinion is viewed as an act of aggression, that kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s not even a case of one’s argument not being countered: it’s simply not engaged with. But nonetheless, as sure as night follows day, that penny-in-the-slot criticism you had argued against will re-appear, as if you’d never said anything at all to counter it.

Here are a few such criticisms I’ve picked up over the years (in bold), along with brief arguments against them (in italics) that are regularly ignored.

“People don’t really enjoy reading difficult books: they only read books such as Ulysses to show off.”

If it were true that it is not possible to enjoy anything that is difficult, it’s hard to explain why so many are attracted to chess, say, or to difficult cryptic crossword puzzles.

And show off to whom? We do not live in a world where erudition is much valued. Reading something like Ulysses in order to “show off” seems like an awful lot of hard work for very little in return.

“People who write difficult books – again, like Ulysses – are just showing off how clever they are.”

Once again, showing off to whom? And why?

And if you don’t like “clever” writers, do you really prefer stupid ones?

“Male authors couldn’t/can’t create convincing female characters.”

Odd, isn’t it? Good writers of fiction can imagine themselves into the minds of all sorts of people different from themselves – children, old people, people from different walks of life, people from different social class, and all the rest of it. But the one barrier that is, seemingly, insurmountable is the barrier of gender. Not sure why: no-one has bothered explaining.

And in any case, how do you know that men writers cannot create women? Do all women think and feel in the same way? And are you privy to all their thoughts and feelings?

A good many of these penny-in-the-slot criticisms refer to Dickens. Some do lead to a bit of an exchange, but they never really get anywhere:

“Dickens really couldn’t create women.”

Miss Havisham, Betsey Trotwood, Sarah Gamp –

“Yes, but those are caricatures.”

But caricatures are not failed attempts at portraiture. You did not specify –

“You know what I meant. Dickens could not depict real women.”

Esther Summerson, Lady Dedlock, Harriet Beadle, Rosa Dartle, Lizzie Hexam…

“Dickens could only create caricatures.”

As said previously, a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. It takes skill to create a memorable caricature. And as for Dickensian characters who are complex people and most definitely not caricatures, we have Steerforth, John Jarndyce, William Dorrit, Pip, Miss Wade …

“But Dickens’ heroines are awful”.

Some of Dickens’ romantic heroines, especially in his early novels, are certainly bland and colourless. But so are his romantic heroes. Nicholas Nickleby is as colourless as Madeleine Bray, the adult David Copperfield as colourless as Agnes Wickfield, Martin Chuzzlewit as colourless as – and so on. It’s not just his heroines. The convention that romantic heroes and heroines had both to be spotless created all sorts of problems for writers. Dickens later overcame this and created heroes and heroines who are genuinely interesting – Pip and Estella, Bella Wilfer, Louisa Gradgrind, etc.

Silence. No response. And then, soon after:

“Dickens couldn’t create female characters, and all his characters are merely caricatures anyway.”

And also, for good measure:

“Dickens was just soap opera of his day”.

Just for clarity, could you define what you mean by “soap opera”, and specify how it differs from other (and presumably superior) forms of drama?

No, of course they can’t. At least, they don’t. The whole point of these criticisms is that you don’t need to follow them up.

And then you get the killer one:

“Dickens is sentimental.”

Sentimentality is a difficult thing to define adequately. Yes, in many of his works – especially the early ones – he can be genuinely mawkish. But that is by no means the full story: there is also much in his novels that has real emotional depth and complexity. For instance …

And you put together a long, detailed catalogue of examples, but no-one is listening. They have demonstrated how superior their taste is to yours by proclaiming that they are above Dickens and you aren’t, and that’s the end of the matter. They may even add, for good measure:

“I don’t have to like something just because the critics say I must.”

The implication is that I am blinded by the authority of these “critics” (whoever these mustachio-twirling pantomime villains may be), but they, being more independent in their thought, aren’t. And you might as well stop there, unless you want to create a scene.

Dickens certainly gets more than his fair share of penny-in-the-slot criticisms, but other writers aren’t exempt either:

“The Brontës were the bodice-rippers of their day.”q

“Austen was the chick-lit of her day.”

You can write entire essays trying to refute these claims, safe in the knowledge that no-one will engage with anything you may have to say. Well, some might, I guess – but you know that the same comments will come up again, and from the same people.

And then, on Shakespeare, there is that old bugbear of mine:

“Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read.”

How do you know this? Are you privy to what Shakespeare intended? And even if that is what Shakespeare had intended, why deny ourselves the experience of reading these plays when reading them can be so enriching?

Then there is that perennial one:

“I read to enjoy myself.”

My protestations that I, too, read to enjoy myself pass unnoticed.

“At the end of the day, it’s all just a matter of personal opinion.”

This is the point where you decide you’ve had enough of book boards, and create your own blog where you can let off steam to your heart’s content. As I have done here.

(If anyone has been triggered by any of this, please do bear in mind that I had placed a Trigger Warning at the start of this post, and I don’t think I can be held responsible for any distress or trauma caused.)

Jane Austen and pornography

Now that I have captured your attention with the title, let me get a few boring bits out of the way before getting on to the meatier part of the story. (Is “meatier” really the word I want to use here? Never mind – let it stay.)

I’m afraid that the Times is behind a paywall, so this link possibly won’t be of much use to most readers. But in case you are a subscriber of the Times, do please have a look at this. For the rest, I’ll summarise as best I can.

Jenni Murray, presenter of the BBC Radio 4 programme Woman’s Hour, and author of the recently published book A History of Britain in 21 Women, speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, has advocated teaching children about pornography. She notes, quite rightly, that pornography is now all-pervasive in our society, and that we cannot get rid of it. Under the circumstances, she argues, it is better that children were to be educated on the matter, “so that at least those girls know and all those boys know that not all women are shaved, that not all women make that bloody noise”, and so on. In other words, to teach the children that what they see in pornographic films is but a fantasy.

This seems well-intentioned enough. Except that I don’t know that I would fancy being the teacher in one of these “analysis” classes.

For one thing, it is difficult to know how one can “analyse” pornography without being morally judgemental. Kant, I gather, had told us that each human being is an end in herself, or himself. I am no philosopher, but this does seem to me a splendid base on which to build our morality. Put simply, human beings are subjects, not objects, and are hence entitled to respect. In pornography, however, each human being is an object, and nothing more. Thus pornography is built upon a base that is inherently demeaning, and is, by definition, immoral. I am not sure how much more there can be to “analyse”.

Of course, it could be that Jenni Murray was quoted out of context, so I do not want to say much more here on this particular matter. But I do want to comment on her reference to Jane Austen, as that brings us close, I think, to one of the recurrent themes of this blog. Ms Murray is quoted as saying:

We give our kids Jane Austen to read and we say “OK, let’s analyse it, what is it saying and what does it mean?”

Why not put boys and girls together in a class, you show them a pornographic film and you analyse it in exactly the same way as you teach them to read the other cultures that are around.

Quite apart from the desirability or the morality of showing pornography to children, what strikes me here is the absurd notion that literary culture (of which Jane Austen is treated as a representative) and pornographic culture are merely two of many “cultures that are around”, and that, by implication, both are equally worthy of being taught, and that both can be analysed “in exactly the same way”.

But the works of Jane Austen should be taught not because they are representative of one of the many “cultures that are around”: they should be taught because they are amongst the finest products of our civilisation. That’s it. No other reason. If we do not believe that certain works of literature have inherent value that elevates them above certain other works of literature; and that the finest examples of literary culture civilise us and humanise us in a way that, say, the culture of pornography cannot; then there’s no point studying literature at all. We might as well just “study” pornography. In “exactly the same way”.

I’m afraid this is the kind of insulting nonsense one gets to when one embraces cultural relativism. What a wonderful future we envisage for our children! We cannot even communicate to them the peaks of our human civilisations, because we have stopped believing in such things ourselves.