Some of you may have read a certain online Guardian article recently, and, like me, I’m sure many of you fell into the trap of this obvious bit of trolling, expressing anger and dismay at such a joyless statement about the supposed worth of reading some books over others. The fact that the online Guardian responded pretty much on the same day with an article with an opposing view shows just how apt at trolling they have become; indeed, trolling themselves.
Anyway, regardless of such click-bait, it did bring to mind something I’ve been thinking about recently, and that’s my deep dislike of the term ‘literary’, usually used to define non-genre titles, but also used as a statement about the qualitative nature of a work at the expense of other, ‘lesser’ titles. Now, I understand that the ‘literary’ term is useful to book sellers in order to know where to place titles. For example, I wouldn’t expect to see Jane Austen on the science-fiction shelves. But it is also used by folk to make a statement about a branch of writing, to say that because this is not genre fiction, this fiction is better; indeed better written and better for you more often than not.
Of course, this is utter nonsense. I’ve read works of ‘literature’ that have been as poorly written and conceived as any of the worst hack work in genre fiction, and I have read works of genre that have been as illuminating, moving and incisive as anything found in any great work of literature.
Reading should be a pleasure, and I can’t say that being made to read certain titles at school necessarily sparked the desire to read more. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are certain great books that should be taught, but it was the excitement of discovering Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, etc. in my teens that really fired my passion for reading. It was the books that I read in the garden on long summer holiday days, or sitting in the breaks between lessons that really made me love reading. And yes, literature is important; the stories that we tell ourselves and each other are crucial in understanding what it is to be human, and developing a well-honed sense of empathy. But to say that one sort of literature is more important than another is to split literature up into distinct camps, each with their own entrance requirement – oh, no sorry, Brontë is not for you, perhaps The Rats by James Herbert is more your thing? Those discovering the pleasure of reading for the first time should not then have their choices mocked, because the likelihood is that it will put them off continuing with this most rewarding of pastimes.
Books can improve you and change your life, this is true. The idea that it’s only a certain type of book that does this is ludicrous. And also I think this viewpoint takes the fun out of reading. You should enjoy what you read, not because you think you should, but because you are. Those lists of books that occasionally do the round, of titles you must read, seem almost counter-productive. They have the whiff of the classroom about them.
Not to say, of course, that being taught about books is not a good thing, but I’m sure, like me, you have encountered certain types of people at school or university, who look on genre as ‘that kind of thing.’ My first MA advisor when I wrote my dissertation on British Horror is a case in point. He refused to read any of the source material I was writing about because he thought it was nonsense. Then again, there was my A-level tutor who shared my enthusiasm for William Hope Hodgson and introduced me to one of my very favourite books: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien; a book I was also delighted to find on my university syllabus.
Books are fun. Reading is fun. The world of literature is not an exclusive club that you ascend through by having read the right books, and in a world where reading as a pastime is diminishing, and where bookshops are struggling, such a view-point is poisonous and backward.