Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Books: is this how they work?

Books - That is exactly how they work

I've just been to a lecture by an anthropologist looking for ways to fictionalise her experiences in the Kalahari, so the relationship between subjects, authors and genres is on my mind. I think this is how some books work, for some people, some of the time. I've just read David Nicholls' The Understudy, which is an intelligent, enjoyable sentimental page-turner (I like his Starter for Ten and One Day rather more). I read it because I'm marking a lot, I've just suffered a bereavement and am busy: much as I love the London Review of Books and David Foster Wallace, they weren't what I require just now, unlike my formidably intellectual colleagues and friends. It's the equivalent of the jumbo pack of chocolate biscuits you eat instead of the salad you should have had (this happens to me with alarming frequency): you know they're bad for you but they're right for the moment. I doubt I'll remember more than the occasional line of The Understudy by next week, but that's OK. I'm not a snob: I like Buffy and Star Trek and all sorts of genre fiction and I'm not ashamed: they answer emotional and intellectual needs just as other more intellectual choices answer other needs I have.

I'm not alone in this by the way. My terrifying, bow-tie and gown wearing Arthurian literature mentor gave the impression that he lived entirely in a world of sherry parties, jousting and philosophising: until I met him in WHSmith, trying to hide the pile of Dick Francis horse-racing thrillers he'd bought. 'Man can't live on Arthurian literature alone, you know', he harrumphed, slightly blushing. 

But: the idea that books all 'work' by taking you from your miserable current existence into the sunlit uplands of delight is palpable nonsense. Take Primo Levi. I've read a lot about the Holocaust, to the extent that historical material actually deadens my emotional reaction. Reading Levi's The Periodic Table gives me a horrific, unflinching, reflective insider's version of the concentration camps. It also succeeds magnificently on an artistic level. 

What I totally distrust is the idea that fiction is inherently nice, or escapist: that it's a commodity to be 'used' to suit your mood. In classical music and literary fiction, industrialisation, psychology and World War 1 put an end to that: what went before was pretty, predictable, stable and had a beginning, middle and an end. And nice tunes you could whistle. It was often escapist or 'uplifting': Matthew Arnold said that 'culture' would tame the savage working classes and avert revolution. But once we'd proved once and for all that we were happy to slaughter tens of millions of our fellow human beings, and that our rationality is a self-serving delusion, serious literature and music dumped the predictable narratives, neat endings and catchy tunes for something darker and less easy, to reflect our new world. To the authors and writers of the time, it became dishonest to churn out the pretty stuff when we'd conclusively proved 

I'm not against entertainment or fun. I read a lot of this stuff and listen to more. But I do wish we wouldn't claim that reading is an escape to something better. Instead, let's agree that reading is a portal into the wider worlds of possibility: not better, not worse, but different and more of it. Don't just read to relax: read to learn, read to travel, read to think, read to feel, read to worry, read to angry up the blood.

I would have posted Turnage's Three Screaming Popes at this point, but it doesn't exist on the internet, which is a massive disgrace. So here's something much milder - part 1 of Louis Andriessen's De Staat.

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