Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Being Boring

This past Thursday, Slate.com posted "Overrated: Authors, critics, and editors on "great books" that aren't all that great." My initial reaction was "Oh Jesus. Again?" I have not been keeping track, but it seems like I have read countless "Classic Books That Suck" articles online. I know an article like this is perfect solution for the slow days of mid-August. Email some writers, ask them to send a paragraph about a classic they hate, copy, paste, post, voila! Something to fill time and space while what's left of the publishing industry is on vacation.

I could point out the duplicity of one media criticizing the supposed achievments of another, especially one which it desperately seeks to usurp, but most likely it's just a matter of websites earning money from page hits, so the more page hits they can generate with either "controversial" articles or by encouraging readers to submit their comments and bicker with each other, the better. The better for them, that is. Ultimately the whole exercise becomes dispiriting.

There was a time when it was exciting to find contrary opinions online, provided some reasons why, rather than just knee jerk antipathy, were included. Anyone who is well read can think of an author or a classic novel they dislike. For example: I can't stand Jane Austen's work. I've had numerous people explain why she's a "great writer" and while I can intellectually appreciate their arguments, I still find her voice smug and her characters annoying.

On a small scale, it can be cathartic to pronounce your individual taste when it contradicts conventional wisdom. But on a large scale, it seems less about individuals with unique opinions and more about "let's piss on literature!" "Everything they told you was good is garbage!" After reading the article and attendant comments, I decided to print it as a pdf in order to easily scan the material, perhaps including one or two of the more imbecilic remarks on Vox Plops. I was trying to avoid Slate.com's annoying format quirk that forces you to click on a "more comments" button after every 10 or so entries. In pdf form, however, I was facing 70 pages of people essentially saying "Okay, but you know what book I hate?" I re-read about 15 pages before deciding I had had enough. More than enough, to be accurate.

There were some bright spots and flashes of insight. My interest in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain has been renewed. One person pointed out that even though he doesn't know it, Holden Caulfield is grieving for his older brother and not just suffering from teenage ennui. Catcher In The Rye, along with Ulysses, seems to be a particular target; they're two novels that really piss people off, probably due to not only with their reputations, but how much their admirers love those books. They don't just inspire fans. They create obsessives. People who take the arts seriously define themselves by what they like and what they don't. People who hate Salinger or Joyce's novels (different from hating, say, Crime and Punishment) are reacting not only to the books' status in society, but in individual reader's lives.

Unless I'm projecting, hidden within the various criticisms is the complaint "I was not entertained by this novel. I expect to be entertained. I could have been spent the time doing something else, but instead I read this book which did not entertain me. Therefore, this book sucks." I'm not arguing that people shouldn't think of reading as pleasure or entertainment and I'm certainly not arguing that people should be bored by their leisure activities, which, once you're out of school, is most likely what reading is. But the idea that "not being entertained = boredom = bad" saddens me. I know I'm being reductive but I couldn't help but see most of the comments as customer complaints, the ire of consumers who didn't get what they want. I don't recall any work of literature making such a promise to the reader.

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