In this fascinating article from The New York Times, writer Zoe Heller mentions that she feels a certain guilt about starting – and not finishing – David Foster Russell’s Infinite Jest. Have you experienced that guilt? (I say this as someone who has started James Joyce’s Ulysses several times…and never got past p152 before losing the will to live.)
Should we feel this pressure as readers? Isn’t claiming we’ve read and enjoyed all of Julian Barnes and David Mitchell’s books when we haven’t, just out-an-out snobbery? To pay due respect to both writers, I have no doubt in their writing ability – but their work just doesn’t float my boat. They’re not my bag. But a lot of people do enjoy their books – both are valid positions. I remember a fellow student at university who used to sneer at anyone who hadn’t read the latest ‘it’ books, or seen and enjoyed all the films on Empire’s list of greatest films. His favourite film? Citizen Kane. ‘But did you actually enjoy it?’ I asked him. Silence. (To be fair, he didn’t like any opinion that he couldn’t co-opt for himself. What a way to go through life. Another student declared she hated ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ – until she discovered it was well-thought of, then it suddenly became more appealing. Cue much eye-rolling. Sadly we all remembered what she had said. Rookie mistake when it comes to ‘book snobbery’.)
Yes, there’s a lot of appalling writing around. Yes, we should demand high writing and storytelling standards. But surely, the main point of reading (or in fact anything) is that we connect with it on a visceral and mental level, regardless of genre or review. As a horror reader and writer, I adore the books of Bentley Little, a little-known writer in the UK, but one of the only writers who genuinely unsettle me. Does he win high-brow literary awards? Nope, but who cares? I read his books over and over again.
I also love Haruki Murakami – his books move me beyond words and his writing is faultless. He DOES win awards and high praise from the high echelons of the literary world, but that’s not why I read him. His stories connect with the lost soul inside of his readers, the bookworms, the music lovers, the cat lovers – anyone who has ever felt ‘other’.
So now I want to hear from you – what do YOU think? Is the literary world too concerned with ‘big, clever words’ than it is with good storytelling? Are there any books which you feel you ‘should’ read because of their ‘literary’ cache, rather a desire to actually read them?
Hit the comments below and let me know!