Roving thoughts and provocations

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Reading Upward

From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York
Arnold Eagle: Boys Climbing the Fire Escape of a Deserted Building, 1935

“Frankly, I don’t mind what they’re reading, Twilight, Harry Potter, whatever. So long as they are reading something there’s at least a chance that one day they’ll move on to something better.”

How many times have we heard this opinion expressed? On this occasion the speaker was a literary critic on Canadian radio with whom I was discussing my recent blog post “Reading: The Struggle.” Needless to say the sentiment comes along with the regret that people are reading less and less these days and the notion of a hierarchy of writing with the likes of Joyce and Nabokov at the top and Fifty Shades of Grey at the bottom. Between the two it is assumed that there is a kind of neo-Platonic stairway, such that from the bottom one can pass by stages to the top, a sort of optimistic inversion of the lament that soft porn will lead you to hard and anyone smoking marijuana is irredeemably destined to descend through coke and crack to heroin. The user, that is, is always drawn to a more intense form of the same species of experience.

Of course, while the fear that one will descend from soft to hard drugs tends to be treated as a near certainty, the hope that one might ascend from Hermione Granger to Clarissa Dalloway is usually expressed as a tentative wish. Nevertheless, it serves to justify the intellectual’s saying, “Frankly, I don’t mind what they’re reading, etc.” (as if this were some kind of concession), and underwrites our cautious optimism when we see an adolescent son or daughter immersed in George R.R. Martin. It’s not Dostoevsky, but one day it might be, and in any event it’s better than a computer game or TV since these are not part of the reading stairway.

Is any of this borne out by reality? Do people really pass from Fifty Shades of Grey to Alice Munro? (Through how many intermediate steps? Never to return?) And if it is not true why does a certain kind of intellectual continue to express them? To what end?

In 1948 W.H. Auden published an essay, “The Guilty Vicarage,” on what he calls his “addiction” to detective novels. The point he makes is that these schematic narratives serve the escapist needs of readers who share his particular psychological make-up. These people will not, as a rule, Auden claims, with some elaborate argument, be the same readers as readers of light romances or thrillers, or fantasy fiction. Each genre has its pull on different types of minds. In any event, if he, Auden, is to get any serious work done, he has to make sure that there are no detective novels around, since if there are he can’t resist opening them, and if he opens them he won’t close them till he’s reached the end. Or rather, no new detective novels; for Auden notes this difference between the stuff of his addiction and literature: that the detective novel is no sooner read than forgotten and never invites a second reading, as literature often does.

The implications are clear enough. Auden denies any continuity between literary novels and genre novels, or indeed between the different genres. One does not pass from lower to higher. On the contrary one might perfectly well fall from the higher to the lower, or simply read both, as many people eat both good food and junk food, the only problem being that the latter can be addictive; by constantly repeating the same gratifying formula (the litmus test of genre fiction) it stimulates and satisfies a craving for endless sameness, to the point that the reader can well end up spending all the time he has available for reading with exactly the same fare. (My one powerful experience of this was a spell reading Simenon’s Maigret novels; after five or six it gets harder and harder to distinguish one from another, and yet one goes on.)

Auden, it should be noted, does not propose to stop reading detective novels—he continues to enjoy them—and expresses no regret that people read detective novels rather than, say, Faulkner or Charlotte Brontë, nor any wish that they use detective novels as a stepping stone to “higher things.” He simply notes that he has to struggle to control his addiction, presumably because he doesn’t want to remain trapped in a repetitive pattern of experience that allows no growth and takes him nowhere. His essay, in fact, reads like the reasoning of someone determined to explain to himself why he must not waste too much time with detective novels, and at the same time to forgive himself for the time he does spend with them. If anything, genre fiction prevents engagement with literary fiction, rather than vice versa, partly because of the time it occupies, but more subtly because while the latter is of its nature exploratory and potentially unsettling the former encourages the reader to stay in a comfort zone.

I’m forced to pause here to admit the objection that much supposedly literary fiction also repeats weary formulas, while some novels marketed as genre fiction move toward the exploratory by denying readers the sameness the format led them to expect. And of course many literary writers have made hay “subverting” genre forms. However, if the “I-don’t-mind-people-reading-Twilight-because-it could-lead-to-higher-things” platitude continues to be trotted out, it is because despite all the blurring that has occurred over recent years, we still have no trouble recognizing the difference between the repetitive formula offering easy pleasure and the more strenuous attempt to engage with the world in new ways.

So do people pass from the genre to the literary up our neo-Platonic ladder? Do they discover Stieg Larsson and move on to Pamuk? With no studies or statistics available to settle the question—at least I have not come across any—I can only resort to anecdotal evidence, as a father of three and a university teacher for many years. And the first thing to say is that no one has ever spoken to me of making this progression. My children all enjoyed listening to the classic canon of children’s stories in their infancy, but this did not automatically lead to “serious reading” later on, despite, or quite possibly because of, their parents’ highly developed reading habit. My son spent his adolescence switching back and forth between computer games and compulsive rereadings of The Lord of the Rings, equally happy with both forms of entertainment. Later, he gathered together complete collections of Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell. When I have suggested trying the work of certain novelists I like—Coetzee, Moravia—his complaint is invariably that they are too disturbing and too close to home. My eldest daughter oscillates between pulp fiction and literary fiction with the greatest of ease, perfectly aware of the entirely different pleasures they offer. My youngest daughter pursues vast fantasy chronicles and seems entirely happy with them; they have never prompted her to consider opening any of the more literary works our bookshelves are stacked with. In fact she reads fantasy chronicles because they are not to be found on the family bookshelves and offer a distinctly different experience from literary fiction. She does not want, she says, to be troubled with the kind of realities she sees quite enough of. She likes the costumed world of bold exploits and special powers.

When I speak to my students, what is most striking is that the majority of them, who are content on a diet made up exclusively of genre fiction, simply do not perceive any difference in kind between these and literary works; they do not see the essentially conservative nature of the one and the exploratory nature of the other. They register no need to widen their reading experiences. Often they propose theses on genre works of no distinction whatsoever, unable to understand why their teachers might put these in a different category from, say, Doris Lessing or D.H. Lawrence.

If we assume, then, for the sake of argument and in the absence of persuasive information to the contrary, that narratives do not form a continuum such that one is naturally led from the simpler to the more complex, but offer quite different experiences that mesh with readers’ psyches and requirements in quite different ways, why do the right-thinking intellectuals continue to insist on this idea, even encouraging their children to read anything rather than nothing, as if the very act of reading was itself a virtue?

It’s evident that publishers have a commercial interest in the comforting notion that any reading is better than none. They can feel virtuous selling a hundred million copies of Fifty Shades, strong in the hope that at least some of those folks might move on to Pulitzer and Nobel winners, and perhaps eventually to some of the more obscure and adventurous writers in their stables — just as, in Fifty Shades itself, the heroine Anastasia can indulge in a little S&M as part of a project to lead Christian Grey out of his perversion and on to the joys of the missionary position in conventional wedlock. It’s always a relief to have reasons for supposing that what one is doing might have a bit more to it than the merest self-interest.

At a deeper level, there is a desire to believe in an educational process that puts the intellectual in a pastoral relationship to an ingenuous public who must be coaxed in a positive direction; that is, the notion of this pathway upward from pulp to Proust allows for the figure of the benign educator who takes the hands of blinkered readers and leads them from the stable to the stars, as the Italians say. It’s good to posit a scheme of things in which possibly obsolete skills like close reading and critical analysis in fact have an important social role.

What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit. Others may or may not be enticed toward it, but I seriously doubt if E.L. James is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet.

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