Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Unputdownable or unreadable?

When is a book a good book? Is it only the literary critics who're expert enough to decide? Or is the ordinary reader's opinion just as valid?

I get constantly annoyed by the lingering belief that there's some kind of literary elite who know better than you and I what's a talented, well-crafted book and what's ham-fisted rubbish.

There's a continual assumption that only those who've studied literature at some fancy university, or hung out with famous authors, or are themselves authors, have enough discernment to tell the wheat from the chaff, the humdingers from the penny-dreadfuls.

I say this having just sampled two novels heaped with praise by the self-proclaimed experts, which seemed to me anything but praiseworthy. Everything from the plot to the characters to the writing itself seemed sadly lacking.

The cognoscenti of the book world would no doubt regard my opinions as worthless and uninformed. Yet I studied literature at school, I've read thousands of books and for many years I was a bookseller. Why would my opinions be any less valid than those of the literati?

Nobody would suggest that ordinary football fans are incapable of worthwhile opinions about football. Or that ordinary music-lovers can't have sensible opinions about music. Yet there's still this sniffy elitism about books.

So let's hear it for all those anonymous readers, Jo and Joanna Page-Turner, who're as entitled as anyone to proclaim the Booker Prize Winner a load of pretentious twaddle, or that well-known "literary giant" an overrated, long-winded dwarf.

24 comments:

Rummuser said...

Nick, I rarely read fiction and so, a well critiqued book on a subject that fascinates me, by a knowledgeable critic will certainly influence my decision to buy or not. I however suspect that your beef is on fiction and its critics. If I my presumption is right, I shall join you in any protest march that you plan against such critics.

Nick said...

Ramana - Yes, I was thinking mainly of fiction. Clearly with non-fiction like history or biography, there will indeed be experts with special knowledge of the subject matter.

A protest march against literary critics? Now that would be fun!

Leah said...

Oh, this is a hot topic in my house. I come from a family of writers, and we tend to be thoroughly sickened by the lit-crit "sniffy elitism" (LOVE that phrase by the way) that is so often completely misplaced, or at least grossly overblown...

Nick said...

Leah - The professional critics refuse to admit that ordinary readers are just as capable of assessing things like plot, characterisation and writing skill as they are. And that their pompous opinions aren't the only ones that count.

conortje said...

I totally agree Nick! I value friend's recommendations WAY more than academics or literary prizes (especially the booker. and on this topic - read anything good of late? (greetings from Ecuador by the way)

Nick said...

Conor - Friends are often more reliable, particularly since they know your reading tastes. I'm currently reading Paul Auster's Invisible, which I'm enjoying immensely. I also liked My Driver by Maggie Gee and Brooklyn by Colm Toibin.

Baino said...

Conorte has my vote, I'm swayed by what like minded people seem to like and have been berated many times for liking books without literary substance. Then I enjoyed the DaVinci Code so what does that say about my lit sniffiness?

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I couldn't agree more. But what were the two bad books that were so highly touted, pray tell?

e said...

I agree as well, but I'm curious as to the books you've savaged?

Liz said...

Absolutely. Agree completely.

secret agent woman said...

Yeah, me, too. I have read books that reaped rewards that left me cold and others I've stumbled upon that I've loved. I think taste is literature is fairly quirky, as with many other art forms, so I'm a "I'll read what I damn well please" sort of person.

Megan said...

There's a great scene in Gaudy Night when Harriet Vane is at a "literary" party and all the authors, etc. are grumbling about what kind of criteria it takes to be "Book of the Moment" - it's pretty hilarious.

I have been influenced by reviews and a few times by seeing a blurb from another author that I like. Although I hear that's a fairly political process, as well.

And I have picked up a book on the strength of its cover art alone, although that's rarer now than it used to be...

Wisewebwoman said...

I have less years left so I tend to toss what I don't like, critics be damned.
Let us know what your dropped NIck!
I had total novel letdown with Brooklyn, let me know what you think of it.
XO
WWW

Nick said...

Baino - Well, this is it, who is to say what is literary substance? Is Dickens necessarily superior to Ian Rankin? By what criteria exactly?

Heart, e and www - The two bad books? I'll comment on them separately.

Liz - Who could possibly disagree (said he in elitist tones)?

Secret Agent - Absolutely, haven't we all enjoyed some brilliant book the critics have written off as trash?

Megan - The definition of a Book Of The Moment is a whole subject of its own. I think it's often a blatantly political process, as you suggest.

www - Critics be damned, indeed. Well, taken with a pinch of salt anyway. They do have interesting insights along the way. I thought Brooklyn was excellent, but there you are, different strokes for different folks.

Nick said...

Right, the two offending items. One was Atomised by Michel Houellebecq. Praise from all quarters but I thought it was thoroughly racist, sexist and ageist, supposedly because the protagonist scoffs at political correctness. And it had little new to say about anything.

The other was More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow. By page 58 I had already tired of the endless intellectualising and smart-ass references which drowned out the storyline. It was so heavy-going it was like wading through treacle. But again, acclaimed by all the insiders.

Scarlet Blue said...

Do you check out Amazon reviews? They usually give you a good feel for a book one way or another.
I'll look up your two now.
Sx

Scarlet Blue said...

P.S... I've read quite a few Auster books.
Sx

Nick said...

Scarlet - I just looked up Atomised at Amazon but there was a spread of reviews from good to bad so it would be hard to judge if it was for me. More Die of Heartbreak only had one review! I've read a few Austers as well, enjoyed most of them.

Suburbia said...

Yes, I agree, sometimes those prizewinners are SO DULL! But then who am I to judge?!

Nick said...

Suburbia - As a regular reader, with enough intelligence to assess the different aspects of a book (plot, characters, writing skill, immediacy etc), I would say you're more than capable of judging.

Liz said...

I couldn't remember if I'd commented here or not.

Anyway, I detested ... Salman Rushdie ... Children ... um, it's coming ... yes! Midnight's Children. A friend bought it for me saying it was wonderful - and he meant it. I ploughed through it as it was a gift but had no interest at all in it.

Nick said...

Liz - I'm with you on Rushdie. I tried a couple of his books because of his massive reputation (Midnight's Children was one) but couldn't get on with them at all. I found his writing infuriatingly overblown.

gaelikaa said...

I totally agree with you. The acid test of a book is whether it is readable and whether people enjoy it. There are many 'acclaimed writers' who write the most pretentious stuff.

Nick said...

Gaelikaa - Your acid test is exactly right. But critics often think there is something admirable about complicated writing, labyrinthine plots and baffling characters, even if they're impossible to enjoy.