Saturday, 6 December 2014

Literary Snobs (with particular reference to A Good Read)

Books are books. Not all books are equal and different people like different books.

That doesn't seem like a very controversial statement but there is a fair amount of snobbery around books; there are 'literary classics' that some people feel everyone should read. And then there are books that those same people immediately dismiss.

In terms of literary classics, I like Shakespeare and I even find his comedies funny. I like Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allen Poe and Joseph Conrad to name a few. I don't like Charles Dickens at all. I've read the Brontë sisters but not enjoyed it but I'm fairly ambivalent about them to be honest. Each to their own.

This goes back to me not liking to label books with genres. One of the ways genres are used is for those who consider themselves to have excellent literary tastes (i.e. better than yours) is to classify those books they immediately dismiss.

The impetus behind this blog entry is A Good Read, a Radio 4 programme I am lucky enough to listen to now and again on the way home from work in the car. For those unfamiliar with the format, a presenter (Harriett Gilbert) has two guests and each brings a book that the others read and discuss (so three books. I really don't know where Gilbert gets the time to do all that reading she has to bring a new book every week).

It is always interesting to hear what someone thinks of a book, especially if it is a book they have selected. Sometimes it's a book they love, sometimes it's one they like for some specific reason but accept that it's not the best book they have ever read. Occasionally (and most interestingly) it's a book they are not sure if they like or not and the discussion then is usually very interesting.

Most of the time the books are standard 'literature' books with maybe the odd biography now and again and Gilbert cheerfully praises or critiques each book having read it.

But... now and again a guest will bring in a book that Gilbert immediately feels she has to apologise for. And the reason she has to do this involves two words: Science and Fiction.

The first of these that I heard was when a guest brought in Kurt Vonnegut's <i>Slaughterhouse 5</i>, an acknowledged science fiction classic and given Vonnegut's style and subject matter this would fit in well with the show's ethos. However Gilbert's first words were "I don't really like science fiction but..." and then went on to say how much she actually enjoyed the book.

I wonder what science fiction she has read before that she immediately dismisses anything that is vaguely science fiction as being something that she wouldn't like? Not all science fiction (in fact very little of it in my experience) involves lasers and spaceships. Most science fiction involves taking an idea from our time and exploring it in another context where it can be exaggerated and looked at from every angle. Science fiction in particular is a very very wide area of writing covering many styles of writing, themes and ideas. Dismissing it on a literary programme as 'I don't read that' (with perhaps an implied word of 'rubbish' at the end) really does seem like the highest form of snobbery.

Of course she enjoyed <i>Slaughterhouse 5</i> it is an excellent and thought provoking book, well written by an outstanding writer. The fact that it is set in the future and can be labelled 'science fiction' is entirely irrelevant to its literary merit.

One occurrence of this I could perhaps overlook. But last week the reverse happened. A guest brought on Margaret Attwood's <i>A Handmaid's Tale</i> (which I have never read). This concerns a dystopian future where fertile women are used as breeding stock and explores the themes around that. As a label, science fiction fits it perfectly. There are no robots or aliens (as far as I know) but the concept of taking a theme (fertility being a commodity in a world where it is scarce) and exploring it makes it science fiction.

However Gilbert once again felt she had to excuse the book by saying "it's not really science fiction". Why was this? Does she think that the programme's audience will switch off if they dare to include a book that explores a relevant idea in a different context? Does the fact that she enjoyed the book but "doesn't like science fiction" mean that she is rationalising to herself that it's okay to like this, it's not what it seems?

This apparent snobbery has left me very confused. But still a great fan of the programme.

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