Friday, July 07, 2006

Middle-class philistinism, part 384

Sarah Crown of the Guardian writes about the choices in the Summer reading lists of various authors.
For me, one of the annual delights of the summer reading lists is the spectacle of the great and good of the books world indulging in an unseemly bout of literary one-upmanship, with the battle on to come up with more and still more worthily abstruse submissions.
She then provides an example:
For a truly breathtaking example of how the game should be played ... look no further than this year's list from Alain de Botton, who hits it out of the park in the very first sentence with the claim that he is "looking forward to reading Gabriel Josipovici's new collection of essays The Singer on the Shore". Essays: tick. Little-known (but highly respected) author: tick. Foreign (Josipovici was born in Nice): tick.
(Mark has already highlighted the factual elision here.) Despite her cynicism, Crown excludes crime writer and Newsnight Review regular Ian Rankin from contempt because he chooses novels by Jilly Cooper and Elmore Leonard:
At last: holiday reading recommendations that bear some resemblance to what will actually be lying beside our sunloungers this summer.
It doesn't bear any resemblance to what I've been reading this summer. But then again, I'm not as obsessed with fashion as Sarah Crown. I read what I need to read; that is, what gives me pleasure (but what is pleasure? Maybe that's the key question here). But even if she's right, why is Rankin's choice excluded? In the comments to her blog, Toby Lewis asks Isn't Rankin being equally pretentious claiming to be one of the people...? Well, who's to say? We make our mind's up reading these things. However, I didn't need it to tell me that Rankin is pretentious (and a boring writer according my crime novel-reading friend).

It amazes me that people who claim to love books assume that we're all secretly reading or secretly wishing to read trash. Immediately above Mr Lewis' comment is one from Serraphin: I'll take no shame in admitting I'm a big SF fan he announces. Who's ever said it's shameful FFS? There is some great SF fiction. I never read anyone saying the opposite. Where are these highbrow snobs? Please, let me read them!

I come from a working class background and reading Proust over the summer 1987 gave me immense pleasure AND gave me new horizons. I can't forget it, unlike many hyped novels of the time. At that time, when I first started reading, I took no interest in what middle-class snobs thought I should be reading or what I secretly wished to read. I read what appealed to me. That's why I sat for hours on my own reading Josipovici's essays; not because I thought it was cool. I read them because they spoke about what was most important to me. Alain de Botton is probably looking forward to reading them because he feels the same way. A single essay can say more about the joy of fiction than a year's supply of Guardian Reviews. Take a look at his essay on Borges from the latest collection, which Mountain 7 rightly calls "fabulous". (Make that a decade's supply).

Other writers feel the same way: Gabriel Josipovici is a deeply perceptive critic, always rewarding with a wide range of reference. The Singer on the Shore is a beautifully written and enjoyable book. But perhaps Sarah Crown believes Muriel Spark read the book on her deathbed merely to show off too?


  1. Reverse snobbery for sure, and also highly illogical. You've highlighted the line which makes Crown's flaw in logic apparent: "At last: holiday reading recommendations that bear some resemblance to what will actually be lying beside our sunloungers this summer". As far as I can tell, the Guardian didn't ask the contributing writers to predict what the summer's best sellers would be. They were asked to recommend books that they like or to which they are looking forward themselves. I don't see any fodder there for accusing any of them of being pretentious. Why is it a surprise that a bunch of writers would stray from the best seller list in their reading during the summer or at any other time of year? What would be the point of such an article if it did simply echo the best seller list? Those who present more esoteric choices do the newspaper's readers a service as they might just make readers aware of a book they hadn't heard about yet or hadn't thought to pick up.

  2. I have nothing to add, just want to commend you on an excellent post, and an excellent blog.

  3. Anonymous2:14 pm

    The Guardian is increasingly full of such shit masquerading as journalism (Hannah Pool anyone?). I reckon the work experience folk have taken over the machinery of production...



Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.