Monday, August 21, 2006

Nick Hornby and the "joy" of reading

Nick Hornby wastes over 2600 words over a misapprehension. (Link again via KR Blog!).

Oh God, we've been here so many times before. Every week at least one litblogger confesses that they've not read some classic novel, while another admits to loving Jackie Collins novels (or some such). Hornby also sets up this familiar (and false) opposition of books for pleasure and books for worth. We should read, he says, only that which gives us pleasure.

Who could disagree? Many, according to Hornby. He rages at an unnamed broadsheet journalist who sneered at the lowbrow reading matter ("Hello!, The Sun, The Da Vinci Code [and] Nuts") noticed on a train journey. He hasn't been reading the same broadsheet journalists as me, such as Sarah Crown in The Guardian and her smug commenters (to whom I responded here), or Robert McCrum, both of whom share his disdain for "pretentious" readers.

Hornby evidently believes that reading is a good thing in itself and should not be discouraged. If that is the case, I wonder how he'd feel if those train passengers were reading not Hello!, The Sun, The Da Vinci Code or Nuts but The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Imagine a whole carriage buried deep in Mein Kampf instead. How would he feel then? While we can all find reasons why reading these books might be a good thing - understanding one's enemy all the better to slay them - there is always residual discomfort. (Perhaps we should be thankful they weren't reading The Daily Telegraph.)

The issue then becomes not what is being read, but why.

Why do people read The Da Vinci Code then? I'd guess two basic reasons. First, to read what everyone else is talking about, so as not to be left out. We all want to be part of a community, even if it's only a community of one (perhaps the hardest). Second, to be entertained; to take pleasure.

So why do people read the "literary novels" which Hornby finds so boring (he seems to think the distinction is something to do with "more opaquely written" language!)?

I'd say for the exactly the same reasons. The first reason in both cases is basically the same as the pursuit of "intelligence" with which he is so impatient, while the second is identical. Or almost.

So what's the essential difference? Well, Hornby's misapprehension is that enjoyment is simply that. But it isn't.

I'll explain. A few years ago I enjoyed Michael Frayn's Headlong. It is compelling, funny, and written with a remarkable fluency. But I can't bring myself to read a more recent novel Spies, which I'm told is even better. Why the hell am I withholding such pleasure from myself? Above all, I think it's because I found the enjoyment too close to despair and, you know, I don't really want to experience that again. While reading Headlong, I so wanted to find out what happened next, to get beyond the latest twist that's sends the protagonist into another headlong spiral of narration, that I felt almost nauseous.

On the other hand, the pleasure I get from those books I love does not lead to nausea (unless there's Nick Hornby's review of it immediately after perhaps). Maybe they are "hard work" as Hornby presumes most "literary" novels are, yet unlike Spies, it's work I cannot resist, because it is pleasure (such is the paradox of literary fiction). It resists that despair, it works through and against unhappiness.

I've learnt (through reading and reflecting on that reading) that the only way of maintaining that resistance is to first of all recognise that despair (of course, something out of Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death). It's no good feeding oneself wishfulling fantasies that merely reinforce one's original condition, but of starting from despair, unhappiness, failure and not stopping until one has recognised them and found the right words in the right order to describe, explain and understand them. (Maybe literary fiction really is all about language after all as NH hints). Anyone who's a fan of Thomas Bernhard (the most pleasureable of novelists) knows how all these conditions bizarrely coalesce into life-affirming joy because, in part, of his extremism, his refusal of received ideas.

How each one of my favourite novels manage to offer this kind of pleasure isn't always so clear to me. It's something to do with the same kind of careful seeking I hear one experiences in the careful narration of a detective novel - though in Bernhard's case it's often a narration against narration. But not being clear means I am driven to find out in my own writing. There's an obvious irony that in reading Nick Hornby's article and writing this to work out why it gave me such displeasure, I have eventually taken pleasure and so perhaps demonstrated the limits of his liberating call.

I want to share with others this temporary victory over despair. And I seek the pleasure of reading those who are also trying to understand without resorting to middlebrow platitudes. It's the main thing missing from the broadsheets with which Hornby is so wrongheadly angry. But maybe he is in despair and doesn't know it.


  1. You are making me want to read Thomas Bernhard. The most satisfying reading experiences are surely those in which you are tranquil, with time, and can tackle with joy a great book.

  2. Do you know anything about his work other than from my foaming-at-the-mouth enthusiasms?

  3. Hornby (like Frayn) is in an odd, middle-brow position. His stuff is perceived to be respectable ('better' than Dan Brown or chick lit - it could get longlisted for the Booker) but still isn't fully 'literary', whatever that may mean.

    There's a parallel with Dickens (one of his favourite writers), who has become a 'classic' (enough to scare off people who read Dan Brown) without achieveing the literary (ghost of Leavis?) respectability that adheres to, say, Henry James.

  4. His ignorance of what literature is demonstrated by that ridiculous comment that Dickens WAS popular but now is literary because it's old. He hasn't a clue. If he refuses to understand what "literary" means, how can he escape his despair at not being "respectable" (another ridiculous phrase)?

    Henry James spans a divide between the Victorians and the Moderns, which one can enjoy in his work (that is, enjoy in the way one enjoys what troubles one) - he became uncertain about the whole enterprise (without giving up); something Dickens and Hornby never are, which is why neither is interesting to someone concerned with literature. It's nothing to do with Leavis. It's about what I wrote above.

  5. My thoughts exactly, spot on. Perhaps Sean Walsh could resurrect his one man 'Stop Lying, Hornby!' campaign?

  6. i like that you define why people read as joy and peer or social influence, and applaud the idea that these will apply whether the book is 'literature' or... what should we call it... illiterature?



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