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Thursday, November 29, 2007

"Relax. You don't have to read to be well read"

Today’s episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: Bragging about your own lack of literary knowledge.

No, this is not about Ickler. This is about Russell Smith. The man is driving me nuts.

The Globe apparently has no standards for its Style section these days. This is today’s column, and the title of this post is the headline. My comments are in bold text.

I am so thrilled to have discovered Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read: It gives an argument to support what one has intuitively felt all one's life and, more importantly, it gives one an excuse to judge, and judge quite harshly, all those ecstatically lauded, good-for-you Canadian books - on the Giller Prize short list, for instance - that you can't bear to even begin.

Note that even though Russell is trying to establish his Everyman credentials – literature is so tiring! – old habits die hard and he cannot resist the use of the word “one” as a pronoun. Naturally, this is not because he is a stodgy old Brit with a pipe and a wig; it is because he is a hip young fellow from Toronto. When you're as hip as Russell, it's OK to have entire paragraphs with only one sentence. Compound-complex sentences are hot.

This has been a real problem for me. I mean, I would love to come out and say, oh, come on, are all these sad historical novels really the best this country can offer? But I can't, because I haven't read them, so I technically cannot judge them. I feel like saying, "Well surely my complete absence of desire to read our most highly rewarded books must count as a mark against them." But that bespeaks arrogance and I would be criticized for that, so I don't.

Obviously, Russell follows his own rules about direct quotes. I mean, who needs quotation marks? Not Russell! This could have been saved with the use of italics, but what a tiring waste of energy that would be! A real problem, to be sure.

I’m very proud of Russell’s restraint here. I think I’ll try it out: I’d like to say that my boss is a swinger and so am I. But that would get me fired, so I won’t say that. Boy, this is fun!

So along comes the brilliant Bayard, professor of literature at the Sorbonne, with an armoury full of sleek and shining arguments for not reading and nevertheless forming coherent opinions on books. I know it sounds like a joke, but it's quite a serious book, with all kinds of geeky French-style new ideas such as the inner book, the screen book, the virtual library and so on. It's way more fun (I'm guessing) than another reflection on family, memory and loss in the light of the Holocaust. (I don't know, of course, because I don't read books like that, but now I can say that we are all talking about virtual books anyway and that my unread virtual book is just as valid as your read one.)

I TOTALLY GET IT. Russell is a man of the people! Stuff from France is geeky! He’s not one of those fashion snobs: he doesn’t take his cues from other countries’ trends. I feel like wrapping myself in a Canadian flag.

This brings up some of the responses I have had to my recent rantings about the value of fiction. I received several letters from readers who said, What are you talking about? I try to read fiction (say my angry readers) and I find it too dull. It's always crushingly depressing and slow and it's about women in the past. It feels relentlessly good for me, as if I should feel ennobled by feeling sorry for people to whom bad things have happened. Well, this is simply the sad result of the propaganda created by our media. If you read the bestseller lists and listen to the CBC, then you form a completely distorted view of what fiction is.

Again, Russell’s at his hottest when he can’t figure out how to use quotation marks. Who finds fiction dull? His readers or Russell himself? Who can tell? That’s true sexiness for you. I could just rip that ascot off him.

You think it's these morality tales of good victims. You aren't told that there are fun stories out there, many of which actually take place in the present and many of which contain amusing and politically incorrect characters. You will never hear either about all the fun genre books with huge followings, about all the science fiction and crime novels and thrillers that could teach many of our most revered writers a thing or two about pacing and intrigue. Those books are not rewarded in this country; they are not included in "Heather's Picks" and they never show up on major prize short lists.

Right. Nobody ever mentioned that there are OTHER books out there! This is called “breaking news”. Russell has discovered something that was previously unknown: Some books have huge followings even though Russell has never heard of them.

But they are out there. In fact, if you hang around a group of Canadian fiction writers, you will hear them excitedly discussing all kinds of exciting books - all the Lorrie Moores and Michael Chabons of the United States, all the Gautam Malkanis and Irvine Welshes of Britain ... all the books that don't make it to your mom's book club, the books you can be forgiven for not knowing about if you're a devotee of Canada Reads. (It will also give you the impression that these Canadian fiction writers don't have a whole lot of time for the work of their Canadian peers, and that impression may well be correct.)

Got that? When you hang around Canadian fiction writers, they’ll talk about books. What’s that? You don’t know any Canadian fiction writers? Clearly, you’re in the wrong social circle. You probably don't even live in Toronto!

But back to Bayard and non-reading. One of his most charming arguments is that to be really well informed one cannot attempt to read all the books. Because of the volume of books, the task is simply impossible. One is a much better educated person if one takes the attitude of a librarian - if one knows enough about each book to know where it fits, how it is to be categorized - that is, not just what it is about and to what genre it belongs but what opinions are generally held about it. Knowing a great deal about books in general, and having skimmed a writer's work before, could enable one, for example, to guess pretty accurately about what reading the new Giller-quality work would be like. It might therefore also permit one to say to oneself, "I do not enjoy that book," without having to go through the soul-improving exercise of actually reading it. I am all in favour of this.

What a fabulous suggestion! It’s not important to read a book as long as you know what OTHER people have said about the book. This is good news for reviewers. It’s also good news for pretentious people who use “one” as a pronoun.

There is a danger here, even from Bayard's point of view, and that is that the book I would be talking about would be simply the "screen book," a false idea of a book based on what I have heard from others. Although one's "inner book," the book that one has made for oneself by interpreting one's own life in light of the actual one, is probably the most lasting and important one for all of us. That's the one I trust, and I have strong inner books created from skimming the most popular Canadian authors.

Yes, I suppose that if you don’t read a book, there would be a danger that you wouldn’t know what it’s actually about. Who said there is no point in stating the obvious?

At any rate, Bayard has made life much easier for Canadians. He has given us the tools for a rebellion.

A rebellion, yes, but not the type Russell has in mind.


Karen said...

I'm beginning to understand the Globe's columnists - yesterday, we established that Sarah Hampson uses her position to write about her post-divorce therapy efforts to feel better about being back in the dating world as an over-the-hill 40-something who has a failed marriage behind her.

Today we see Russell Smith explaining why we don't have to read fiction - all the better to explain around the Christmas table why his two full-length attempts at the genre currently sit at #13,589 and #180,969 on the Amazon Canada sales list. How few copies of your book do you have to move to rank in the 180th thousand percentile? Two? So his mom bought one for a Christmas present and one for herself?

You'd think with the success of his Globe column he could afford to gift his immediate family. Or perhaps not.

Either way, it doesn't matter because fiction is passe. Way to go Russell!!

Megan said...

It's rather Eckleresque, actually, with the "hot, fuckable single mom trend".

Yuck. I have to go take a shower. Who talks like that?

This "trend", of course, never existed until Eckler herself became a single mom.

Welcome to the club, Sarah Hampson! You can work through all of your issues in print while pretending you're a journalist! It's great to have someone who's willing to push the envelope! A normal person, of course, would shut up about these things.

Torq said...

Now this is REALLY depressing. What is the matter with people? If you don't want to read and at the same time don't want to feel stupid for not reading just go and hang out with people who don't read all that much.

There are few things that I find more irritating than trying to have a conversation with someone who is referring to a book that he has never read! *snickers*

Now that that's out of the way, I don't really read many Canadian writers these days either. At least now I know how to sound like I DO!

Oh, and using One is perfectly acceptable! There is no need to be all snooty about our pronouns now is there?

Megan said...

Torq, I'd like to be able to say something about your comment, but, taking my cues from Russell, I've decided not to read it. Instead, I will simply assume that I already know what your comment is about, based on what trendy people have said about it.

This new skill is going to be really handy at work.

Karen said...

Unfortunately for you, I have never been one of the trendy people, so you will either have to deign to speak to me, or come up with a better reason to ignore me. Don't say you don't have options!