At times I feel like the the scrivener equivalent of the swallows of Capistrano. But within my mental landscape, there are very few fallows patches that I’m unwilling to revisit for additional treading. So come along/bear with me.
This week, the actor Simon Pegg gave an interview where he questioned what the current prevalence and popularity of genre cinema is doing to our collective emotional maturity.
“… Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.
It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever.
Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”
A character actor pontificating rarely inspires me to weigh in, but I found the amount and nature of the coverage of his comments interesting. Most interestingly, to me at least, is that much of the reporting reached back to February to dredge up Jonathan Franzen’s much-fulminated upon interview with the literary magazine Booth. The quote that, at the time, spurred a hundred Hot Takes in the literary blogosphere, and was exhumed from the ever-shallower grave of internet kerfuffles for the Pegg imbroglio was:
“Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity. People don’t want moral complexity. Moral complexity is a luxury. You might be forced to read it in school, but a lot of people have hard lives. They come home at the end of the day, they feel they’ve been jerked around by the world yet again for another day. The last thing they want to do is read Alice Munro, who is always pointing toward the possibility that you’re not the heroic figure you think of yourself as, that you might be the very dubious figure that other people think of you as. That’s the last thing you’d want if you’ve had a hard day. You want to be told good people are good, bad people are bad, and love conquers all. And love is more important than money. You know, all these schmaltzy tropes.”
The Defenders of Genre Fiction emptied their quivers to take down Franzen for his intellectual dressage. Their lines of attack, just as those going after Pegg this week, were multiple: genre fiction is worthy for the simplicity with which it deals with morality; genre fiction is, in fact, morally complex; genre fiction is more morally complex than literally fiction; Jonathan Franzen is a high-brow snob who is jealous that he doesn’t make blockbuster money; etc.
So, as I warned from the start, I must return to my well-trod patch on the subject: I’ve got no truck with book snobs. Yet, I absolutely agree with what Franzen was saying in the above quote. To be clear, I’m not saying that “YA”, by definition, equates with “moral simplicity”. But, most YA and most popular fiction is certainly not morally complex. The most popular commercial fiction, by-and-large, is built from a palette of primary colors. Good guys are good and bad guys are bad. Motives are clear and desired outcomes are well-defined.
What the saber-rattling about the Franzen and Pegg’s quotes is all about is the inferred (or, perhaps, implied) judgment that there is only value in the complex or high-brow. This may be absolutely how they view the matter, though Franzen makes a point of expressing an understanding for why readers may not want moral complexity.
I make a habit of avoiding trying to peer into the hearts of my fellow man to divine their true motives. I try to take what they say at face value and will certainly extend that benefit of the doubt to Franzen and Pegg.
What I do take exception to, however, is the world of hair-trigger outrage and the cultural zero-sum game we seem to be living in.
Why do you read? Seriously think about that.
Guess what? Your answer is 100% correct.
There is no wrong answer to that question. There is also no one, correct answer. I read for my reasons. You read for your reasons and all our reasons are fine.
I believe that I would miss out on something potentially life-changing if I didn’t challenge myself in my reading. That my quality of life is enhanced by the more points of view and complexity and experiences I get in my reading. But I also believe that this is not the case for everyone. Some want edification. Some want fun. Some want comfort. Some want escape.
I stumbled upon a quote from Franz Kafka that really captured why I read what I read:
Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.
I find the quote beautiful and prescriptive for me. I don’t believe, as Kafka does, that “we” should only read these types books. I’ll read what I want. You read what you want. As a bookseller, it’s my job—my pleasure—to get you the book you want, even (or especially) when you don’t know what that book is. There’s plenty of book goodness to go around.
When is comes to books–really most things in life–I take a page from David Lynch (no, not that one)
Books are heaven.