Running about with lit matches
When I wrote that response to the ex-MFA writer’s diatribe about writing students (Wading through the elitist BS), my first draft had a lot of snarky comments which I deleted lest I muddy my own point. They also betrayed a bit of my own form of elitism. For instance, in the original article the writer listed several books (in addition to The Great Gatsby) that he believed one must have read, enjoyed, and wanted to read more of in order to be a “serious reader.” All of the books he mentioned by name are ones I most often hear about from the sort of supercilious swanker who is constantly looking for a reason to hold other people’s intellects in disdain…
I had enough run-ins with that sort of person when I was younger, that I have a knee-jerk reaction to anyone who starts waxing eloquent about one of those particular books. I feel an instant hostility, which isn’t entirely fair. I’m reacting not to the person in front of me, but rather my remembered experiences with the previous unpleasant people. It’s also caused me to be overly derogatory toward some of the books in question.
It’s perfectly all right not to like a particular book. Even to dislike a book that is considered a classic, or one of the greats, or a momentous literary event that revolutionized the novel. Sometimes no matter how well-written a book is, it doesn’t appeal to you. You may loathe a book that others love. When that happens, there’s no shame in saying that you didn’t like it.
But I am ashamed of myself for suggesting that some books should never have been written. I feel at least a bit of guilt that my overly-negative comments about some books may have prevented someone who otherwise would have enjoyed them from trying to read them. And by overly negative, I mean specifically that most of my vehemence had more to do with my dislike of some people who enthused about the book, rather than my evaluation of the quality of the writing.
Ray Bradbury said there is more than one way to burn books, and convincing people not to read them is one of those ways.
On the flip side, there’s nothing that will turn a student away from reading faster than a teacher who squeezes all of the joy out of the literature. Insisting that a book is only meaningful if one understands and analyses the semiotics, syntactics, and systematicity of the work. Or that it is more important to have a well-reasoned justification of your belief about the value of authorial intent versus reader response than to be able to talk about which parts of the plot you liked or why one character really appealed to you.
Similarly, making another person feel ignorant or disdainful because they aren’t familiar with all the same books as you also drives people away from reading. I’ve certainly been guilty of that. More often I am simply genuinely surprised that someone hasn’t read a particular book, but I know my incredulity can come across as derision.
Likewise, holding entire segments of literature in contempt is another form of book burning. You believe that murder mysteries and thrillers are all drivel? Well, that means Dostoyevsky wrote drivel. You believe that science fiction is childish tripe? Then Kurt Vonnegut and Anthony Burgess both wrote childish tripe. You think fantasy is simple-minded mumbo-jumbo? Then Goethe, Shakespeare, and Lord Dunsany wrote simple-minded mumbo-jumbo. So people like the author of the article that spawned all this discussion who sneer at readers of genre and “non-serious” books are another kind of book burner.
Over-hyping books can have a similar off-putting effect. If all the English teachers and literary enthusiasts you’ve met insist that a particular book is the greatest ever written, and you can’t stand it, you’re less inclined to try any book that that sort of person recommends. Sometimes a book becomes over-burdened with expectations. When I first read The Great Gatsby, I think that was part of the reason I was underwhelmed. I’d been primed for it to be an awesome, mind-blowing book, whereas it was merely good. Nothing wrong with it, but not as wonderful as I’d been told. As mentioned earlier, my opinion of the book has not been improved by the sorts of people most likely to argue with me about its greatness.
Reading is worth encouraging. Yes, we should all read outside our comfort zones, at least from time to time. When we find something we like, we should share it. If we don’t like a particular book or author, we should feel free to say that (and why) as well. But we shouldn’t begrudge someone’s right to have a different opinion.
In the end, what matters is that books are available, and people are reading them.