Saturday, May 26, 2007

"How to Read"

Nick Hornby recently wrote this article called "How to Read." It's a quick read, but it's basic points are these:
  • Reading is for pleasure. Therefore, people should read what gives them pleasure, instead of racking their brains trying to slog through "important" books or supposed "classics" that they don't enjoy. Life is short.
Oh, well, there would be more bullet-points, but actually Hornby's argument stops there, more or less. Within the piece is, covertly, a theory of the novel: transparency into a world and its characters, whom the reader is made to care about. So, Hornby's champion is Dickens, rather than Henry James. Oh, fuck, let's just name opaque novelists with unlikeable characters: James, Flaubert, Conrad, Faulkner, Madox Ford, Woolf...

So, predictably, behind this argument for practical "simplicity" is an exclusion, a prohibition on difficulty which is reproduced in the argument: read for pleasure. Supposedly, difficulty is not pleasurable. Anyone who has ever, uh...done anything will tell you otherwise. The JOY of finishing a difficult novel is not to be underrated, and not merely in the sense of relief.

My argument, if you know me, is extremely predictable: in music, I refuse to believe that the bottom, root pleasure of music is the "pure pop song," which all the variations, experimentations, and genres we wade through are just complications and disguises for 3-minute pop gems. Similarly, I reject the idea that "plot" or "caring about characters" is the BASE LINE of literary enjoyment. If I agreed with that, Hornby would be right. Pleasure would be, ultimately, the same thing for everyone, only in more and less sophisticated versions. Literature would be like alcohol: some people might prefer chardonnay, others Pabst Blue Ribbon, but the root pleasure (getting drunk) would be the same, even if some aficionados veered into wine snobbery and pretended it were otherwise.

The best example for me will be Nabokov (and therefore, covertly, Proust, you see): Nabokov's novels are written in exactly the prose that Hornby deplores: "Prose that draws attention to itself." Moreover, the plot and characters of Nabokov novels cannot be said to be their main selling points. Further still, Nabokov is not a novelist you can just pick up and go. He is difficult, allusive, and benefits greatly from the reader knowing a great many conventions and references and maneuvers that will be played with, undermined, and exploited by Nabokov. It is an aesthetic enjoyment, rather than a mimetic one. And this pleasure is like the pleasure of exercising, of building muscles or generally improving at something.

Hornby's discussion is facile because the ability to take readerly pleasure changes over time, and not just with the seasons, but with one's readings, and in response to difficulty and challenges. Anyone who has read Roland Barthes' Pleasure of the Text will have noticed that this "pleasure" is far from uniform to every text (reading Zola versus Robbe-Grillet is Barthes' great example), and is a pleasure honed over a lifetime of difficult and introspective reading.

Hornby is arguing for a path of least resistance. Enjoy! (says the superego). I hope my rebuttal is clear: no one is born being a "certain kind of reader," as Hornby's article repeatedly implies; if someone enjoys Tolstoy, it is not because they are simply that kind of person, but because they have probably suffered and been bored and had to look things up, and wondered about putting it down---and that could all happen just reading War and Peace. On the other hand, there is no greater pleasure than reading War and Peace. It's fucking good. I would say, not despite, but *because* the novel is not unmitigatedly "pleasurable," determines its greatness. The Novel, Lukacs reminds us, is the aestheticization of its own problematic. And, so, the greatest novels tend to be, well...problematic.

As for Hornby's specious conflation of entertainment novels with difficult ones (I imagine Nostromo), it is no wonder that he "begs" us to put down novels that are "making us weep with the effort of reading them." By defining books as purely ENTERTAINMENT, Hornby essentially has made his entire argument. Why, indeed, struggle to entertain yourself? But it's so stupid, because even in classic fiction, the most "entertaining" novels (Mathew Lewis' The Monk), which make no demands on the reader, are ultimately forgettable. And I should stop here before I go into a long thing about Freud and cathexis and circuits of pleasure, but let's just say that if you believe Hornsby, you cannot also believe that crossword puzzles are fun. After all, they can be frustrating.


derek said...

"Are you a woman?"

-IA, on seeing me doing a crossword puzzle.

g. said...

Nick Hornby is a very bad writer. I'd rather read Nabokov.