Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Snobbery and Modernism

When crafting a book, deciding on one's audience is a pretty integral part of the process. For myself, I'm a populist - I want to write a book that's exciting, engaging, engrossing and, hopefully, evil. In the most deliciously soul-destroying sense. 

Reading, to me, has always been one of life's few theoretically universal pleasures; as they say, "there's a book out there for everyone". This phrase has stuck with me since I first heard it, and continues to influence a lot of my book-based decisions - particularly when raiding Waterstones in the expectation of an upcoming occasion requiring the exchange of badly-wrapped-but-thoughtfully-chosen presents.

Not every author thinks the same way, though. In fact, I ran into one just this week. Her name is Virginia Woolf... and I don't think we quite see eye to eye.

Mrs Woolf, you see, is a modernist. Modernism, as I have recently discovered, is a movement fundamentally based on curiosity, on wanting to test what can be done with the novel, pushing its form and function to the very limits, then shoving it in a blender, choosing a setting and slamming whatever dribbling ruination is left at the end onto a plate to see if any pretentious claims to radical and insightful status can be made before it goes cold.

In case you hadn't noticed, I'm not a huge fan of modernism. 

While I appreciate the curiosity and inventiveness at its heart, to me the system is also full of endemic snobbery - which is sad, because modernist novels can be marvellous things. It may come with a side of headache (brought on by feeling like an utter moron when you try and get past Chapter Three at midnight because your seminar leader swore it would be easier from there on), but modernism can raise some fascinating questions about the durability and failings of the human experience, and the language we use to express it.

But what's the point of such a thing if half the public readership find the prose about as penetrable as the underside of Fort Knox?

Most modernist novels don't set out to be difficult - sadly it's just a side-effect of its thematic adventurousness. Luckily, most of the time, the novel will prove really quite digestible once you've gotten used to its individual quirks. Who knows, you might even develop a taste for it.

This is not always the case, though. There are some authors out there who write books exclusively for the purpose of being ... well, exclusive. Even worse is when these books are lauded as the greatest and most definitive works of the 20th Century; true accounts of the human experience, providing marvellous insight into the human experience as it is felt by the everyman.

I'm looking at you, James Joyce's Ulysses. And you too, Mr William Faulkner. Don't think I won't be coming after you in whatever afterlife there may be, ready to wham you over the head with a copy of Absalom! Absalom!

Now, I'm not saying people can't write dense books of impenetrably complex prose if they want to - "there's a book out there for everyone", remember? - but I do have a serious bugbear with the literary world's habit of priviledging those books above others.

This is not a post about decrying complex language and themes - I'd be the dictionary definition of a hypocrite if I were doing that, as anyone who's read my first drafts will know - but rather a protest against forcing universality into something that clearly is not meant to be universal. 

People write books for different audiences. Different people like to read different things. Some books like to delve into the mysteries of humanity, others just want to entertain us with a few explosions and a well-placed death scene. They're entirely different creatures, competing in entirely different theoretical ecosystems, and both providing joy and nourishment to their respective variety of bookworm.

Let's not go lauding one as art while grinding the other into the dust, simply because the former contains a detailed symbolic structure to its chapter titles and requires you to read every sixth page upside down.

~ Charley R

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