I’ve had, or heard, a lot of debates in recent weeks about the place of chick lit and lad lit. There has apparently been a rise in the purchasing of chick lit on the kindle, with the current theory being that because other people can’t see what you are reading on a kindle you won’t encounter judgement and can therefore read what you please, which appears to be chick lit. I have no strong opinions on chick lit, mainly because I don’t read much of it and the people I know who do read it are smart people who like it, and I tend not to argue with them. Dave Gorman made an interesting comment about it on the show Heresy, where he argued that there is more criticism of a woman reading chick lit than there is of a man reading lad lit because of the sexist perceptions that people expect more from women and less from men; Gorman argues that people will likely say ‘well at least he is reading’ in that situation. (That’s to say nothing of the horrendous gender norms of smooshy-smoochy for women and smashy-shooty for men. Yes, gender binary and norms make me lose my grip on language.) The show concludes that chick-lit is generally more enjoyable than ‘serious’ fiction and so isn’t all bad.
I find this argument an interesting context for my own experiences whilst reading D-F of the Unread Alphabet, particularly when it comes to Dostoevsky. I read during my two hours of commuting to work, so I’m pretty used to displaying my reading habits for all to see. No book or comic has received as many comments as Dostoevsky. I was asked by a fellow passenger whether or not I was an English Lit student and, on informing them that I’m not, I encountered rather a lot of abuse about how I was too bothered about ‘bettering myself’ to relax and enjoy life. Most of the comments I received – from family as well as fellow passengers – revolved around saying that ‘classic literature’ was no better than other books and that I should just read what I enjoyed, similar to the line taken in the Heresy debate. Implied in these kinds of statements is that I was tacitly endorsing the divide between high culture and low culture, picking something ‘worthy’ over something ‘enjoyable’. What strikes me is that although this may seem to be for questioning the boundaries of high and low culture, it still endorses the dualism between ‘worthy’ and ‘enjoyable’; Russian literature may be intellectual, but chick lit/ sci-fi/ Terry Pratchett is good fun.
All I really have in response to these kinds of cultural arguments is this: people have many different and complex reasons for picking up something to read, or choosing something to watch. I don’t endorse or even understand all of them, but I know that they are more interesting than these two camps of worthy and enjoyable.
What I really want in a book is something that I can’t look for, but something I will only know when I’m reading it. Escapism and adventure. I want to come into a different world and live there for a while, sit with the characters, share the sights and smells; I want to get to know how their world sits not just between the pages but under my skin. This is never constrained to one genre or writer, but something akin to the suspension of disbelief. It can happen in nineteenth century Russia or in futuristic Britain, in my own city or on another planet. It can happen in romance, in thriller, in dystopia or in gritty realism. That is what I enjoy, and what I learn from. In all honesty, Crime and Punishment has been one of the books on the list so far that I have really experienced this with. I can’t think of the book without feeling like I am cramped up in a dirty flat in Saint Petersburg, with a man raving away under the sway of monomania.
As far as I see it, I choose the books I want to based on any number of complex factors at the time of reading. Often I’ll start a book, realise I’m not in the right head space for that style and come back to it later when I am. So you can make recommendations all you like, but don’t tell me I shouldn’t be reading something. After all, there’s no accounting for taste, especially not my own.
The Unread Alphabet: Dostoevsky, Eliot and Fitzgerald
(Previously on The Unread Alphabet – A-C)
Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment
As you can tell from the above, I really enjoyed the book, which is difficult to say without coming off as a pretentious. It took a while to get into, and a while to get through, but there’s an episodic structure to the whole book that did help and it almost felt like reading through the acts and scenes of a play because of that. I can’t deny that it isn’t a gloomy book about murder and obsession and poverty, but there is something incredible about the seriousness of the main character, Raskolnikov, and his unwavering belief in his ethical decision. I was somewhat frustrated by the comparison with the purity and faith of Sonya, the prostitute who convinces Raskolnikov that penitence is better than getting away with it as it somewhat betrayed a good female character for the sake of a moral point. The tragic events are wearying, but there are also moments of absurd comedy and there is a redemptive lightness in the gloom.
George Eliot – Silas Marner
I struggled to really get into this book as I felt that the observations about village life at the time, whilst insightful, blocked my ability to feel that the characters were fully rounded rather than illustrations of a point. I wasn’t overly taken by her style or subject matter, but I did find her religious commentary interesting. The main character is hurt and betrayed by his involvement in a religious community, and ends up loosing his faith and becomes a miserly recluse in a Midlands village. His gold is stolen, but he believes a young child, Eppie, with her golden hair, has replaced it. His redemption comes through dutifully raising Eppie and coming to love her and participate in village life.
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
I was surprised at how much this book got under my skin, and how much – despite wanting to give them a good slap because of the way they behaved – I was persuaded to like the main characters. Seeing the character of Gatsby through the eyes of Nick Carraway does ensure that as the reader you share in Carraway’s conflicting feelings towards Gatsby – you think he is a terrible character but you also want his attention, you want to be liked by him. Some of the actions of the rich are horrendous in the book, I found myself squirming and hating them all, but Fitzgerald is very clever in getting the reader to question the judgement they have heaped on the characters, especially through the emptiness of the final scenes.