by Camille Griep
On the final day of August, The Guardian posted an exceptional piece of twaddle by a Jonathan Jones called “Get real. Terry Pratchett is not a literary genius.”
Though the piece was almost universally hailed as irrelevant, largely based on the authors admission that he himself hadn’t actually read any of Pratchett’s books, I’m not falling into the camp of conspiracy theorists who believe the piece was a ploy to up The Guardian’s page hits.
I think people like Jonathan Jones exist. And, what’s more, he represents a kind of reader who, despite lofty intentions, actually hurts literature more than helps.
I’m not writing in defense of Sir Terry, though I could. Admittedly not familiar with his entire canon, I’ve read enough to know Jones’ attack is as baseless as it is elitist. But I do think Jones’ assertion that “life really is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers” is complete and utter bullshit, and I’ll go as far as to say that I think this systemic exclusion in literary circles is what turns many off from reading.
The easiest metaphor to use for this situation is food. While I can appreciate and enjoy the food at The French Laundry, I can also find some enjoyment at the bottom of a bag of Doritos. They are apples and oranges, to each a purpose and that purpose singular to its consumer and that consumer influenced by time and place and maturity and mood and a million other things.
They are apples and oranges, to each a purpose and that purpose singular to its consumer and that consumer influenced by time and place and maturity and mood and a million other things.
I’ve been struggling through Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius for about thirteen years now. The prose is beautiful. The same places make me cry restart upon restart, and yet I can’t seem to finish it. The book is arguably a modern classic. And yet, the truth is this simple: Life is too short to force down books we don’t like, whether they be Veuve Cliquot or Boone’s Farm.
Most of us spend our school days trying to figure out how to love books. Even those of us given Nancy Drew or The Babysitter’s Club or Sweet Valley High on the side still had to choke down The Scarlet Letter, Catcher in the Rye, Gatsby—churning out five page essays with fortune cookie conclusions. It ruined me for Hawthorne. Salinger. Fitzgerald. (Though with the latter I’ve now made peace.) I don’t ascribe malice to the high school English teachers who assigned these texts; they had a curriculum to follow.
But the message sent was: this is literature, get on the bandwagon or shove your horn where the sun doesn’t shine.
Me? I climbed on, rolling into an invitation-only advanced literature class with my only ability: to find the right answer. Imagine my surprise when my first paper came back with an F. “Do you think there is only one solution to everything?” the professor asked me specifically. “Yes … no?” I answered. It took me four more years to learn to have my own opinion, sometimes running into professors who’d rather I went back to my old way of thinking about literature and criticism. But once I’d been let out of the cage, things started to change. What I read started to change.
I read Moby Dick alongside Don’t Sleep With Your Drummer. I read Calculus textbooks alongside Cosmo. Pinsky and the liner notes to the newest Dave Matthews Band release. I read whatever I wanted to.
Not that I didn’t still hold prejudices.
Fast forward ten years later to 2007. As a gift, we received Amazon’s newest product: the Kindle.
“Get that fucking abomination out of my house,” I calmly said to Adam. Or maybe I’m misremembering. “Are you actually going to read books on that thing? How could you,” I asked, as if he’d brought home a pile of strippers and blow instead of an electronic book. I shielded the shelves of paper literature as best I could. But he said nothing, because he was trying to read.
Probably two months passed. And I got sick. Really sick. I’m the sort of person who gets three or four years of sick all at once, so it was a not really get out of bed type of sick. “Maybe you’d want to use my Kindle,” Adam offered kindly. Too weak to throw my soup bowl at him, I started browsing my options.
My prejudices against the Kindle fell away like plywood in a storm. I decided that the platform wasn’t ruining literature; in fact, it was bringing literature to more people. If people wanted to read novels on toilet paper, they should be able to, I thought after a particularly bad bout of nausea. But I’m getting off topic.
My prejudices against the Kindle fell away like plywood in a storm. I decided that the platform wasn’t ruining literature; in fact, it was bringing literature to more people.
I am writing in defense of reading for entertainment. Which is why I need to admit to you that during my feverish discovery, I read all four books of Twilight, emerging on the other side with one of the more complex relationships with a book than I’d had in some time.
See, the Twilight series is a potboiler. With a vapid and faceless heroine in a co-dependent verging on abusive, isolationist relationship with a man over a century her elder, Twilight has some moral ground that I’d have to seriously dissect, were I to have a daughter of reading age. And yet, it is precisely that thirteen year old girl deep inside of me—the one who wanted to be told she was someone’s universe, who wanted to believe in love as devotion, who wanted to emerge on the other side of her enemies stronger, faster, more beautiful—who was the one who tore through the pages as if they were bugles on a road trip.
Clearly I’m not the only one with that thirteen year old girl lurking somewhere beneath the surface.
Despite the Twilight franchise’s many and varied flaws—of which I could write another column in and of itself—the books fill a need for readers. And readers read for many different reasons. We read for edification. We read for entertainment. But we also read to recognize ourselves—sometimes tiny pieces of ourselves lost and forgotten.
We read Stephanie Meyer for our pre-teen hearts, Terry Pratchett for a sense of wonder and hilarity. We read Neil Gaiman for the dark exploration of the nooks and crannies of our minds, and Toni Morrison for our souls.
There is space for Tolstoy, and García Márquez, within the literature I read, but I don’t find myself there, any more than I did alongside Holden Caulfield. But when I met Gatsby later in life, there I was! It’s going to happen for me and Dave Eggers. I’m sure of it. There are so many moving parts to why we read what we read and how we identify with various books that a conversation about wasting time reading anything is, in fact, a waste of time.
Jonathan Jones didn’t have to decry the work of Terry Pratchett to make the point that he doesn’t want to or cannot find himself in that particular segment of contemporary literature. Though it’s a piteous sentence to pass on oneself, attacking an author’s esteemed legacy to make the point that he reads the right books—that there is such a thing as the right books—I suppose I can think of no one more deserving such a fate as he and his like.
He can have his real literature. And I can have one fewer Guardian columnist to read.