Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On reading "the other stuff"

"When Matthew Arnold keeled over, in April, 1888, while hurrying to catch the Liverpool tram, Walt Whitman told a friend, “He will not be missed.” Arnold was, in short, “one of the dudes of literature.” Whitman probably figured that his own gnarly hirsuteness would save him from becoming a dude. He was wrong, and therein lies a lesson for all hardworking scribblers: stick around long enough, develop a cult following, gain the approval of one or two literary dudes, and you, too, can become respectable...For the longest time, there was little ambiguity between literary fiction and genre fiction: one was good for you, one simply tasted good....The guilty pleasure label peels off more easily if we recall that the novel itself was something of a guilty pleasure. In the mid-eighteenth century, there was a hovering suspicion that novels were for people not really serious about literature. Instead of laboring over" An Essay on Man" or some musty verse drama, readers could turn the pages of an amusing French nove or even on e by Richardson or Fielding. Unlike works of moral or religious instruction, novels were diverting. Of course, if they proved too diverting, how good could they be?"
~"Easy Writers" by Arthur Krystal The New Yorker May 2012.

Great piece on the development and role of "guilty pleasure" reading and the weird shifting criteria that is used to determine what falls into that area. Should it be all Plato all the time or is there a role for the mind expanding story like DFW's Infinite Jest or Bolano's 2666 or Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad or the latest Grisham? The reader simply doesn't have to work as hard at Grisham, or even Egan, as the other two. Reading can't always be work, I think, because then that process ceases to be measureable by the pleasures of the process.

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