Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On Snobbery.

I am slightly pretentious. Or-- let me start that again-- I have been known to be slightly pretentious when it comes to reading books.

I didn't begin that way. Growing up as the oldest child in an almost Victorianly strict household, reading provided some of my deepest joy and wonder. I devoured everything I could get my hands on. Books were consumed two, three, four times a piece and puzzled over- even the ones I didn't like or understand, such as "Are You There God, It's Me Margaret" which, to my 9-year old Mormon mind, seemed completely incomprehensible.

I don't know where the sudden snobbery in reading came from. I think it started in college somewhere. I began undergrad as an English major and was thereby subjected to literary snobbery at its epicenter, where one could not be considered a true appreciator of the art if one preferred say, Barbara Kingsolver, over a compilation of literary analyses on King Lear. We took Emily Dickinson, (up until that point one of my favorite poets) and picked apart her spindly little poems until they were so many letters of the alphabet lying on the ground. My professors were big into postmodernist constructions. Somewhere along the line, reading became less of a pleasure and more of a goal.

This is not to say that my post-collegiate years have been spent soley slogging through ridiculous "works of literature"- which is always what you call a book you hate. I've read some really great books in my quest for literary snob of the year.

Robert Bolano, however, broke me of snobbery, I hope, forever.

If you are not familiar with Robert Bolano, he is a Spanish author whose post post-modernist novels have caused critics the world over to rave about his "genius." His novel, 2666, was published post-humously and in unfinished form, yet was hailed as one of the books to read in 2008. So, I picked it up.

The novel is ginormous. Probably 1200 pages. I'd like to say that there's a plot, but there really is not. It is better seen as a compilation of stories that may or may not bleed into one another and then abruptly end. It's monolithic. It's dry. It's post postmodernism.

I didn't finish it. Around page 400 I thought it was going to turn around and get good. At page 857, I gave up. Slogging through 200 pages in which Bolano details the murders and rapes of the women of Sonora, I began to get indignant. Seriously. THIS is what we consider good literature these days?

N+1 has a good op-ed piece about Bolano that pretty accurately characterizes his style:

Why then, you begin to wonder, are you reading these books? What for, if they are each going to eschew psychology, characterization, pretty language, and neat conclusions, and if the narratives are all to devolve into shaggy-dog Iditarods mushing after some fugitive poet or novelist about whom—even if he ever turns up—we learn next to nothing? Why read and write at all if these empty Chinese boxes constitute the only goods ultimately in receipt?

In Bolaño, literature is a helpless, undignified, and not especially pleasant compulsion, like smoking. At one point you started and now you can't stop; it's become a habit and an identity. Nothing is so consistent across Bolaño's work as the suspicion that literature is chiefly bullshit, rationalizing the misery, delusions, and/or narcissism of various careerists, flakes, and losers.

Why indeed? As I started reading about yet another Sonoran woman, 5 feet 7 inches, anally and vaginally raped, throat slit, found out a trash heap, I recollected back on a piece of advice Stephen King doled out in his marvelous little book, "On Writing." Life's too short to read crap. With the millions of great books in the world, reading something you don't like is a waste of time.

And so I put it down. Since then, I've read a ton of great books and a couple really terribly written junk-food novels- pretty much nothing that would qualify to be on the world's list of 100-Most Influential books of our time and I've pretty much enjoyed all of it. Influential is overrated. I want a good story, beautiful writing, and characters I can get into.

Robert Bolano, you can kiss my ass. Thank you.

1 comment:

thepworth said...

Oooh I'm so temped to read it now just so I can see what's up. If it weren't 1200 pages I might actually give it a try. And for the record, The Poisonwood Bible is the best book ever.