(I have nothing to add in this section)
I was in the big-ass Waterstone’s conveniently plonked a fifteen second walk from my English department, and saw a book on the shelf in the sci-fi section. It had a striking cover, a title that united two political terms you don’t usually find alongside each other, and contained in the blurb a premise that is both original, and kept poignantly vague so I’m interested in it, but have no reason to read it. The book is Adam Christopher’s Empire State, and centres around a parallel 1930s New York, in which the Prohibition era is in full swing, and the city’s superheroes (because that’s a thing) spend more time fighting each other than solving crime; I don’t like to play the genre game, but it seems to me like superhero-noir-historical-parallel-reality fiction, which is quite nice to write out hyphenated like that.
The point of those step-by-step instructions in how I selected that particular novel is quite simple: I bought a book because I wanted to read it, rather than the usual (if you’ll excuse me) intellectual bullshit reasons we get for reading things on my course.
Empire State didn’t invent the novel, or contribute to a particularly obscure school of philosophy, nor is overtly pushing a religious/political/ideological agenda (at least from the blurb and title – I’ve yet to begin reading), nor is is part of that all-important and mindless ‘canon’ that I’m supposed to have read as an arts student in some generic, self-improving way. I understand that some books are more thoughtful, more intelligent, and simply better than others, but the whole ‘you should read this’ idea suggests, by implication, that there are things you shouldn’t read, or are less deserving of your obviously so important attention – I’m probably gonna live for eighty frakking years man, that’s plenty of time to bumble around in bookshops picking out crap novels for myself!
There’s much to be said for appreciating ‘bad’ art, not in the way that I’m going to enjoy watching Sharknado (my wonderful Secret Santa present from last night’s party), but to see how and why a piece of art has failed – were the ideas good and salvageable, but the wording awful? were the themes inappropriate for this art form, but would work well in another? – and how I can improve my own writing/drawing/painting etc as a result.
Specifically for books, I think their purpose is to convey ideas and, if you hadn’t noticed, a lot of ideas and the people who come up with them are offensive, obtuse, inconsistent and simply weird; sometimes an anarchic mess of a novel is way more fun than a neatly-constructed sonnet or whatever, and I don’t mean the kind of constructed ‘look how clever I’m being by chucking in marbled pages’ nonsense of Tristram Shandy, I want off-the-wall crap from nutcases, illiterates and outcasts, which I’ll probably not find in the mainstream confines of Waterstone’s, but I’ve got through Paradise Lost and The Bible this term alone, so I reckon that’s a pretty good place to start.
And I’m not saying that Empire State will be any of those things, or that its author is frakked in the head; the point of buying the book was that I didn’t look it up at all; I tried to buy it as much on its own merits as can be conveyed through a blurb and a cover, so I can get into it with a blank mind. I don’t like reading something for the first time knowing that ‘it’s a classic’ or that ‘I should enjoy this’: I’m a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, but found Asimov hard to get into; I like social politics and relationships, but found Middlemarch almost impossible to wrap my head around.
What pisses me off most of all, though, is that I can’t just say ‘I bought a book’ as I’d like to, but need a 700-word blog post justifying the fact that someone who likes reading things will now read a thing. It seems that the default position for bookish types is to power through the big names of literature, as I’ve done myself, simply because of the names attached to them, then sit around and talk about just how much they got the significance of the centre of gravity being the Devil’s penis in Inferno, rather than getting into the mass of generic shots of spacecraft and planets, headless female models wearing little clothing, and blocks of texts entirely in capital letters featuring the words ‘dark’ and ‘edge’ with worrying frequency that populate most of the sci-fi section at Waterstone’s.
Because ‘the classics’ and this canon I hate so much do have a place in literature, and a place in understanding human consciousness that can’t be undermined or underestimated; but for every line of Wordsworth I’m going to pick over with a toothcomb over the next month, there are a billion galaxies, races and historically-inaccurate lords and ladies for me to get through in crappy stand-alone novels written by god only knows which sad frakker. And I’d rather get lost in a billion weird worlds than one that makes sense.