Lit Snobbery

Will Self’s latest feature in The Guardian, I Read As Many As 50 Books at Once, has made a bit of a splash, dividing those who think he’s a pretentious hack from those applauding his smackdown of Harry Potter.

The claim to read as many as 50 books at once is one that’s raised some attention. I think it’s fair to say that he’s not really reading most of those books in any meaningful sense. I find the ‘it is DISRESPECTFUL TO THE BOOKS’ style of response beside the point. They’re books. You don’t hurt their feelings by not reading them with absolute focus in a soundproofed den.

But I’m more interested in the contradictions in his view, how he can say this:

See above: now I read scores – perhaps hundreds – of books at once, I’m released from the compulsion to complete any given volume. In the digital realm, texts merge into and swim out of each other – this is the great palimpsest of pixels that is steadily replacing the physical (and intellectual) canon.

At the same time as this:

All that bullshit about how the Harry Potter books were going to turn a generation of otherwise uninterested boys into literary mavens – we could’ve done without that. The truth is that the books ushered in the dumb kidult era we’re currently having to endure, with illiteracy rates significantly on the rise for the first time in a century!

If books are about being deeply literate and enlightening bastions of highbrow culture, maybe you should be finishing them, Will. If the task of a book is imparting wisdom – and therefore easy-to-read fun escapist stuff is kidult claptrap – it seems contradictory to not even take in their complete message.

It’s quite strange to see a lit snob apparently praising the lack of an attention span. The normal lit snob rhetoric is about how those dang millenials are too brain-rotted from the interwebs to handle anything that isn’t about things like werewolves in heat, or a plucky teen taking down a corrupt system that assigns people into rigid groups based on a Buzzfeed quiz.

It reminds me of that Mark Twain quote, ‘A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.’ If there’s an inherent intellectual glow to ‘literary’ books, it isn’t even necessary to finish them to feel smug about reading them. After all, the proles haven’t even heard of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, so reading, say, 30% of it still makes him superior.

If Will Self really enjoyed a book, wouldn’t he read it start to finish?

The whole distinction between so-called genre fiction and so-called literary fiction is suspect anyway. Many of today’s revered classics were dismissed by elitists as populist pabulum in their day, and while we can safely say that Twilight won’t go down as the century’s greatest love story, it’s likely that some of the books today’s lit snobs sneer at will become classics in their turn. The novel itself, the whole literary form, was once seen as trash compared to poetry.

Harry Potter isn’t Dostoevsky. But does everything have to be?

The series has its flaws, and it’s worrying when someone anchors their world view too closely to Rowling’s latest Word of God retcons (‘Oh yeah, everybody, Buckbeak is actually trans and doesn’t want the rail nationalised…’). But people read it and enjoy it, in their millions. It was what got many people into reading in the first place. Is that not a good thing? Blaming Harry Potter for illiteracy is like blaming trees for global warming.

Books can inform us, show us different perspectives, make us reflect on ourselves and the world; yes. But there’s nothing wrong with having a good time, for heaven’s sake. Reading isn’t meant to be a grueling self-improvement trip, or a way to make yourself feel smart. And there’s certainly nothing inherently virtuous about struggling through a quarter of Finnegan’s Wake and secretly hating every minute of it, just to set yourself apart from the rabble.


4 thoughts on “Lit Snobbery

  1. Eesh. I went and read the whole interview, hoping there was something redemptive in there. But no, it was just as bad as you described. The part where he disses Harry Potter and somehow also implies that people who are illiterate are simply “uninterested” in reading? He completely disregards all the really complex socioeconomic factors that actually contribute to illiteracy – which is not a matter of people being “kidults,” it’s a social justice issue. This guy is solidly lodged up his own ass.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Could not agree more. Through the ages since people struggled with Latin, rich people of course, there has always been snobbery. People even have personal libraries of book covers only! For show- for sure. John.


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