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Sacred Cows

I had a little innocent fun on twitter last night, inspired by a tweet from a writer who said he was going to dunk on some literary sacred cows for traction and clout. The idea amused me, after all, social media can sometimes seem like no more than wilful controversy for clicks (how else to explain some of the more outre positions taken by Daily Mail columnists? Outrage sells, baby).

I enjoyed the implied suggestion that he didn't believe a word he was saying, and in that spirit suggested he rip into Thomas Pynchon, not because I think Pynchon's a bad writer, I don't, I love his stuff, but more because I thought he'd be the most likely to have an easily riled portion of his fanbase. He was thinking of going for Alice Munro, a bold choice; she's difficult to lay a glove on, being to my mind, a fairly supreme prose stylist, not showy, maybe you could make some jokes about only ever writing about Canada.

After all, if you want to invent a beef, there's always an excuse to do it. This is something worth bearing in mind when navigating the more excitable corners of the internet.

But, having made the joke about a writer I admire, I did start thinking about the ones who are revered, for no readily apparent reason as far as I can see. My first thought was Jack Kerouac, whose tedious, rambling, self-absorbed screeds have long been worshipped by the sort of intense young man who likes to think he's above the mundanity of the day to day, thinking as he does deep thoughts about the open road, man's inherent right to be free and preferably get away with shagging around a bit on the side.

I read On the Road at the sort of age where that sort of narcissism should appeal (and lord knows I was the target demographic), but even then I clocked Dean Moriarty et al for what they were, a bunch of feckless arseholes. And this is a theme which is consistent through much of the books I then went on to criticise.

Literature is a world which takes itself far too seriously, and this is because canonical literature is dominated by blokes who take themselves far too seriously. The same charge could almost certainly be levelled at rock music, dominated by chin-stroking singer songwriters who write tunes about how their woman doesn't understand them and they need to be free, but I haven't really got time to get into that as I've got to get the tea on.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the literary environment I grew up in, where one was supposed to revere the big beasts of Brit Lit: Amis, Rushdie, McEwen, Barnes, and the giants of mid C20th American fiction: Bellow, Updike, Mailer, et al was dominated by a bunch of tedious windbags with far too high an opinion of themselves.

(I exempt Julian Barnes from this, I quite like him).

Rushdie? Maybe three good books. McEwan, a couple of interesting ones early doors, one bona fide masterpiece in The child in Time and then the same novel for twenty years (Upper middle class man gets in a bit of a pickle). I'll never understand the literature pages slavish devotion to Martin Amis, who's been phoning it in since the 70s, then again, I don't understand all the love shown to his father, either.

Have you tried reading Kingsley Amis? It's like being shouted at by a pub bore.

As to the Americans, the tedious hypermasculinity of all their most worshipped fiction leaves me pretty cold. Hemingway's performative machismo (I cut him some slack for The Old Man and the Sea, but maintain that that's a prose poem rather than a novel), Updike's naked misogyny, Bellow's even more naked misanthropy. These are not novels so much as they are displays of ego, and it's very much not my cup of tea.

While this was all fun and games, slagging off the great and the good, such wilful and tedious iconoclasm does, I think, have a bit of a wider point to it. Out vision of what constitutes literature is, to this day, despite the influx of global talent to our bookshops, dispiritingly narrow. There has been some movement over my lifetime, some acknowledgement that women actually exist, but the idea of literature as a meritocracy is absurd, for if it were, each new Amis release wouldn't be surrounded by a round of fawning interviews. I've written here a few times about Sally Rooney's work, but it's telling that when she releases a new book, the focus from trouser rubbing critics is inevitably on the shagging, rather than the prose.Or about how she herself is a slightly prickly character, a trait which is accepted as read when applied to a male writer.

As I get older, I begin to realise that the whole idea of being "well-read" is incredibly prescriptive. There is more truth and beauty in a single chapter of Pratchett than there is in Updike's entire career. Lee Harwood is an infinitely more human and touching poet than Philip Larkin, but one is past the cultural gatekeepers, and the other isn't. 

I don't, incidentally, think this applies to academia, where I was certainly encouraged to read widely, but is more of a symptom of how culture is filtered by the media before it gets to public consumption. It's as though there is an idea of the "right" books to read and, if you're English, it's Austen, the Brontes, Dickens*, Shakespeare, Larkin and Hughes as the token poets and then a narrow band of white men who write contemporary fiction (despite all being ion their sixties). It's pretty absurd, it's pretty, dare I say it, Tory?

Anyhow, I'm rambling now (now? been rambling all blog) so I'm going to bugger off. But yes, fuck sacred cows, read what you like. I think that's the point.

*I was quite rude about Dickens in the thread, too, and I stand by it, Hallmark Card moralising by a bloke who calls his characters things like Mr Popplewickchozzmuzzer I can, personally, live without.

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