Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts
Sometimes I remember an article not so much for the content of it but for a particular sentence that captures my attention. That has nothing to do with the quality of the piece but with the quality of the writer; someone who is so skilful that certain phrases cause me to do a double-take and go back to them. That’s exactly what happened recently when I came upon a feature by one of The New Yorker’s staff writers, Adam Gopnik. I love Gopnik’s writing and on this occasion I was really looking forward to what he had to say about a new Hemingway biography. Yet, I was more drawn to a couple of sentences almost at the beginning of his review than what came after.
On talking about Hemingway’s fall from grace after a long period of almost-sycophantic celebration, Gopnik states that “few would now give the old man the heavyweight championship of literature for which he fought so hard, not least because thinking of literature as an elimination bout is no longer our style. We think of it more as a quilting bee, with everyone having a chance to add a patch, and the finest patches often arising from the least privileged quilters. In recent decades, Hemingway has represented the authority of writing only for people who never read.”
I swear that I had never contemplated literature as an elimination bout. Elimination from what, exactly? It is my assumption that Adam is perhaps referring to an era when writing, especially in the States, was all about working on the Great Novel (or the Great American Novel, if we are going to be really specific). The next sentence and his mention of a quilting bee sounds slightly snobbish and sniffy. To me it looks as if Mr Gopnik disapproves of the way editors and publishers have cast their nets wider in recent decades to include an ever-growing, varied readership.
Literature is not just about the person who writes the book, but equally important, the person who reads it. The world we enter may be the writer’s, but the one opening the door is the reader. The reader then decides to stay in this world or not. Sometimes the reader stays when this world resembles their own somewhat. Sometimes, they stay for the opposite reason. The landscape in front of their eyes looks nothing like what they experience in their daily lives. Whether realism or escapism is the outcome, literature has achieved one of its main aims: to create a relationship between writer and reader.
Reading is a skill not to be learned passively. It doesn’t matter if you choose a couch or a chair to sit on whilst devouring a book; you are still allowing a piece of someone’s brain (to put it crudely) into yours. You, reader, deserve utmost respect.
And yet, and yet, and yet…
What happens when literature becomes a single-identity creative platform, catering chiefly to a particular demographic? Is this the elimination bout Adam Gopnik was referring to? A group of writers from said demographic sparring with each other to see who comes out on top? In my view, this goes against the democratic nature of reading. Let’s consider this: writing, by its very nature, is anarchic, or at least it should be. It should only obey the laws imposed by its master/mistress. Reading, on the other hand, is democratic (and individual[istic]). We share our passion for a specific book or author with like-minded readers. Harry Potter, pre-marketing frenzy, is a good example. For some reason, the idea of JK Rowling being given a free ride as a quilter (After what? Dozens of rejections from publishers!) makes no sense to me. If I were to twist Adam’s theory around, I would say that the quilting bee he so easily dismisses also includes patches by renowned writers like Papa Hemingway. But the more diverse patches we add, the better literature we will have.