Novels Don't Have to be Hard to Read

Wall Street Journal. AUGUST 29, 2009, "Storytelling: Good Books Don't Have to Be Hard; A novelist on the pleasure of reading stories that don't bore; rising up from the supermarket racks." By LEV GROSSMAN

This brought with it another, related development: difficulty. It's hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when literary novels were not, generally speaking, all that hard to read. Say what you like about the works of Dickens and Thackeray, you pretty much always know who's talking, and when, and what they're talking about. The Modernists introduced us to the idea that reading could be work, and not common labor but the work of an intellectual elite, a highly trained coterie of professional aesthetic interpreters. The motto of Ezra Pound's "Little Review," which published the first chapters of Joyce's "Ulysses," was "Making no compromise with the public taste." Imagine what it felt like the first time somebody opened up "The Waste Land" and saw that it came with footnotes. Amateur hour was over.

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Anti-intellectualism

Our profession has it now, in spades. Why give space here to this sort of dreck, otherwise?

The WSJ article draws a spurious connection between intellectual labor and boredom, between refinement and a lack of the rather ambiguously defined "fun." Do we really need to give air-time to some anti-intellectual columnist who's defensive because he can't read Joyce? Who's angry because he doesn't enjoy Eliot and others do?

When I first opened "The Waste Land," I was euphoric. The beauty of the language and the richness of the allusions and imagery captivated me. Apparently this makes me a terrible person; apparently this makes me not fun. If only I had had moral fiber, I'd've been able to throw Eliot aside to read The Shopaholic and graciously earned Cs in my lit-crit classes, rather than As. I'd've turned my back on beauty. I'd've been mediocre, and (apparently) a lot less threatening.

Let me tell you something: as a reader, as an art-lover, as a thinker, I will spend the rest of my life fighting this trend towards mediocrity wherever I find it. And as a damned good librarian, I will fight it everywhere it crops up in our profession, too, from the introduction of business-speak to the dumbing-down of collections to weeding by numbers rather than item quality. I am exhausted, and I am angry, but I will never stop fighting. If the arrogant punks out there who only joined this field because they thought it would be an easy job, and who are actively engaged in bringing the field crashing down into anti-intellectualism and irrelevancy, don't like that--well, I think they know what they can do with their objections.

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