Thursday, 26 February 2015

Literary prejudices

We all have literary prejudices, don't we? Like some people refuse to read Nabokov, at least Lolita, because they think it romanticises paedophilia, or because they are repulsed by the idea of entering the mind of a paedophile. Or some others have no intention of reading Jane Austen because they think her books are sentimental, or shallow and boring, or no more than romcom and chicklit. Etc. 
Well here comes a confession: I have my prejudices as well.
The 1st one is Hemingway. Yes, Ernest Hemingway. I haven't read his books- or maybe I did read something a long time ago when I was a kid, but that doesn't count. Why the prejudice? It started with a Team Fitzgerald vs Team Hemingway thing on the internet a while ago (like Tolstoy vs Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen vs the Brontes, etc.) It's cooled now, but back then I loved Fitzgerald- The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night especially, and some short stories like "May Day", and Hemingway was contrasted with the romantic Fitzgerald as a sort of playboy. Macho. Arrogant. Egoistic. Zelda hated him, he hated Zelda. I saw many comments saying that his female characters were there only to glorify the protagonists, who were more or less versions of the author himself. And then I knew about the Hemingway vs Faulkner thing, I was obviously on Faulkner's side. Hemingway's comeback was, theoretically, a good one, but I loved The Sound and the Fury, and a glance now and then at some of Hemingway's quotes and passages, I thought I didn't like his plain style. Adding to that was the "bells, balls and bulls" remark- Nabokov loathed him. What was I supposed to do? But that's not all. A couple of years ago I read a chapter from Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark about the black characters in his books. Still remember a few details: the white character was "the man" and the black character was "the nigger", Hemingway wrote "I saw that [the nigger] had seen..." (to avoid a speaking black, created a sentence "improbable in syntax, sense and tense"- Toni Morrison's words), the black man's loud moaning and complaint when he was slightly injured was contrasted with the white protagonist's stoic endurance of his serious wounds so that Hemingway could stress the white character's strength, bravery and manliness.
So before reading him I already had so many prejudices in mind, and they would definitely affect my reading.
Another one is V. S. Naipaul. I know, I know, he's important, he's huge, he's acclaimed by some as the greatest living writer of English prose, and so on and so forth. Perhaps he's great too. But he's an ass. A sexist, no, misogynist. A racist. Heard all the things he said about women and women writers? The things he said about Africans and Muslims? Arrogant and self-important too. Said no female writer was on a par with him. He even said that Jane Austen was "sentimental". What kind of person reads Jane Austen and still thinks her sentimental? Nabokov's also sexist and arrogant, but the things he said were more tolerable. And guess what, Naipaul said this about Nabokov "It's bogus, calling attention to itself. Americans do that. All those beautiful sentences. What are they for?", and about Pnin "It was silly. There was nothing in it. What do people see in him?". I know, I know, writers say bad things about each other all the time. Considered separately, these things are OK, but put together, they create such a negative impression that I want to stay away from his works altogether. If he meant every single thing he said, he's an ass and I can't take him seriously. If he didn't, but said to provoke, he's self-important and ridiculous and therefore also an ass. 
This is double standard, you say. Why am I OK with Nabokov's arrogance and his strong opinions? But I never have the impression that Nabokov expressed his disdain of acclaimed writers only to be provocative, and while dismissing some, he praised others, and he valued true art above all else. True art, originality, genius, beauty. I suppose I'm OK with his remarks not simply because he's Nabokov and he's allowed to say all that, but also because I understand his aesthetics and understand his reasons for having a high or low opinion of a writer. Things Naipaul said just didn't make sense. Like, about George Eliot he said "Childhood, you know, childhood. A little of The Mill on the Floss was read to me. It mattered at the time. But as you get older, your tastes and needs change. I don’t like her or the big English writers". What are you talking about? As though George Eliot's books are for children. 
The 3rd one would be Karl Ove Knausgård. Yes, the Norwegian guy who wrote 6 books about himself and his own life, and called them Min Kamp. The title in English is My Struggle, but it's Min Kamp in Norwegian, like Hitler's Mein Kampf. He's Norwegian, what on earth did he have to put into 6 books? It's about 5000 or 6000 pages or something. Norway's 1 of the most uneventful places ever, nothing happens. Knausgård seems popular in the US, but here he's controversial. Why? Because he put everything into his books, all the details about his personal life and the people around him. He even wrote that his wife snored, or whatever. He wrote lots of awful things about his family and relatives and friends and acquaintances that he antagonised everybody. When he wrote his 1st book, he showed it to some people in the family and they objected to it, but he changed a bit and went ahead and published it, and wrote another 5 books. People wanted to sue him, so now he lives in Sweden. My experiences of Norwegian literature hitherto haven't been very pleasant and have created a negative impression, that sort of influenced my view on Knausgård. And why should I read about this man's life? Why should I read about the real people around him, why should I know their personal stories, private details? Why should I read a book with a painful awareness that he's exposing and using someone else's life and that they're hurt by it? And also the thought that he had to write about himself because he didn't have the imagination to create characters and imagine stories. 6 memoirs sound self-indulgent. My Norwegian friends were assigned the 1st book in their Norwegian class, and many of them talked about it to me. Things like, he went to a party, and then went on for several pages talking about life and death. Boring, they said. I generally didn't trust their judgement, but I remember that. Besides, Knausgård's compared to Proust. Comparisons like that make me suspicious, sceptical. Most of the time they make no sense. Then there are of course people who argue that he's nothing like Proust except the big volumes and the examination of the past and such, that Knausgård has a plain, very plain, unpolished, seemingly careless style. Who likes that? Those who praise him say that he wrote about banality and boredom in a fascinating way, but that makes me more suspicious. I have SAD, that kind of book doesn't sound like something I'd like to read, especially in winter. 
This year, because of the Norwegian literature challenge I started, I've been thinking about reading Knausgård, but I still have some doubt. 
So that's it- those 3 are my main literary prejudices. Fight me. Argue with me. Yell at me if you like. Prove me wrong. Convince me. Show me how irrational and unreasonable I am.
[Out of pure curiosity: What are your literary prejudices?] 


  1. Much of Hemingway's work is very much worth reading, and the objectionable diction issues must be understood in terms of characters and contexts, but I would not have wanted to spend a moment with him in real life. Perhaps the same thing could be said by me for Naipaul. As for Nabokov, I think he is a great writer, teacher, and critic (i.e., have you read his "lectures" books?); I just happen to think that _Lolita_ is "not my cup of tea," which is not the same thing as loathing it as literature. After all, we should not all like the same things. What a boring world it would be if we did!

    1. Yeah I've read Lectures on Literature and Lectures on Russian Literature. Nabokov's great, indeed. He's the one that shaped my ideas about literature.

  2. Nabokov highly praised The Old Man and the Sea and the story "The Killers." Neither of which have any women at all, so that solves that problem.

    I always enjoy reading about Knausgaard, but I have similar doubts about actually reading him. My threshold for boredom is high, though, very high, so maybe I am the ideal reader. I think there must be a strong conceptual element to these books, but like an Andy Warhol film, do I actually need to read or see it to know what is going on?

    My prejudices are against so-called Novels of Ideas and so-called realism.

    1. Novels of ideas like what?
      Perhaps I'll give The Old Man and the Sea a try. Perhaps.
      About Knausgård, I feel bad about not reading him. Well sort of. Because of where I live and such. Why do you enjoy reading about him if you're not interested in reading him?

    2. Yes, Dostoyevsky, Karamazov is a good example.

      Kn.'s success in Norway is an interesting literary phenomenon. He has become something of a puzzle in the English literary world.

      In general, I am interested in reading about far more books than I am interested in reading. This is why I read magazines devoted to books. This is why I read book blogs.

    3. Ah, that. True. I've read your posts on Karamazov though I haven't read it.
      But then I've read some other books by Dostoyevsky.
      Has it ever happened that you read about a writer and somehow have a firm belief that you'll like him/her?
      Something of a puzzle? I've seen lots of articles in English praising Knausgård.

    4. I forgot: what do you mean by "so-called realism"?

    5. The puzzle is the extent of Kn's success. How did these books get that response. Lots of good books get no response at all. And when books do take off, they are usually, let's face it, trash.

      Then there is the artistic puzzle - how does this flat style and flat subject lead to the emotional interest many people have found in the books? There is tension between the style and the effect. That is pretty interesting, too.

      As for realism. Nabokov in Lectures on Literature: "We now start to enjoy yet another masterpiece, yet another fairy tale." This is the beginning of the lecture on Madame Bovary! That is what I mean.

      i missed a question. "firm belief," etc. Yes, often. But "like" is not a very high standard for me.

    6. I see. Because he did something different? Because he's controversial? *guessing*
      "Like" is not a high standard in literary criticism, of course; but recognition and appreciation of a great work of art is 1 thing, it cannot take away the simple, mundane, "primitive" feeling that you like something.

    7. "the simple... feeling" - yes, although I guess I usually think "Ooh, that sounds good" rather than "Ooh, I'll like that."

    8. I want to follow up all of this by voicing my opinion against the concept of "prejudices" among certain readers. Good readers (yes, a loaded label to be sure) make value judgments about "good, bad, and ugly" writing but do not make those judgments because of "prejudices" -- superficial and subjective notions -- but because of explainable aesthetic standards. Is that too response too abstract? Well, in its brevity, I suppose it is, and I suppose I could write a few thousand words in support of my notion, but perhaps the Cliff's Notes version suffices to explain my resistance to the concept of "prejudices."

    9. My prejudices are obstacles I have to overcome to make good aesthetic judgments and be a good reader.

      It is harder, more of a struggle, for me to be a good reader of Dostoevsky than of Gogol or Nabokov because of my prejudices.

    10. Uhmmm.
      I was thinking that perhaps by being frank and open about my silly prejudices I could overcome them and read these authors some day. I feel bad about this, you see.

  3. Once more unto the breach (I dare to go) . . .
    Di, I think there is no reason to feel guilty about not reading some books and authors; we are human beings who have the right to "like" or "not like" some books and authors (even if we struggle to figure out how to set limits or definitions upon "like" or "not like"). But, hey, why feel bad (or guilty)?
    Tom, yes, we must be conscious of our "prejudices" in order to be more objective in our assessments; that pertains to all aspects of living, though, doesn't it
    BTW, I can acknowledge that some writers and books are great (according to critical consensus), but I reserve the right not to read them for all sorts of reasons. Hey, life is too short to stress out over reading choices.

  4. By the way, Tom and Tim, what do you think about V. S. Naipaul the writer?

  5. I haven't read Naipaul, although I have read so much about him. In the old days, he was very heavily reviewed, every book reviewed everywhere.

    1. OK.

      Off-topic, I'm reading this:

  6. I started reading Knausgård last fall, made it about halfway through the first volume and just couldn't take it anymore. I found the prose bland and the story completely uninteresting.

    My literary prejudice is Norman Mailer. I've heard how sexist he is and how badly he portrays women in his books and I don't even want to give him the benefit of the doubt and try reading him.

    1. Yeah I've heard that a lot about Knausgård.
      Haven't read Norman Mailer, nor intended to, so I can't comment on that.