These days, I admit without shame that I regard anything the literati recommends with the gravest suspicion.
I have reached this point because over the years, it’s been borne in upon me that the literati and I have a very different approach to reading. Presumably we all read to be entertained, but while I enjoy emotional insight, human interaction and ‘story’ (for want of a better word), their interest is more academic. They like to apply standards of literary critique – rules of what does and doesn’t constitute ‘good’ writing. I like to stick to well-written books as well, but their idea of good writing often differs from mine.
Which brings me to The Emperor’s New Book. These are the books that are so obscure, and usually verbose, that any nugget of genuine engagement is lost in an avalanche of erudite lyricism guaranteed to require days of plodding to untangle, for very little return. The literati fall upon them with cries of delight to show how intelligent and culturally sophisticated they are, but in fact nobody understands a word, let alone enjoys the experience. But like those in the Emperor’s audience, nobody is game to say so, lest they lose their credibility.
The Macquarie Dictionary defines literature as writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features.
The ultimate aim of any writer is to communicate. However blasé a front we might like to present, we all know deep down that a book doesn’t really exist until it is read. So why is it ‘good writing’ to bury your ideas of permanent and universal interest so deeply that only the favoured few will find them? Or indeed, bother digging. Why is complexity the Holy Grail? Why must expression and form add layers of obscurity in order to be considered admirable?
Having spent the first 18 years of my life in a university environment, I am intimately acquainted with the standards, literary or otherwise, that the erudite apply to life. Particularly in the Arts faculties, intelligence tops commonsense every time. Academics, bless them, usually have very little of the latter themselves. Nor do they have a realistic view of the world outside the ivied walls, or the people who live in it. So it seems to me that their literary judgement is necessarily circumscribed by a set of rules with extremely limited application. Literature lasts beyond the era in which it’s written not because the literati considered it worthy, but because a wider audience found it universally interesting.
However there is also a second level in the ranking of Emperor’s New Book. These are the publications generally considered high class popular. ‘Everyone’s read it, my dear. It’s gripping once you get past Chapter 4.’ Meaning it’s really badly written, its characters are flat as a tack and the prose is laboured to the point of standstill, but you have to put up with that to be in fashion. Well no, I don’t. Fashion is determined by spin-doctors and the amount spent on promotional hype. Neither guarantees quality.
It also happens from time to time that The Emperor struts out brandishing a New Poem: again, of startling obscurity. It crosses my mind to wonder, sometimes, whether these offerings are actually sneaky jokes. Let’s write something that means nothing whatsoever, and see what gems of universal truth the literati can dig up to attribute to it. It would be huge fun, you have to admit!
In my younger days, I hesitated to fly in the face of those whose knowledge, I assumed, must give them superior wisdom. In my older age, I make no such assumption. In some cases, knowledge doesn’t lead to wisdom. It leads to overweening pretension, which doesn’t impress me at all.
My favourite academics read detective stories in their spare time.