The Emperor’s New Book

The Emperor's New Clothes, Pinterest

The Emperor’s New Clothes, Pinterest

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.

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15 Responses to The Emperor’s New Book

  1. Fran Macilvey says:

    I like this post very much, Helen, and it actually tails very nicely with a few debates going on at FB. I think I might share it there, actually. Thank you. 🙂

  2. Viv says:

    Loved it!
    There are a lot of these books around; I’ve started to learn that if there’s a big buzz, it’s probably rubbish.

  3. Relax says:

    This hits home! Whenever I come across book recommendations from people I think are like myself as a reader, I jot them down and get them later at the library. So far, I’ve been disappointed. As for new poetry, good grief. Or, not so good grief. It seems either a teen or first class pervert could’ve written it. It’s been a while since I read something stunning, like Penelope Lively’s “The Photograph.” I also loved, “The Shipping News” by E. Annie Proulx. Not so much, however, the recommended “Confederacy of Dunces,” et al.

  4. Great piece Helen. Even down to the poetry.
    I was about my early thirties before I copped this on. I read a book by Stephen King, called On Writing (a kinda autobiography). He taught me that there was nothing wrong with my taste in writers.
    Quick, easy, communication of the message is key.
    Well done. You called a spade, a spade.

  5. Martha Kennedy says:

    Jane Gardam. Best writing I’ve read IN YEARS. The first writer to make me NOT want to do anything but read and forget I’m a writer.

    What I like about literature is the really obscure stuff from LONG LONG ago is all about shipwrecks, wenches, magic, sex, lewd humor, killing people and the search for God. It’s ironic that some of the most “rarified” regions of academe (cacademe) are the territories of the medievalists who get to read stuff like “The Swan’s Lament” from the Carmina Burana:

    Once in lakes I made my home,
    once I dwelt in beauty;
    that was when I was a swan.
    Alas, poor me!
    Now I am black
    and roasted to a turn!

    On the spit I turn and turn;
    the fire roasts me through.
    Now I am presented at the feast;
    alas, poor me!
    Now I am black
    and roasted to a turn!

    Now in a serving dish I lie,
    and can no longer fly.
    Gnashing teeth confront me.
    Alas, poor me!
    Now I am black
    and roasted to a turn!

    • Love it! And I’ll go on the hunt for Jane Gardam. I thought I might be sticking my neck out posting this, but so far so good.

      • Martha Kennedy says:

        I heartily recommend the novel Martin of Gfenn by a little known but talented, literate and informed writer (me). It’s a best seller in the part of Switzerland in which its set even though the book exists ONLY in English! A recent reader has written to me, “I found Martin haunting. I even dreamed about it that night I finished reading it. I loved the interplay of Augustine and Martin’s Christian humanism. I also thought the use of dreams to be a very effective device to convey emotion, feeling, etc. The characters were finely drawn. I especially liked your treatment of the Commander. The portrayal of the leper house was touching. I wonder if that is how it was? The evolution of Martin’s art spoke volumes. You are truly a fine writer. Thank you for a wonderful book.”

  6. bkpyett says:

    Helen, your post is spot on. I’m glad you are there to say what you think. I know I have no respect for the art (painting) world now and their critics. They are all wankers, and curators hold the power; people who have never worked as artists themselves. Fashion is paramount. I guess it must be the same in the literary world as well.

    • I think it’s even more obvious with art. The wankers (perfect word, I was just trying to find ways around it) stand their and rub their chins and look soulful and profound, but really, they’re just not game to say it’s total crap in case someone equally soulful and profound jumps down their throats and calls them Philistines for not appreciating the existential subleties…etc…etc…

  7. Martha 🙂 I’ll get onto it immediately!

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