what's the deal with books?
or, no one knows how to read but everyone has opinions about books
Last week a viral tweet that I can no longer find described the Literary Canon as restrictive in all kinds of ways and described them all as Straight White Christian Hegemony.
For the record, this isn’t completely incorrect, but it does erase all of world literature from the Canon. And there is a lot of world literature included in the Canon.
Hilariously, they pointed specifically at The Odyssey…a pre-Christian story populated by bisexual men fighting monsters in Asia.
I don’t really have anything to add to this except for my firm belief that almost no one, even within the literary world, has bothered to read a book published before 1980.
Or, you know, I do want to spin this around a bit and jabber on, so amuse me while I amuse myself.
The internet has destroyed media literacy.
A tweet about how The Odyssey is an example of Straight White Christian Hegemony is only the most recent hilarious example. But I see it all the time in the way people on the internet discuss books or movies or TV shows.
People will write about The Office, for example, and be like, “This scene here shows that Pam and Jim have had a strong connection since day one. When I realized that, it blew my mind.”
And what they’re talking about is this scene.
Like, this isn’t even subtext. This is the literal text. There’s no other way for you to take this detail in the very first episode.
This scene in Crime and Punishment shows that Raskolnikov is having a lot of internal turmoil over what he did.
No shit, buddy. That’s the whole fucking book. Every single page.
And then there’s the people who seem to only be able to relate to the literal news by dressing up Nancy Pelosi and Rick DeSantis as characters from The Avengers or Harry Potter.
I often feel like people who take pride in the number of books they read have no idea how to read. They seem to not understand a book they’ve read until they’ve scoured twitter and tumblr for memes explaining the book.
Now, I am an idiot. I know this because I used to take online IQ tests and post them on myspace. So I have great sympathy for other idiots.
But, man, this brand of dumdum just makes me so tired.
I think the most depressing thing about the internet for me has been that even famous writers—even writers I respect(ed)—seem to not know how to read.
I have seen the discourse about how Lolita is problematic and the people who wonder if Vladimir Nabokov was actually a pedophile because how else could anyone write such a book? I have seen people wonder if George RR Martin is racist because the Game of Thrones TV show cast brown extras and white main characters.
There’s a myopic fixation on current social justice topics happening in the US. Even if the book was written centuries ago or written outside of the specific US political context (is Han Kang’s The Vegetarian problematic?), many readers online seem stuck in an eternal now forever absent of historical or political context. This is how you end up with a YA author who used to be a public school teacher accusing The Odyssey of being straight and white and Christian. All terms that would have had less than no meaning to Homer when he composed or compiled the poem (especially Christian—Jesus wouldn’t be born for several centuries, for those who have somehow never heard of Jesus or Homer).
Honestly, I find it kind of depressing. I should be able to laugh at it.
You should laugh at this kind of thing. It is stupid and hilarious.
But I’m burdened by caring too much about dumb things like books. And no one should care so much about books that you’re unable to laugh at them being used to make a laughably stupid point.
Then we got this article about how men don’t read literary fiction, which could have been pretty interesting. The problem with it happened immediately in the very first paragraph:
It’s bedtime, and me and my boyfriend are comparing notes on what we’re reading. I flick through the tomes on his e-reader; it’s science fiction, politics, or politics in space. He’s halfway through Kim Stanley Robinson, following hot on the heels of China Mieville, Vincent Bevins, and Ursula K. Le Guin. He peers over at the pages of my Jane Austen, and wrinkles his nose. “It’s all chitter-chatter.” I ask him to explain what he means. “Well, there’s just a lot of talking.” He hunkers back down with the expanse of Red Mars and leaves me in the drawing rooms of Mansfield Park.
Feels like that very popular not-so-new internet construction of tell me you don’t read books without telling me you don’t read books.
I’ve talked a bit about this before, but that was months ago and many of you may not have been here yet.
It seems like these conversations circle us endlessly in the most tedious and boring version of eternal recurrence imaginable. Never mind that China Mieville and Ursula K Le Guin have written books that are explicitly literary fiction or that Le Guin should be recognized as one of the best poets of the last thirty years but isn’t because she’s a famous SF writer.
I guess my main question with both of these is why does this kind of content even exist?
It just seems like we daily subject ourselves to torrents of opinions from the cripplingly incurious.
I mean, the article sort of points at a direction - that reading fiction has been deemed feminine for a long time.
I’d say this is obviously incomplete and maybe even mostly wrong. But what might explain why men read so little literary fiction?
People who are involved in literature seem to never want to acknowledge that literature has become a billion-dollar industry consolidated under four main players. The people in charge of what books get published and which ones get big marketing pushes are people who think of a book the same way a different mega-corporation might think of a brick: it is a replicable product that we sell in volume. This person deciding budgets or even overseeing acquisitions may not even know the name of the book whose fate they’re deciding. More than that, they may be one of these men who don’t really even bother to read books at all!
In fact, chances are that’s exactly who’s deciding, or at least who is the boss of the people deciding (and if you think that doesn’t influence the people in acquisitions…I suppose Noam Chomsky won’t convince you either).
What happens to art when it’s industrialized and mass produced? What happens to artists when they’re judged not by the merit of their work but by the units sold? What happens to a society where all art has been commodified?
I’ll let you fill in your own blanks.
As for why men specifically don’t read literary fiction, maybe the well-known and consistent research that women tend to read more than men has finally reached these corporate marketing departments, and so when publishers target audiences, they target the people who seem like a surer bet. It’s also why nonfiction and SFF seem like they’re more geared towards men.
No one wants to admit that marketing works on them, but, uh, if it didn’t work, people wouldn’t spend all this time, money, and effort on it. No one wants to admit that the reason they bought the new Sally Rooney or NK Jemisin or Stephanie Kelton book is because they got nudged in numerous ways over the years that eventually resulted in them picking up the book and giving it a shot.
Then we have even the next step in this travesty of the industrialization of literature: Bram Stoker’s Dracula has become one of the hottest books of the year because some guy made a substack where he emails his subscribers the chapter from the novel on the day the entry was made (if you’re not sure what this means, Dracula is an epistolary novel made up of letters, journal entries, telegrams, newspapers, etc, and so everything that happens in the book is tied to a date of entry).
The VP of Marketing at Penguin Random House has no idea how to make a book sell a million copies. They have no idea why some random guy republishing a book in the public domain is making this very old book the most talked about book of the year. They don’t understand why a teenage girl can make Pride and Prejudice go viral and sell thousands of copies in a single day while they can’t even convince people who buy the first book in a trilogy to buy the second book in that same trilogy, let alone the third.
So why don’t more men read literary fiction?
I imagine the answer is pretty simple and boring. Socialization and marketing are probably 80% of the answer. The other 20% is maybe because someone handed them Lord of the Rings or Ender’s Game when they were eleven instead of Catcher in the Rye or whatever, or because they had a coach or teacher they really liked who mocked another male student in front of them for showing a preference for theatre and poetry.
We’re simple animals. We like when people compliment us. We like when people like us. We want to be a part of a group and feel like we belong.
Why else did we all have myspace accounts fifteen years ago? Why else did we all dump myspace for facebook later that year?
If the group you found yourself in when you were thirteen was reading books and talking about them, you’ll probably end up being a reader. If your group mocked you for reading books, you maybe stopped reading books.
Or you’re an idiot like me who never stopped reading books despite being discouraged by friends and family and peers. My dad banned me from reading certain books, even going so far as to take them away from me and hide them. Most of my friends throughout my life have not been readers. Most of my colleagues and peers throughout life have barely read any books that weren’t assigned them in high school.
I don’t know why I read 100+ books a year and millions of others read one book every other year or decade. I don’t know why I’ve read so many books in so many genres and by writers from so many different countries.
If this sounds like bragging, you just gotta trust me: if I thought people thought this was cool, I’d only ever talk about this one thing.
Mostly I feel doomed to have ears and eyes that must hear and see so many people have so many bad takes about every piece of media they’ve ever consumed.
I’d tell them to just read a fucking book, but that clearly is part of the problem.