A couple of days ago, Toni Weisskopf posted a link to this letter from Edgar Rice Burroughs to a young Forrest J. Ackerman. It’s a pithy letter, shorter than most blog posts, but is a prescient rebuttal to this hot mess of a Guardian article appearing almost exactly 84 years later.
Life is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers.
No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment… If it forms the habit of reading, in people who might not read otherwise, it is the best literature.
By dissolving the difference between serious and light reading, our culture is justifying mental laziness and robbing readers of the true delights of ambitious fiction.
That, however, seems to be a universal pedagogical complex: to make the acquiring of knowledge a punishment, rather than a pleasure.
Our critic at the Guardian seems to be of a piece with Forrest J. Ackerman’s long forgotten teacher. Great literature must require effort! If something is accessible, one need not apply. . . Not like anyone from the canon of English literature ever wrote for the masses *cough*Dickens*cough*. And while our critic sings the praises of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, somehow I suspect he might contemplate seppuku before deigning to touch a modern regency romance.
So while our arbiter of taste at the Guardian says “I am not saying this as a complacent book snob” I may just invoke the words of that author of 16th Century potboilers and say he “doth protest too much.” After all, who but a snob would open a critique of an author by saying “I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to. Life’s too short… Pratchett is so low on my list of books to read before I die that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him.”
If you wanted to efficiently display literary bigotry, mean-spiritedness, close-mindedness, and pretention all wrapped in a bundle of industrial strength smug, and do it in as few words as possible, you couldn’t do better than emulating this opening. Of course, our “critic” does let us know that he “did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary.”
I guess this guy isn’t a Hemingway fan either.
But, I think, the worst part of this vile literary emetic is its apparent genesis. Our “critic” was upset at “the huge fuss attending and following [Pratchett’s] death this year.” Read that again. Our purveyor of literary light, our guide to the right and good in the fictive universe, is upset that people made a fuss when Terry Pratchett died. I know there’s this British thing about reserve and overt displays of emotion, but really… can someone’s heart be so black to object to people’s sorrow over the man’s death? Oh, and just when you couldn’t think less of his argument, he throws a swift kick at Ray Bradbury’s corpse as well.
So, in conclusion, I suggest if you want to critique the ovure of a recently deceased author and want to be taken seriously you avoid the following pitfalls:
- Don’t admit you never read the their work, or intend to in the future.
- Don’t call the readers of their work lazy.
- Don’t say no one should have made such a big fuss when they died.