Thursday, January 25, 2007

If he only had a brain...

"Don't tell me what's great," thunders Alan Bissett at the increasingly desperate Guardian Arts Blog. "Oh no!" cry the meek and humble readers of the world. "You don't mean--" "But I do," says Alan, having a break from thundering. "Literature fundamentalists want to tell you what to read [he's thundering again now], and if you prefer Tom Clancy to James Joyce they will laugh at you and you won't get invited to their birthday parties!"

To support his iteration of this common "argument", Alan compares lit snobs to religious nuts:

"The industries surrounding art - criticism, reviewing, arts academies and courses - have given art the status of a secular religion. For worshippers of literature...there is a God and the Son: Shakespeare and Joyce, about whom no dissent is permitted - only endless, arcane study of what these sacred texts mean."

Then he throws a hissy because Joyce didn't consider Alan's tastes when he was writing Finnegan's Wake and Ulysses.

"I have a first-class degree and a masters in English Literature, and I've read plenty of difficult books, so if I can't enjoy Finnegan's Wake, or large parts of Ulysses, where does the fault lie? With me? Or with an author who was lucky enough to write baffling, unreadable prose during a period in which it was the vogue to elevate baffling, unreadable prose?"

Back to those rascally elites again:

"A novel or poem which requires a university education - or an expert on hand to 'explain' it to you - might represent a failure of communication to most people. Instead, if you don't 'get' it, you're just not in the club."

Then the religious analogy starts throwing up some weird imagery:

"There exists a canon of holy works - from Homer to Rushdie - chosen by a cabal of priest-like academics in order to demonstrate and disseminate their conception of great literature. What are university English departments if not faith schools..."

A "cabal of priest-like academics", eh? I was down at La Trobe uni last week, enrolling in my Dip. Ed. (teachers: another bunch of elitist wankers) and I wondered what all that chanting was coming from the English department. Doubtless some kind of sacred ceremony, complete with readings from Samuel Beckett and the ritual burning of an effigy of Bryce Courtney, or perhaps - dare we hope? - the real Bryce Courtney.

"...the ones that I did enjoy I eventually killed, chloroforming and pinning them like butterflies in my essays, taking them apart to see how they worked."

Goodness - effort! Close reading! It's a travesty! When I studied literature at uni we just described how warm a book made us feel inside and left it at that.

Anywoo, you can understand why Alan is so pissed off. With the bookshops chock full of Finnegan's Wake and other arty farty elite-pleasers there's hardly any room for Alan's own novels. As for column inches, fuhgetaboutit. It's page after page of highbrow obscurantism in the weekend papers, designed to elevate the tastes of a cabal of priest-like reviewers and keep the masses in the gutter. Check out the current features on the Guardian's books page: Ian Rankin, Doris Lessing, a profile of a former prostitute and crack addict turned memoirist. Do they think we've all got first class degrees in English or sumthin'?

Alan Bissett's argument ponders its next move.
"Now what was I doing? It was something to do with
brains, but did I want to get one or eat one?"


Imani said...

This was brilliant, unlike my own responses to his odd argument on his post (I'm Bellona). I can't get at what the hell he's complaining about. Keeps on mentioning capitalists and democrats.

Tim said...

Thanks, imani. I thought your comments were excellent.

Ben.H said...

Bissett's just working the old, central tenet of Stephen Potter's philosophy of Litmanship: the principal role of the critic is to convince the reader what a perfectly nice and ordinary fellow the critic is. And he's doing it in the laziest way: the literary version of "I'm a celebrity but I dunno how to set the clock on my video."

Also, why is everyone misspelling Finnegans Wake?