Friday, July 25, 2008

Shame

What is wrong with the English? Why are they so obsessed with not having finished certain books or not having started other books or not having taken books of appropriate cultural cachet to the beach? (Do they even have beaches?) There's one of these self-conscious whinges every second week in the Guardian, always couched in confessional tones - the shame of not starting/finishing Proust or whomever, the shame of taking the latest Ian Rankin to the beach instead of something translated from Norweigan with no paragraphs or proper nouns. Then, perversely, there's the shame of looking like a show-off if you opt for the allegedly pretentious tome over the bestseller. It's clearly impossible for the average Englisher to make a reading selection without being crippled by doubt.

Perhaps it's a consequence of growing up in egalitarian Australian - egalitarian to the extent that lack of interest in arts and literature knows no class boundaries - but I'm surprised anybody gives a frying frock what anybody else is or isn't reading. On the train the other day I sat between a businessman who was reading Robin Hobb and a Surrey Hills matron who was engrossed by The Bostonians, while opposite me a uni student was bending back the dusty spine of something horrible by Dennis Wheatley. (I had forgotten my book - Proust, obviously, in the original French - and was entertaining myself by trying to read bits of everybody else's.) These people weren't at all self-conscious, neither trying to display nor hide their reading matter. If a tyrannical cultural elite exists it failed to materialise on the 11:45 to Flinders St for a spot-check of commuters' books. ("High fantasy? 'Fraid that'll be a fifty dollar on-the-spot fine, sir. Madam, I'd like to see something from James's late period next time, if you don't mind. Sir, put the The Devil Rides Out down slowly and come with me. That's right, easy now. We'll get you all the help you need...")

The only person who regularly asks me what I'm reading is my dad, and he's never heard of any of the writers I like anyway and in any case is hardly seeking to make value judgments about my choice of literary diversion. I doubt if anybody else cares either. Or do they? Do I? Perhaps I'm just feigning nonchalance when really I'm a snob of the first water, peering down my nose at the philistines reading Wilbur Smith on the train, and then getting all worked up inside about my hypocritical snobbishness, remembering all those Dostoyevsky novels I haven't finished translating from the Russian, despite countless NYE resolutions to do so, so who am I to judge, but then, really, Wilbur Smith?

Dear Guardian. I have an idea for a blog post. I was on the train the other day when I was crippled by anxiety and shame...

1 comment:

Imani said...

I remember a scene from that one popular Smith book I read back at boarding school. I think a couple was having sex either with or beside an alligator near the Nile. Since my school banned romance novels I was pleased to find such fare in a respectable historical fiction book. (Very long too at 500+ pages, to lend a scholarly air.) I still eye his other books speculatively on the shelves.