Monday, July 26, 2010

Death to Bookish Snobbery

So, today I was posting in a Goodreads group about W. Somerset Maugham. I found an article in the New York Times reviewing a biography of Maugham, that apparently includes bits about how he entertained 16 year old male hookers in his many parties, and how he was just generally an icky sort of fellow. I said in the group that this information makes me sorta not want to read his books because the whole time I'll be thinking "if this guy was such a jackass, why do I care what he has to say about the world?" This question ignited a whirlwind of you're-so-judgmental-how-dare-you-not-read-a-classic-die-die.


So I've spent the morning thinking about bookish snobbery. Is it "wrong" to not read a novel because you don't like the author as a person? One poster in the group claimed that not reading an author because of his personal life is prejudice, and that there is no room for such a reader in serious literary conversation. Isn't this tantamount to saying that people who exclude authors from their reading lists because of their morality are somehow un-intellectual? Are morality and intellectual thought mutually exclusive? Is there no room for personal morality in reading choices?

I am of the opinion that people can and should read whatever they bloody well please for whatever reason makes them feel warm and fuzzy. You want to read chick-lit because you like reading for escapism and the classics give you brain-ouchies? Great, go for it! You like reading the classics because you like the sermonizing? Whatever, sure, that's awesome! You want to read Mein Kampf because you're a complete psychopath? Uh..I don't know about that one, but sure, that's fine too.

You know what else? I'll even let you participate in "literary conversation." Because what is a literary conversation if we are not allowed to bring our thoughts and beliefs to it? If we all read what we were "supposed to" instead of making our own choices, wouldn't that make for a bloody boring "literary conversation?" The opinion of every reader is relevant. There is no real "books you must read before you die" list that the intellectual pompous asses have handed down to the poor, moral masses with their inability to think through their own belief systems. And if I decide to not read an author because his personal choices make his worldview unattractive to me, why is that bad? Are authors AUTOMATICALLY authorities that should have the right to speak in to your life simply because some professors somewhere like him? What kind of thought-control is that?

Bookish snobbery is the worst kind of snobbery because it masquerades as freeing, non-judgmental intellectual conversation. Death to it, I say.

Ok, now scroll back up to the second paragraph and tell me what you think about those questions.


  1. I can definitely see being turned off or away from a book because of the author's personal beliefs. If a person was, say, a child or dog abuser, I would certainly not want to like them one bit or give a crap what they had to say.

    If it was someone I'd already read and admired their talent, that would probably move me from the "I like that book and author" to the "I appreciate that book ONLY" category.

    Definitely think book snobbery is unfortunate and detrimental to reading. Blarrg!

  2. This is something English professors talk about a lot. Basically a lot of writers were/are icky people and we don't always know just how icky they were when we pick up their books and read them. That being said, I find it more difficult to read a book when I know the author was kind of gross or did things I didn't really agree with so I sometimes only read the book if I have to for class. I think it was at Maw Books Blog that this discussion got brought up recently dealing with a children's book author who owned child pornography. In a situation like that I think it's fairly obvious that you might not want to read those books or buy them for your children since you would be supporting someone interested in child pornography.

  3. I agree completely and lift my flask. There is a book out there in blogosphere that everyone says "you've got to read it" but I don't like how women are graphically raped and tortured in this great book, so no thank you.

    I don't associate with people I don't like so why would I read an author who I wouldn't associate with?

  4. Personally, I believe that good literature and art exist outside of the realm of morality. Though I think it's silly that someone would claim that it is "prejudice" to not read certain books based on your own moral values. If you would not read a book based on the race, gender, or sexual orientation of the author, I would consider that
    "prejudice". Morality is a whole different game. Prejudice is based in ignorance, morality is not. It irritates me that this person would write you off so quickly when they don't even know what they are talking about.

  5. I think you should consider separating an author's personal life from their work, but not for "snobbish" reasons.

    You may deprive yourself of some work that could be important to you. Thomas Jefferson wrote the most cogent and compelling case for political freedom ever put into official governing documents. And he owned slaves.

    Shakespeare is the greatest writer in our language, and he essentially abandoned his wife and children in Stratford-on-Avon, paying the bills but being a near total absentee.

    Seneca articulated a way of life and behavior that many, myself included, find uplifting and edifying, and yet didn't live up to a single one of his precepts.

    Socrates and many of the ancient Greeks had romantic relationships with adolescent boys, a practice that might well have landed them in prison today.

    If you adhere to strictly to your own sense of morality, not only will you put yourself in danger of intellectual solipsism, but you will lessen the richness and complexity of what literature can offer.

  6. Andi- I agree. I don't go seeking out information about an author's personal life, and I mean- we're all a little screwed up. But I sorta draw the line at the messing with kids thing. Just. Not. Okay. And someone like that is obviously a little ill in the head, even if they can string together a nice sentence.

    Ash- That's a good point about supporting an author whose morality you don't agree with. With most of the people I read, they're already dead and in the public domain, so my "support" doesn't really mean much to them, but still. Shivers.

    Beachreader- Right-o. Flask lifted.

    Ingrid- Thank you, that makes me feel better. I have to think about where I stand on the art-existing-outside-of-morality issue. I generally don't give it two thoughts. I guess it depends on your definition of morality?

    the Ape- As always, honored by your comments! It's really just the pedophile thing. That's sort of where I draw the line- admittedly, I don't read many ancient Greeks (not for that reason, just because I haven't drummed up the interest in myself yet). I don't usually adhere to reading only authors with my same morals- I would limit myself to (very, really, truly bad) Christian fiction if I did that, and that sounds a little nightmarish to me. And maybe it's hokey, but I don't think I will ever be comfortable knowingly reading a novel by a child abuser. That's my limit.

    And you forgot Dickens- adulterer that he was. Saucy man, that. So was Virginia Woolf. Tolstoy frequented the homes of many a prostitute in his early days. Fitzgerald was a raging alcoholic. Hemingway, too. Everyone has their faults, mistakes, and vices, but I can't stomach the child abuse thing. But I do agree with you- only reading people with whom you agree is narrow.

  7. Great topic.

    I was admonished by a group because I dared to bring up the theory that Shakespeare was an invention of a bored college professor and that his plays are equivalent to James Cameron movies, ie - crowd pleasers (which, I believe is a fact).

    After being called many names, questions about my IQ and general putdowns, those same people decided to "educate" me and pointed me to ... books about "understanding Shakespeare" written by bored college professors.

    Even if the theory holds no water - you have to admit that the irony is delicious :)

  8. To me it depends on what my "problem" with the author is. If he/she is just a creepy person in general, I guess that doesn't really matter to me and I'll read the book if it's good.

    However, if I have a SERIOUS problem (we're talking major... like what Ash mentioned) then I follow these rules...

    If the author is dead, my feelings about them as a person will not really influence buying the book.

    If the author is still alive, I don't want to "give them my business" by buying their book if I have a huge problem with their views, or what they stand for. I don't buy gas from certain companies for this reason too... but that's a whole other story! :)

  9. This problem isn't just limited to books. There was a university that banned Wagner from its concert because he was a raging Nazi. His music is beautiful, but the guy was an absolute psycho. If you are an art lover, then you already know that many of the masters were perverts, womanizers, and criminals. I think that the issue goes both ways: works shouldn't be banned because of moral reasons (the university banning Wagner, Christians banning Harry Potter, Wilde being thrown in jail for his homosexuality), but neither should people be forced to read books that they do not agree with. In BOTH of these situations, a reader's freedoms are being meddled with. Read whatever the hell you want. No matter how "critically acclaimed" a book is, it still contributes to the Great Literary Cannon (capitals!). Even books I'd rather not think of as literature *cough*Twilight*cough* are STILL a part of that cannon. Honestly, as long as people are reading, I don't really care what they read. Just don't tell ME what to read, and we can at least respect each other.

  10. And if you don't want to contribute to the royalties of some lunatic, then there's always the library :)

  11. Fantastic rant. I really don't see any problem with judging a product by its origins, whether that's a novel written by a pedophile or a pair of sneakers produced by child labor. Yes, you might be missing out on a great piece of literature (or a great pair of sneakers), but you might also make the world a little bit better by denying your patronage.

    Fitzgerald (that old alcoholic) wrote a line to his daughter when he was frustrated with her frivolity. It struck me when I first read it, and I find it more true as I grow in years.

    "I want my energies and my earnings for people who talk my language."

  12. Emotionally I agree with you, intellectually though I concur with 'the Ape.' Having said this though, there are a few writers that I won't read, because I think they are a scumbag. Regardless of the quality of their writing, that knowledge does taint the reading experience. At least for me. Thought-provoking topic.

  13. Man of la Books- Thanks! I'm pretty certain Shakespeare's plays were crowd pleasers, or he wouldn't have enjoyed the commercial success that allowed him to purchase land and become a "gentleman." I find it really upsetting when educated people look down on out of the box thinking.

    Kate- Good rules, you certainly know your own mind! More than I can say for myself, half the time. I will say that I avoid BP stations like the plague..

    Melissa- I agree, works shouldn't be banned on any grounds. I don't know about not caring about what others read as long as they're reading- my husband and I have had many a conversation about his love of westerns. Le sigh.

    Patrick- Fantastic line! Love that man. I guess there's just a fine line here between only reading books that confirm what you already believe because you're close minded, and not wanting to encourage immorality in your purchases.

    Lone Bear- I know, it's hard to go into a work knowing that the author is totally gross without having that effect how you approach the book. It's an extreme example, but I won't ever read Mein Kampf because the author was obviously evil, despite how the book may or may not offer historical insight into the origins of a massive world war. I also won't read any more Ayn Rand because, well, she's nuts, but she was also a horrible person. I can't approach her high and mighty ethical works without considering how she twisted her own philosophy to meet her own, unethical ends.

    Of course, I didn't know that about her going in, and I still would have read the books had I known she was a baddie. But then, she wasn't a pedophile.

  14. One person's decision not to read an author can't really be compared to the broad-specturm banning of a work of literature can it? We're all free to read what we choose, but I disagree with the idea that you can simply separate morality from art and be done with it. Morality is too much a part of the human experience to be able to simple do away with it in regards to art. I don't think Jane is suggesting the doing away with Maugham's work or not including him in the classics. But she makes a good point that she certainly shouldn't have to read him just because others consider him significant.

  15. I agree with Ape's comment that if you avoid works because you disagree with the morality of the author you could miss out on a lot of wonderful works. On the other hand, if you won't be able to separate the author from the story you will miss the details that make book worth reading.

  16. I don't care about the author's background. I read to see life from another viewpoint.

    In any event I tend to read the work first and any information regarding the author comes later if at all.

  17. Julie- No, I don't think there's a comparison. And I do think morality is a part of art- the exclusion of it is still a consideration of, and therefore maybe a statement about, it.

    Jeremy- I don't want to see every viewpoint. You know, like the evil ones. Not really interested.

  18. I am a total book snob, hence my blog name and I think it is OK to choose to read what is right for you regardless of other peoples opinions. I do it all the time. I read what I want, not what someone tells me to read. So I agree with you, don't read a book by an author you personally dislike. There are so many authors out there to choose from.

  19. I suppose the teacher in me makes me look at this from a slightly different angle, at least when we are talking about the classics. I mean, regardless of how I feel about Hemmingway (chauvinistic alkie that he was), I knew that to consider myself literate in Important American Literature (ahem) I needed to read at least a few of his books. It's similar to the reason that I, an atheist, support teaching the Bible as literature in school. In order to understand everything from more modern works to episodes of the Simpsons and South Park, you need at least a basic understanding of the cannon as we know it (male dominated, white dominated, European dominated, Christian dominated as it is!)

    Once you've got that, however, I say feel free to skip whatever author you want! And clearly you passed that mark long ago. I couldn't read Lolita-I was too distracted by all of the images of female models barely out of their teens in today's pop culture that kept popping into my head as I read to appreciate that bizarre story. I'll never read another book by Hemmingway, or Joyce, and I'm ok with that :)

  20. Just wanted to let you know I included this as part of my Friday Five at Kate's Library!

  21. Is it "wrong" to not read a novel because you don't like the author as a person?

    I've been ruminating about this for a couple of days. I started to write a response yesterday, but work got in the way (bummer!).

    Hmmm... I can't say that I'd condone Aldous Huxley's drug taking or Somerset-Maughan's sexual persuasions, but this wouldn't stop me from reading them.

    However, there is one author -a contemporary writer of 'classics' such as The Thorn Birds whom I will NEVER read following her obscene rant in an Australian women's magazine in the 1980s about petite women and how she'd specially designed her house to discrominate against them!

    Being natually small (5'2), I was outraged. I thought: you fat, heathen slob!

  22. your top 10 favorite books list pretty much is the ""books you must read before you die" list that the intellectual pompous asses have handed down to the poor, moral masses with their inability to think through their own belief systems." who honestly reads tolstoy and recommends it because its "fast-moving"?

  23. I agree with most of your points, especially those covering people's snobbery and discounting of others' opinions based on what they chose to read. Everyone reads for different reasons - for entertainment, to learn, to experience different perspectives and places and times, just to name a few - and there are also a billion tiny little details throughout the available written universe that each of us appreciate in our own way.
    If you chose not to read a book because you don't like what you've discovered about the author, I think that your tastes should not be questioned or your opinions be devalued. I completely agree that I don't hang out with people that I don't like, so it follows that I wouldn't want to write what they have to say.
    If all we chose to read is what we are comfortable with, we are narrowing our experiences and views. Some experiences may well be best left unexplored, this is true. On the other hand, if no one listened to rebel thinkers - such as, say, Jesus - because they initially didn't like them/the way they ran their lives, then we wouldn't have social change. Some of those views will be distasteful to us, and that's okay. That's fantastic even, because now we are familiar with the arguments and viewpoints used to defend what so grosses us out.
    It's everyone's choice whether or not to engage in learning about what makes us uncomfortable or to challenge our ideas and viewpoints, and no one should be belittled for not doing so. I just think that opting out of this, is to miss an important aspect of the boons of reading.
    This is me: