Just Read The Fun Stuff?

Benjamin Hale suggests someone has to stand up for pleasurable reading:

Some part of me is afraid of the reason why the college kids who want to be writers are still anxiously forcing themselves to slog through The Recognitions: because the accepted knowledge that this is a “smart” book has been handed down to them by their literature professors, who in their time were told this is a “smart” book. And how do the “smart” books become the “smart” books that get handed down to you?

Could it be that the books that become the “smart” books are the ones that are fun to teach? The ones that give the English professor something to do? You can’t say much about a fairly straightforward narrative, but one that requires a lot of critical unpacking is one that will get a lot of play in the classroom, and probably survive in the classrooms of the future. There are some ponderously overrated, heaps of pretentious gobbledygook that have been kept alive for decades this way. I’m not saying smart is bad.

Smart is good … but what about pleasurable? [John] Gardner shouted and banged on the table trying to remind everyone not to forget about morality and the “true purpose” of art, but all I want to do is something much more humble: please do not forget to please. Something about your book must on some level give pleasure. This is not a low virtue.

Similarly, Nick Hornby recently argued that readers should ditch difficult books if they’re not captivated:

Battling through them, he said, would only condition people to believe reading is a chore, leaving a “sense of duty” about something you “should do”. Instead, Hornby argued, reading should be seen more like television or the cinema, and only undertaken as something people “want to do.” Speaking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, about his new novel Funny Girl, Hornby argued even children should not be compelled to read books they do not want to, saying setting targets of books they “should” read is counterproductive.

Laura Thompson is ambivalent:

My instant reaction to this was a sense of laughing relief, that somebody had not only admitted to doing such a thing, but had portrayed it as a positive act. Why on earth should anybody read a book if it is not fulfilling its most basic requirement, which is to entertain? Then doubt crept in. Advising people to cast aside a book, simply because they are not “loving” it? Comparing the sacred act of reading with that of box-setting one’s way through Lewis? Is this not a certain way to render the classics obsolete?

Who, taking on such a mindset, would grind their way through the opening chapters of Bleak House or The Return of the Native, or refrain from skipping to the more obviously attention-holding passages in D. H. Lawrence? As for books such as Clarissa, To The Lighthouse or Ulysses: surely their continued life depends upon a touch of masochism in the reader? Nick Hornby knows this quite as well as anybody, of course. What he is actually saying is serious and sensible. There is absolutely no point, no long-term gain, in turning reading into a duty, when it can be one of life’s greatest pleasures.

At the same time, I am extremely glad that I read “difficult” books when I was young. They form part of my internal furniture, as it were. I am glad that I was obliged to think about Jane Austen rigorously, and therefore do not subscribe to the idea that Pride and Prejudice is simply Bridget Jones’s Diary in bonnets. … In other words, I think that there does need to be a degree of benign compulsion when it comes to young people’s reading.