I’m currently reading one of the shortest books that I’ve read in a while and, considering how short my usual books tend to be, that’s saying something. Can You Ever Forgive Me? runs at under 200 pages yet I still couldn’t finish reading in time to review it. I’ll be honest, it’s been an odd week and I’ve been pretty up and down. Which has all meant that I haven’t made as much time for reading. It also didn’t help that my book club has been postponed until later this month. Now that I have no deadline I’ve lost all energy to finish it. All of which means I needed something else to write about. Thankfully, I’ve been thinking of this for a while.
This Monday was International Women’s Day. A day that is dedicated to celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It is a day to highlight and challenge the disparity between the genders. A time to call for equality. As people in the book community, it is also a time to celebrate and champion female writers. As such, those of you on Instagram will no doubt have noticed plenty of amazing female centric content cropping up in your feed. There was one post that really caught my eye and prompted me to write this post. The caption started with the age-old question:
Do you preferentially read books by women or men?
I, obviously, responded in my normal pretentious and, probably, obnoxious way, which I won’t go into yet because it would negate the need to write this post. Instead, I want to focus on most replies. They consisted of a sentiment that went along the lines of “I don’t care about the gender of the writer. It’s all about the story.” There’s nothing wrong with this idea in theory but it’s an attitude that I do think we need to change. And I’ll tell you why.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, which means that lists of the most romantic reads are popping up all over the internet. Now, I have a huge problem with these lists. Mostly because of the books that continually appear on them. I’ll be honest, I’m not a massive fan of the romance genre anyway. It’s just not my thing. There’s nothing wrong with it but I get bored of the waiting. I also know that romance novels aren’t as terrible as certain people try to make out. There is a pretentiousness that often comes out when talking about romance that mostly occurs because, historically, it has been a genre written for women. I could go deeper into the problematic history of the genre and the marginalisation of certain writers/subjects but I think that’s best saved for a better writer. Instead, I want to focus on problematic books that appear on lists of Valentine’s Day reads. Let’s be honest, many of the supposedly most romantic books ever written feature relationships that we shouldn’t be celebrating. Everywhere I go, I see young bookish people romanticising toxic and awful relationships and I can stay silent no longer. Here are just a view literary loves that we really need to accept aren’t #goals.
Earlier this week the Irish Times published a review of writer Dolly Alderton’s debut novel Ghost. The review was negative and its tone caused some major controversy on social media. There were plenty of people who believed the review shouldn’t have been published and was overly harsh. Something that was deemed even worse considering the novel was her first fictional release. I wasn’t planning on discussing it all because I haven’t read the book in question. In fact, I’ve not ready anything written by Alderton so I wasn’t exactly emotionally invested in the saga. This week, something happened to change my mind. Something that wasn’t linked to this story in anyway but certainly got me thinking about it.
Not long after Donald Trump became President of the United States, there was a massive increase in sales of 1984. The George Orwell dystopia received a boost after Kellyanne Conway uttered the phrase “alternative facts” in a TV interview. Everywhere you looked, people were turning to social media to make sure the world knew that they knew how Orwellian it was. That’s the great thing about social media. Thousands of people are having the same original thought at the same time. Just think about what Orwell would have made of Twitter. But I digress. The point is, it seemed that everyone had suddenly decided that we were living in a time that was just as awful as the one Orwell had imagined. In the same way that people had started to see the world as mimicking Gilead, we were suddenly living in a version of Airstrip One. It’s a fun idea but, let’s be honest, it’s total bollocks.
In his essay The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes argued that the only way to read a book was to separate it from its author. According to Barthes, authorial context and intent wouldn’t provide insight into the meaning of the text. Instead, it would limit the amount of meaning a reader could take from it. For Barthes, the meaning of a book wasn’t dependent on who the author was but on who the reader is. As we can never really be sure of what an author intended, trying to understand a novel based on who they were as a person would always be flawed. The author, thus, becomes not a God but merely a “scriptor”. They aren’t imposing meaning but merely transcribing the message on paper for the reader to untangle themselves.
A few months back, I did Google search and was presented with a warning reminding me that child pornography is illegal. You might be asking what the hell I was searching for that brought me face-to-face with this. It was simple “Lolita as a love story”. I’d seen an article on Twitter a few days before but couldn’t find it when I went back to read it. I couldn’t remember where I’d seen it, who wrote it, or what the title was. So I used a vague search term in the hope of finding it. Clearly, Google thought I was up to no good. After all, Lolita isn’t a love story. It’s the story of a predator who uses romantic language to justify grooming of his stepdaughter. It’s part of the genius of the novel and the genius of Vladimir Nabokov. It’s also one of the main reasons that Lolita is one of my all-time favourite books. But I understand that saying this to certain people can bring about the same warning signs as my earlier search did with Google. Even after all this time, there is still such a mystique about the novel because it deals with such a distasteful subject. But I find all the arguments citing the story as immature. What is the point of literature if not to tackle some of the worst aspects of humanity? And anyway, I bet the majority of the people who whine about Lolita are the same people who buy countless psychological thrillers about serial killers.
Twitter is a pretty horrible place to be. All you need to do is look at the Twitterstorm that hit Yorkshire Tea a few weeks ago. On the plus side, it gave us the immortal phrase “Sue, you’re shouting at tea!” On the minus, it showed us how fucking crazy people can be. I used to work for the company that owns Yorkshire Tea and met one of the people on their marketing team. He was a nice guy and I’m sure everyone at the Yorkshire Tea marketing team is. Definitely not the kind of people who deserve abuse being hurled at them for something that was beyond their control. But that’s the kind of world that we live in. That a politician can be seen drinking a specific tea and then a whole host of people demand a boycott of the brand in response. Despite the fact that the original post wasn’t an advertisement. The real issue with social media is that it’s fooled people into thinking that their voice deserves to be heard. It’s changed the idea of what freedom of speech means to so many people. It no longer means having the power or right to express your opinions without censorship, restraint, or legal penalty. It means saying whatever the fuck you want and not thinking there are any moral, social, or emotional consequences to them.
As I’ve said countless times already this week, I didn’t get a lot of reading done over Oscars week. I just couldn’t find the time between writing so many posts and watching so many films. Yet, I’ve been determined to continue writing 2 book reviews a week. For one thing, it pushes me to read more and, for another, it gives the blog a better balance between films and reading. In order to catch up, I listened to 2 more audiobooks this weekend. The first was The Child which I reviewed on Monday. The second was a dramatisation of Winnie The Pooh. I was all set to post a review of it today but, instead, I wanted to talk about something that’s been bugging me recently. I was out with some friends last week (none of them are big readers) when I mentioned how many books I’d read last year. They were impressed, which is how you can tell they’re not overly bookish people. Compared to most of you guys I’m an amateur! But, they’re encouragement was quickly displaced with disbelief when I mentioned how useful audiobooks had been in helping me get there. Apparently, it doesn’t count. I know they were joking but, in the bookish world, this attitude still exists. And I’m not here for it.
After finishing my latest read on Sunday, I knew that there was only one option for my Throwback Thursday film this week. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I watched View From the Top but it must be about 15 years. It was one of those late nights at my friend’s house. I’m not sure why we picked it but it was an experience that I never forgot. Seriously, Gwyenth Paltrow in her purple and orange uniform, shiny purple boots, and massive hair are really difficult to get out of your head. Although, after reading Ayoade’s fantastic analysis, it does worry me that I’m tackling this film too. There is no way I’ll be as shrewd or as funny as he is. I should have done something else. Watched Airplane or something. Maybe a different Gwyenth Paltrow film? Sliding Doors? He does mention Sliding Doors in the book too. Although, I have a bit of a soft spot for that film and I wouldn’t want to have to admit it’s rubbish.