Is it a crime to be mainstream?

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This blog post is inspired by a book I recently read called ‘The Line of Beauty’ by Alan Hollinghurst, winner of the 2004 Man Booker Prize. I’m lucky to be currently enjoying a summer of total freedom and whilst I should probably have been immersing myself in the Economist or the Financial Times in order to prepare myself for what will no doubt be the harsh reality of corporate life, instead I decided to fill my time reading books I would never usually have the time, nor energy to read (because let’s face it, after a hard day at the office I’m much more likely to want to unwind over a copy of Heat magazine than a Dickens classic!) A couple of years ago I attempted the BBC 100 list and whilst I by no means completed it, I did manage to read quite a few of the old classics, so this year I decided it might be a refreshing change to have a look at some of the greats of the past few years and on my mission to do so I stumbled across a list of award winning books of the last decade. Two books on the list caught my attention, one I’d already read called ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy and another I happened to have purchased but never got round to reading, ‘The Line of Beauty’. Hailed as a ‘modern masterpiece’ by the critics and as the winner of a prestigious literary award I decided there must be something pretty special about the latter title and I started reading it straightaway. Unfortunately, I found myself quickly disinterested and it soon became one of those novels that’s a chore to pick up and re-connect with. Disappointed in myself that I was finding it difficult to get into such an acclaimed book, I kept at it in the hope that it might become easier/better the more I read. It didn’t.

The book follows the life of young gay Oxford graduate Nick Guest, who finds himself a lodger in the large townhouse of an on-the-up conservative MP and becomes embroiled not only in the high life of politics but also in the darker scene of drugs, homosexuality and AIDS in the Thatcher Era. Whilst the book was no doubt incredibly well written, throwing out the kind of sentences you just want to read over and over again on almost every page, I found the storyline to be pretty lacking and in the end it just seemed all style and no substance. I initially wondered whether my failure to enjoy the book was attributable to the fact that having only been born in the 1989 I can neither remember nor connect with the Era in which it is set and around which the plot centres, however I quickly dismissed this theory given that two of my favourite books are those with which I have no affiliation to the context: The Colour Purple by Alice Walker which is set in the American South in the 1930s and A Thousand Splendid Suns, a tale of poverty and war in Afghanistan. I then started to draw comparisons to ‘The God of Small Things’ a previous Booker Prize winner and another novel I found it extremely difficult to enjoy. I judged the interesting and complex storyline to be completely overshadowed by the structure of the book which I found really hard to follow and the language, which quite frankly baffled me.

This got me thinking, are award winning novels always the cream of the crop, or is there a certain amount of snobbery attached to who makes it onto the shortlist? Maybe it’s subjective or maybe I’m just not enough of an experienced reader to appreciate true literary greatness when I see it, but I sometimes get the impression that such awards are plagued by pretentiousness – after all, which of these specially picked experts is going to admit they secretly enjoyed Katie Price’s latest work? (Please note that I am in no way of the opinion that Katie Price is deserving of any award, except perhaps ‘Most Vile Celebrity of the Decade’) On a serious note though, it would be a rare occasion if a well-known novel won a literary award, however good it may be and so perhaps my failure to enjoy these two novels may be linked to the controversial argument that award-winners aren’t always necessarily the ‘best’ books in terms of reader enjoyment? I wonder too, whether this is snobbery is something which has escalated over the years. Take Pride and Prejudice for example, undoubtedly one of the most popular novels of all time, but really all it is, is a simple love-story: Girl meets boy, girl falls in love, girl thinks boy doesn’t love her back, girl is misled into concluding boy is the bad guy, finds out boy is actually the hero, they live happily ever after. The End. Would such a story even make it onto the shortlist for a prize like the Man Booker today? Somehow I doubt it.

I remember reading an interesting blog post not that long ago in which the author detailed her fear that she might be a literary snob, unwilling to read books that were everywhere, instead preferring to read things that no one else had heard of. I fear I may have the opposite problem, God help me I don’t want to admit it, but I think I may be suffering from being too mainstream! If everyone is talking about a book or a series, the chances are I will want to read it – Game of Thrones and the Hunger Games being two examples, I’ve started reading the former and have asked a friend to lend me the latter, purely based on the fact that others have said they are good and everyone’s talking about them. I’m not saying I’m always going to enjoy a book just because it’s popular (hence earlier posts slating the Fifty Shades phenomenon) but I imagine some would say I was just following the sheep by wanting to read them in the first place. Perhaps I am, but is there really anything wrong with that? Throughout my life I’ve often found myself wishing I had a particular style or music taste or film taste or art preference, something to make me ‘unique’ but recently I’ve found myself wondering whether the fact I don’t does, to a certain extent, make me more unique. I’m the kind of person who dreads going on a date and being asked that standard question ‘So what music are you into?’ and god forbid a guy should look through my iPod. So yes, I’ve said it, I’m pretty embarrassed about my music taste, I don’t have a particular genre, if I like a song it will go on there, however cheesy/chavvy/overplayed it may be – but why should I be hiding the fact that Rihanna is likely to come up in my Top 25 most played? I remember my Dad telling me that the night he first met my Mum, she’d asked him what music he was into and he’d replied simply with, ‘I don’t have a specific taste and to be honest if it’s at number one I’ll generally like it’ and I kind of admire him for being so honest. I’m not saying I only like famous artists, that’s certainly not the case but it annoys me when people stop liking bands when they become popular/mainstream because at the end of the day isn’t that what most artists are striving for, recognition and air play? Which artist, in reality, is going to turn around and say they don’t want to go to number one? Similarly with style, I wouldn’t say I’ve ever fit into a certain category and my fashion choices are probably pretty standard, but are these people who have a ‘look’ really any different? Say you’re an emo/a chav/a goth/indie etc. whilst your look may be ‘different’ are you actually being alternative? Correct me if I’m wrong, but most emos/chavs/goths look the same to me. They may be shopping in charity shops instead of Topshop and JJB Sports instead of H&M but they’re taking inspiration from others around them who have a similar style, it’s not original. Generally, I’ll chose an outfit because it flatters my figure or because the colours suit me, yes I will take note of trends and what others wear and if I see a girl looking good in something, chances are I’ll be tempted to go out and purchase something similar, but you won’t find me wearing a bin-liner just because Vogue tells me too if I’m not going to look good in it.

So, I’ve admitted it. I don’t have a style or a taste or a type, but I think that’s what makes me who I am. I’ll recommend a book because I enjoyed reading it, not because it’s won awards, I’ll listen to a song because I enjoy listening to it and it evokes some kind of emotion in me, not because it’s cool or because I’m supposed to like it and I’ll wear an outfit because it makes me feel good, not because it’s on the front cover of Elle or because it conforms to a style. And if that makes me mainstream, then I’ve finally decided that I don’t care! So, in conclusion I have aborted my mission to read a selection of award winning novels from the last decade, instead I’m going to take my last week of freedom to read something I’m likely to enjoy. Now where’s my friend with that copy of the Hunger Games!

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6 Comments

  1. YAY! I’m very much the same. I HATE when people ask me what music I like…and please never touch my iPod or I’ll die of shame.
    I remember a few years ago, I kept hearing people talk about The Fountainhead. I read the back of it and thought that there was no way that I’d be interested in it, but I figured I’d give it a try just because I wanted to be able to understand what people were referring to. And it was the BEST. BOOK. EVER. I couldn’t put it down. It ruined my life for like five days. I read EVERYWHERE, even at red lights.
    All for a book that I only started because everyone else had read it.
    Enjoy Game of Thrones and the Hunger Games!

  2. I’m both with you and not with you on this issue. I really enjoyed both “The Color Purple” and “The God of Small Things,” and I also don’t care, really, whether they won awards or not. But I also have to admit that I do guide my selection decisions somewhat by WHOM I hear recommending them. If it’s somebody at “The New Yorker,” I might or might not read it: I usually try to read a little bit about it, because I find some people who turn up at “The New Yorker” just too precious for words. Others there I really enjoy reading, and I want to read more of their suggestions, and then of the actual things they’re talking about (or perhaps I find a new writer there who also has a novel out, I might read that). “The New York Review of Books” I follow when I run across it, but not religiously. These days, I’m going a lot on the basis of what I read from other bloggers on WordPress, and what I think of them. So, I may try to pick up “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” because I’ve heard you recommend it and I want to give it a read. “The Hunger Games” is on my list of things recommended because my nieces and nephews are currently reading it. So, I take my recommendations from widely different sources sometimes. But about “Pride and Prejudice,” I think part of what Austen was writing about wasn’t a simple girl-meets-boy etc. romance. That’s the candy coating on the pill she’s trying to get her readers to swallow, but the pill itself is serious–if somewhat satiric–social commentary about how people find each other, sort out their differences (if they do, and frankly, I can see the main protagonists continuing to have confrontations later down the line, they aren’t really alike, and marriage doesn’t end everything; Austen is willing to let her readers have a temporary happy ending, though), and how they have to contrive to be comfortable and work out their lives in the community in which they live. I don’t think we can forget that the two main characters come from different sorts of families. The social bond is to Austen as important as the romantic one, and I think it’s possible to miss this point if you read it merely as a romance. Also, you have to remember that slews and slews of writers since Austen have capitalized on her formulae for fictional characters and situations, and if you’ve read them before reading her, you might not appreciate just how innovative she was for her time (and even for ours). I know I didn’t realize this when I first read her. Anyway, I think at the end of the day, you are basically correct to assume that we have to read what makes us feel as if we’ve had a wonderful experience with a special friend whose voice has been in our ears for a while, and that the same goes for music too. And you’re right too in what you imply, that the world would be a pretty boring place (and even more competitive than it is) if we all liked the same things, and were competing only for them. Sorry, so wordy! You just made me think!

  3. I feel like I should come up with some really well thought out response, but all I can say is I’m the exact same way, and I’m so glad there are other people who agree!! 🙂

  4. 1) Pride and Prejudice – I didn’t like it and seem to be the only one out there. 2) Snobbery in awards – Makes me crazy that Sandra Bullock only won an award after being in a “serious” movie even though she acts JUST as well in every other movie she’s ever been in. But, comedies don’t get awards, now do they? Great post!!

  5. Hey Becky, firstly, I adore your blog posts, particularly this one. This resonated with me on a deeper level. I found myself wishing that I had so and so taste in art or movies or music. I felt I wasn’t so unique, like the heroines in my favorite novels. I like what I like. But it has never been too easy for my self esteem. If someone asked me, what’s your thing, I wouldn’t be able to answer! But yeah, even the line of thought thinking that not being unique can also be termed unique comforts me just a few times. The world is a tricky place, isn’t it?

    OOOOH, I tried to read ‘God of small things’ and I didn’t like it. It has the most depressing things ever in it. Incest is something I despise and the author threw some incest into all the other depressing things like discrimination-class, caste and the like.I’m sorry you had to plough your way through a critically acclaimed book. Yes, ‘Thousand Splendid Suns’ is such a moving book. I had to sit alone and read for fear of bursting into tears and embarrassing myself in front of my family. I did cry, weep and sob a lot at the last page. Its such an inspiring and moving book. Yes, it was depressing, but I saw a lot of positivity in the darkest crevices of the characters. Its about intense emotional and physical struggles; I thanked my Gods for the splendid life I had been leading and for the fabulousness waiting for me in the future after finishing it.

    ‘Pride and Prejudice’ indeed has a place in my heart. Jane Austen was a genius. How many ever similar stories I read, that book is the mother of all such storylines. Yeah, it should have been the winner of every single reputable award in the world. I guess, pretentiousness has really creeped into the award system. It’s all about the publisher, their marketing, the reputation of the author and really skilled craft. The storylines tend to submerge or vanish under all that strain. So, I naturally prefer a ‘twilight’ or ‘the hunger games’ over award winners. Atleast, they make us feel something other than boredom and disconnect.

    Cheers to all those who like what they like. Cheers because they are indeed unique. The fact that you are you and I am me makes us unique. There’s that hidden quirk or the random habit of ours that would make us unique. Cheers to you that you made me think positively about it.

    LOOOOOONG comment I guess. Sorry.

    Love, xoxo

  6. Hi, Becky! It’s been a long, long time since I read a post of yours, and so I’m wondering if you are totally taken up now with the “corporate world” you spoke of this summer, or if you are still blogging about what you like to read, and your opinions of the same. Don’t feel I’m noodging you, though–I suddenly noticed that several of the people whose blogs I follow haven’t posted recently, so I took this evening to get in touch and say “whassup?” and “howyadoin’?” This is just to let you know that your voice has been missed!

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