Sunday, November 01, 2015

This is your monthly reminder that J.C Wright is a whey faced coxcomb

If something is to hard to do, then it's not worth doing. You just stick that guitar in the closet next to your shortwave radio, your karate outfit and your unicycle and we'll go inside and watch TV.
Homer J Simpson

I don’t look at J.C Wright's page very often. It makes me cross, and not even interestingly cross, in the way Dave Sim used to. Sim writing was clever, perverse, witty and nasty in equal proportions. It made you want to engage with it. Wright just makes you say  “How can an intelligent person type that shit?” 

I suppose I justify glancing at his pages in the way that I justify glancing at Richard Dawkins’ tweets. (I mean, apart from morbid fascination, like looking at the execution tableaux on Brighton pier when when I was a kid.) I once said that that the Argument From Prof Richard Dawkins can stand alongside the Ontological Argument and the Cosmological Argument as proofs of the existence of God. I think that an occasional glance at J C Wright and Melanie Phillips and Norman Tebbit are necessary if we are going to keep on marching down the good old socialist road. If that’s what being a conservative does to you then I definitely don’t want to be one.

In his journal this month, the Finest Writer Working Today dusts off a 70 year old letter from Edgar Rice Burroughs to a schoolboy. Apparently, the schoolboy’s English teacher had told him that Burroughs was “trash can literature”.

There are a number of possible answers to that, one of which would have been to ask the teacher to pick up Tarzan and the Ant Men and have a look it. It’s a proper story, written in proper sentences, with proper grammar (except foh de bleck folks, who speaks like dis), proper dialogue and proper description. I could imagine Tarzan or the early John Carters being set for a lower school English lesson. (We read Shane, I recall, which is about on the same level.) I think that’s why Burroughs star has diminished and his disciple Bob Howard’s reputation has increased. A Princess of Mars reads like a Victorian travelogue; a pastiche of Rudyard Kipling. The Conan stories are the distilled essence of pulp.

Burroughs responds that his books may be trash, but that millions of people read them and they have made him a lot of money. Presumably, even someone who has read no philosopher more recent that Plato can see the flaw in that? “This is popular” is not a response to “This is bad”: something can be bad and popular; something can be good but unpopular.

The main part of the Burroughs letter is worth quoting in full:

“My stories will do you no harm. If they have helped to inculcate in you a love of books, they have done you much good. No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment. If it entertains and is clean, it is good literature, of its kind. If it forms the habit of reading, in people who might not read otherwise, it is the best literature.”

Now, it was kind of Burroughs to take the trouble to reply to a fan’s letter; and he didn’t imagine that something he’d dashed off in five minutes was going to be reread decades after he had died. And younger readers will find it hard to believe that the primitive word-processor he was using didn't allow you to correct or edit. You could only change a piece of text by deleting the whole document and starting again. But even taking that into account, I think we can agree that this is a very confused piece of writing. Burroughs seems to argue modestly that his writing is “good of its kind” while arrogantly assuming that his kind of writing is really the only kind. He thinks that fiction in general is just for entertainment; but then argues that encouraging children to read is a good-thing-in-itself.

You can’t have it both ways. You can say “Pantomimes are just silly knockabout, of course; but many a child has fallen in love with theater when they were taken to see Cinderella and as a result discovered the riches of Shaw and Ibsen and O’Neil when they were older — so the ‘panto’ does much good.” Or you can say “Silly entertainment is what theater is all about: Hamlet is merely panto with all the fun taken out; if it doesn’t have a custard pie routine in it, it’s not worth bothering with”. Or you can take the teacher’s point of view and say “How can you, a clever boy, possibly be wasting your time watching a man dressed as a lady throwing a custard pie and at a lady dressed as a man when Long Days Journey Into Night is playing in the same town?” But I don’t think you can say all three. 

I think that a Proper Actor would probably say “You may be surprised to know that the stage craft involved in putting on a pantomime and the stage craft involved in putting on a work by Shakespeare are very similar, and a person who truly loves theater loves both equally.” That was what Kenneth Williams said when he was asked why an actor of his caliber was wasting time on the Carry On movies.

The really astonishing thing, sitting there in ancient smudgy courier type is “No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment.” Really? No fiction contains strong manly role models for us to aspire to? No fiction teaches a moral message? No-one ever reads stories to learn about how people live in distant lands or what life was like many years ago? No-one ever studies fiction from a scholarly point of view?  I also like the bit about the only kind of literature which can harm you being pornography. That’s a moral point, not a literary one, of course. But aren't there racist books; books that glorify crime; books steeped in commie or fascist propaganda; books that promote belief in the wrong kind of god; atheist books? Is there really no sin but the sin of masturbation? 

No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment? I wonder what Prof Lewis and Prof Tolkien, teachers of English Literature both, who J.C Wright reveres and who, incidentally, both quite enjoyed Edgar Rice Burroughs, would have to say about that?

But this, indeed, seems to be the point of the letter, and what has excited Wright about it. Burroughs children were both studying English Literature at college, apparently — not elementary school, college — and the great man is shocked that their set texts are dry and difficult.

Well, yes: of course they are. That is what you are at college for. And I think we know what their lecturer would have replied. “You don’t need the my help to understand Riders of the Purple Range or Brideshead Revisited or even David Copperfield. They are written in your language by people who share the same cultural assumptions as you. So read them on your own time. But you do need my help to get to the bottom of Beowulf or the Faery Queene.”

But Burroughs suspects a conspiracy. Still smarting from having been called garbage-can literature he lashes out against all teachers at all times ever, slipping into language so pompous that you can see why it appealed to J.C Wright:

“The required reading seemed to have been selected for the sole purpose of turning the hearts of young people against books. That, however, seems to be a universal pedagogical complex: to make the acquiring of knowledge a punishment rather than a pleasure. It’s political correctness gone mad, I tell you.”

I may possibly have made the last bit up. 

Imagine if you said that about any other subject. “The Karate teacher had some funny idea that I should learn some funny style of open handed fighting, when I can give a very good account of myself in the playground with clenched fists. I suppose his sole purpose is to put young men off the whole idea of fighting”.  “I am a big fan of rock n’ roll and the music teacher wanted me to listen to something called Mozart, which I didn’t like after two minutes. What is the point of a music teacher teaching me music I don’t like? She should teach me the music I already like. It’s a con-trick to put me off music.”

Now, it’s not that interesting to discover that a bloody good pulp writer had a bit of a blind spot when it came to other kinds of writing. There are many people who think that people only become classical violinists because they are second rate musicians who can’t master jazz. Or vice versa. 

What interests me rather more is Wright’s comment. Astonishingly, it turns out that Wright also has kids — at school rather than college. And, astonishingly, it turns out that their English teachers are part of the same conspiracy that Burroughs uncovered. They keep giving them difficult ("corrosive, dreary, hellish”) books because they want to put them off literature.

NUANCE WARNING! School English lessons are, of course, a different thing from University English courses; and there are honest differences of opinion about what school English is for.  Maybe you are introducing children to wide variety of books of different kinds with the intention of forming the habit of reading for pleasure. Maybe you are making them read well-formed books so that their grammar, vocabulary and punctuation will improve and they will eventually be able to write good letters of application and get skilled clerical and middle-management jobs. Or maybe you think that everyone in England should be familiar with the canon of English literature — that if we are in any sense a Nation then all our citizens need a smattering of Shakespeare and Dickens and Milton and Hardy and other dead white guys. But at any rate, it is probably a greater sin to ask a twelve year old to read a book he finds positively boring than to ask a twenty year old to do so. 

So which books is Wright objecting to? 

“THE BEAN TREE by Barbara Kingsolver
FENCES by August Wilson
OF MICE AND MEN by Steinbeck (better written than the others, from a craftsmanship standpoint, but as the father of an autistic child, I found the sappy heavy-handed emotionalism to be terribly offensive. And the lefty portrayal of Okies was historically false, socialistic blither.)

(The lefty bits were socialist, were they? And were the socialist bits lefty? And maybe the conservative bits were on the right, and the right wing bits conservative?)  

To Burroughs rule “all books are good, except pornography” we have added three more:

All books are good, except the sentimental
All books are good, except those that offend the parents of autistic children
All books are good, except the historically inaccurate
All books are good, except those written from a socialist point of view

But couldn’t an entertaining pulp writer like Burroughs be sentimental, historically inaccurate and left wing? And couldn’t a book be historically accurate, devoid of emotion, full of sound right-wing economic theory but still dull as ditch-water?

You started with the claim “Teachers set children dull books, in order to put them off literature”. Someone asked "Give me an example of one of these dull books.” You replied “Here is an example of a sentimental, historically inaccurate, left-wing book."

J.C Wright never answers the question. J.C Wright never answer the question. 

And anyway...

How can you object to “Of Mice and Men” because you disagree with its politics? That's a moral judgement, from outside the book, that you are using to judge it. If Burroughs was right to say that all matters about a books is that it is entertaining and that it doesn't have any stark naked slave owners copping off with stark naked princesses, that's a non sequitur. But if he wasn't...  Wasn't "bringing political opinions to bear on literature" and "only liking books whose politics you agree with" the besetting sin of the Hugo awards that you so abominate?