Saturday, August 04, 2007

In praise of literature

Of late there have been some particularly shrill trolls around the traps banging on about what a waste of time literature is and how it's all bullsh*t and what a bunch of wankers blah luvvies blah latte blah chardonnay blah blah blah.

Now, one does not usually allow oneself to engage with or be annoyed by trolls, except for the occasional brief passing swipe of a paw, but for some reason it's been more than usually wearing lately. So by way of correction, here -- old news in terms of the event itself, but always worth reading and thinking about again -- is a particularly lovely and pertinent bit from the absolute cracker of an opening speech that the lovely Scottish writer Andrew O'Hagan gave at the Sydney Writers Festival a few months back. (Convolutedly via Matilda.)

'Literature may be entertaining and it may be diverting but its role in a civilised world is neither for distraction nor diversion, but for engagement: every day is Sorry Day in the world of literature and every day is Humanity Day and Contemplation Day and Tolerance Day and Get Your Finger Out of Your Arse Day. Let the word go out. Literature is not Lifestyle – it is Life. It is the news that stays news.'


Cellobella said...

Thank you for this post. And Hoorah!

Jaycee said...


JahTeh said...

I'd put war and politics in the bullshit category and literature in the pleasure.

elsewhere said...

Hmm, that lovely Scottish accent helped, I'm sure.

I was sitting next to an LA writer and producer at breakfast today. She's just written a nonfiction MS which she hopes to publish. At the same time, she's working on an interactive TV site (with a name like 'It's Mine') that'll produce programs that women can download onto their IPODs, Blackberries, etc. 'It's all about the death of the book,' she said. 'I might as well be part of it.'

Matthew da Silva said...

Not wishing to irritate you or your readers further, I just thought this might show how relevant the point is:

In it, John Thorpe, the NSW president of the Australian Hotels Association, says that "We aren't barbarians, but we don't want to sit in a hole and drink chardonnay and read a book."


Mindy said...

I'll pass on the chardonnay, but I'd be very happy sitting in a hole reading a book. Sounds lovely and peaceful to me.

suszoz said...

Andrew O'Hagan's recent long article on rubbish in the LRB has stayed in my mind for months. (Although it's not 'literature', strictly speaking, I wanted to praise it too.)

TimT said...

I must have missed that debate, but the link by Matthew is hilarious. I especially enjoyed this bit:

Sydneysiders - fit, outdoorsy types who enjoy the fresh air - are more likely to want alfresco drinking, dining and dancing, he says.

"There's a lot more entertainment than sitting there chatting. I think our culture is a little different than Melbourne because they haven't got this magnificent harbour and the Opera House. No wonder they want to sit in a hole in the wall," he said.

I dunno about the chardonnay. We're more of a latte set these days...

Anthony said...

Will follow the link. I've just finished reading O'Hagan's Be Near Me.

In an interview Antoni Jach recently related how a senior Australian literary figure took him aside and said he will never be a success in Australia because most Australians read books in bed and read them to send them asleep, whereas he wrote books to stimulate people rather than send them to sleep.

Well, I read Be Near Me in bed hearing the waves of the ocean crash on the beach at Byron Bay, but when I went to sleep, what dreams I had! It was a book that got under the skin.

By the way, my partner was reading the Latham Diaries, so god knows what her dreams/nightmares were.

(I supppose it might be the nightmare that MUP will devote more of its resources to books like Conga Line of Suckholes while decent academic and literary manuscripts struggle to find a publisher ... oh, hang on, that's not a dream...)

Perry Middlemiss said...

So I'm convoluted now? Sounds fair.

melaleuca said...


But the real issue if whether the literary community should be helping itself to the coins in my pocket.

fifi said...


It is literature, and writers, and artists, who have articulated ways for me, to negotiate my way
through my convoluted and strange little life,

and I could not exist without that.

I am from Sydney, and when I read that ridiculous tripe by John thorpe, I felt sick.

Sydney needs to get more like melbourne. the more the better!

Pavlov's Cat said...

Perry -- no, no, the via was convoluted. You are never convoluted.

El -- yes, I would have given a lot to hear him say 'Get Your Finger Out of Your Arse Day' in a Scottish accent.

Fifi, no, no, Sydney is beautiful and must not change. Besides, I know lots of writers in Sydney and they are all properly civilised and cerebral. It's just a beat-up.

fifi said...

ok, just a few things I would change...

I seem to be immersed more often in the John Thorpe dimension at the moment rather than that of the cerebral and civilised writerly types.

And there were two enormous naval frigates prowling my end of the ocean this morning, practising for APEC duty no doubt.

lucy tartan said...

How exquisitely appropriate that the man's name is John Thorpe:

"Have you ever read Udolpho, Mr. Thorpe?"

"Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do."

Catherine, humbled and ashamed, was going to apologize for her question, but he prevented her by saying, "Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones, except The Monk; I read that t'other day; but as for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation."

"I think you must like Udolpho, if you were to read it; it is so very interesting."

"Not I, faith! No, if I read any, it shall be Mrs. Radcliff's; her novels are amusing enough; they are worth reading; some fun and nature in them."

"Udolpho was written by Mrs. Radcliff," said Catherine, with som ehesitiation, for fear of mortifying him.

Mark Lawrence said...

Ooh, yes, yes. And where can I buy this one: 'Get Your Finger Out of Your Arse Day'?