Dispatches | June 08, 2011

Jason Boog wondered aloud recently, in an article on Galleycat, which was linked to by the good people at The Book Bench, if perhaps literature professors are or should be obligated to read the books they hold up as examples of bad literature without first reading them.  The specific book, or series, in question was Twilight – a fact that is, in itself, interesting to me, and not only because I was first introduced to the existence of Twilight some years ago by a student who held it up in class and described it as I listened and thought to myself how different it was from what we were reading, which was “Once More to the Lake.”  It seems to me that Twilight‘s author now occupies the same space in our minds once occupied by Stephen King, who seems to have moved on to appear much more literary, though I suppose there is enough room in that space for at least two writers of lucrative horror novels, plus Anne Rice.

But what interests me most is the question posed on Galleycat, that question of whether English professors should read the books they know, without reading them, are not equal to the Ulysseses, the Diving into the Wrecks, and the Fire Next Times.  And in my heart I feel the answer to it is plain.  Of course professors don’t have to read the books they hold up as examples of bad books.  We have to have those books, the bad books we never read; half the reason certain books exist is so that certain people can refuse to ever look at them.  It is one way to compensate for their authors’ enormous success.

Still, as someone who is fortunate enough to teach creative nonfiction workshops, I have felt this pull toward certain books that are pertinent to the genre I teach but which I pointedly haven’t read and likely never will.  At the top of the list are two books so obvious I perhaps need not name them:  A Million Little Pieces and Eat, Pray, Love.  The first is, as I understand it, a profane mockery of the genre I teach; the second is a document produced in the name of a kind of self-indulgence that does not in any way appeal to me.  I could be completely wrong in my estimation of these books, but I’ll likely never see for myself.  I’m not even certain Eat, Pray, Love has commas in the title, but I refuse to look it up; that’s how much I don’t care about it.

But despite that disregard – or because of it – I told myself at the start of the summer that I would read both books before September hits.  Of course I’m not going to do that – I could spend all those hours reading Shelley, which I also won’t do – but I cannot deny the magnetism of those books, and others like them, whose authors were so successful at identifying an appetite in the literate fraction of the public, and did so well at feeding it in their own strange ways.  Much of that magnetism is due to the fact that these books are talked about constantly, much more frequently than anything by Joan Didion or Richard Rodriguez.  I often find myself a part of conversations on two of the most popular books in the genre I call home, but unable to say anything about them.  It is tempting to remedy this, but perhaps not tempting enough.

There’s great pleasure to be had in reading bad books, or just talking about them without reading them.  Orwell referred often to some of them as “good bad books” – titles we know will not make us feel like monastic devotees to literature when we read them, but which have something going for them despite that.  The same goes for bad bad books.  But I imagine most literary types already read more of this sort of thing than they do the literature they/we value more highly; it merely takes the form of the Internet, which is like one gigantic good bad book, or an endless magazine of usually questionable worth with lots of space for advertising.

One thing about this continues to puzzle me.  Whom would the poets consider to be analogous to someone like Stephenie Meyer?  Billy Collins?  Greeting card writers?  Who are the authors you refuse to read but feel, somewhere inside, that you ought to?

Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.