Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Opinions of a Nobody

In the first week of September every year, the first question in the first English lesson of the year was always, "What did you read over the Summer?"

I dreaded that lesson, and that question. I wasn't a great reader. In fact I didn't consider myself a 'reader' at all. I'd bought into the myth that some reading 'counted' and some didn't. The fantasy stuff some of my friends read, the worthy drivel we were supposed to read for homework, the old, dusty books my sisters read - that all 'counted'. Not my cricket books and film magazines. I never considered it any other way.

When I was 13 I made an effort and actually picked up one of the books my parents were constantly pouring into my bedroom. I think my sister had casually said I might like it and I trusted her judgement. I was right to. I don't remember much about the book, except that I finished it. It was Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith.

So I was ready for that question. My English teacher asked me, as expected, and, trying to hide my pride, I told her. Straight away, she said:

"Can't you read a proper book?"

My reaction was to not read another novel for about 4 years. Why bother? I'd been judged. I'd been shamed. I had better things to do than open myself up to that. I'd tried what I thought was 'proper' reading - reading that 'counted' - and I'd failed at it.

This week this article popped up:

The gist is: "I've never read any Terry Pratchett and I don't plan to. He was a mediocre author, at best, and there's something wrong with our culture when we celebrate his work above the writing of, say, Marquez, or any true literary genius."

I hope the journalist, Jonathan Jones, doesn't mind me nutshelling his piece like that. I've tried to sum it up fairly. Do click on it and read the whole thing for yourself if you want to.

I've never read any Terry Pratchett either. When I was a teenager his books didn't look like my cup of tea because I thought the covers looked silly. (Also because the books looked like, well, books, and, as you know, I'd sworn off those things, thanks to my English teacher.)

Since then I've been told by trusted tastemakers to ignore the silly covers and give Pratchett a go. So I'm planning to, and looking forward to it.

But I don't really want to talk about Terry Pratchett, whose books might be amazing or might be awful or might be both, depending on who you ask. I don't even want to talk about what an enormity it is to bite chunks off an author whose books you haven't read.

I just want to offer my story as a warning of what can happen when you unthinkingly hurl judgement at someone else's reading choices. Especially a child's reading choices. Especially a boy's reading choices.

I see it happen all the time. Kids who would never consider themselves 'readers' find a Wimpy Kid book, a Horrid Henry book, a comic book, a graphic novel, an instruction manual, a book by David Walliams or a footballer. Or they might even discover one of my books. And that's what gets them reading. But they get judged.

"Can't you read a proper book?" comes in many forms. Watch out for it.

The fact that I remember that moment in my English lesson so clearly, when I've forgotten every other moment in every other English lesson, tells me something. I think it might even be part of why I write. In particular, why I write books like the Jimmy Coates series. They don't have high literary aspirations. They exist to entertain. To get someone reading - perhaps someone who wouldn't otherwise be reading, who wouldn't read anything else, perhaps at all, perhaps ever.

For a broader response to the article I can't do better than to point you towards the tweets of @Leilah_makes.

She's among the best booksellers in the country, working tirelessly to get books under the eyes of everybody who passes her way. (Her 'way', and it's worth a trip, is the Doncaster branch of Waterstones. Pop in and she'll sort you out with a book to suit you. She's the kind of bookseller that bookshops can't do without, and who reminds you why we can't do without bookshops.)

Across 7 tweets, Leilah said:

1) It may not be your cup of tea, but dissing someone's work publicly (especially when you've not read it) makes you look like a tit.

2) Reading is reading. Simple. If you love books, be for reading. Snobbery is the poison that makes people not want to even dip in a toe.
3) When you judge someone for what they enjoy, and how they enjoy it, you are a shamer. If it's legal, let it be.
4) FUN FACT, book snobs: It's not your 'cultured classics' that sustain bricks and mortar bookshops. It's the EL James' of this world.
5) I don't want to have to reassure another customer that they don't have to justify their reading choices at the counter.
6) Sometimes you want a gourmet meal. Sometimes you want a greasy take-out. There are infinite pleasures in both, you know?
7) Read whatever you like, however you like. Though if you accidentally read ridiculous articles, balance it with a bookshop purchase.

Not much I can add to that. I'll finish with the best response to criticism I read this week:

"If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

This September, if you see someone reading a book you don't like, or you think is beneath you, or you haven't even read but you're pretty sure is beneath you...

...don't cut down some kid's peach tree.

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