imomus (imomus) wrote,

Crap is a load of books

1. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951

2. Don't read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

Philip Larkin, A Study Of Reading Habits, 1955

3. You can read lives and obituaries of Salinger and all that Wikipedia crap elsewhere; I'm interested in the word "crap". It sits like a sprung trap right there in the first sentence of The Catcher in the Rye, the first word that really establishes the tone, the snare that catches our attention. If, in the glib formula, Salinger really did "invent the teenager", it's that surly, dismissive, deliberately anti-literary use of "crap" which starts the process. Like Prometheus making a man out of mud, Salinger creates the teenager from "crap".

4. So the teenager gets born with a jibe at poor old Charles Dickens, and poor young David Copperfield! It's understandable; by 1951 it was as important for a new writer to distance himself from the 19th century novel as it was for a teenager to distance himself from a pre-teen, or for an American writer to distance himself from a British one.

5. No reciprocal need was felt. British writers, post-war, weren't as interested in rejecting American idioms and models as the Americans were in rejecting theirs. In fact, British and American writers were more likely to find common cause in their embrace of a new informality, a new escape from the "fusty" literary past, and a couple of swift kicks at the dead shin of Dickens.

6. And so -- not for the first or last time -- a British artist makes the exact same gesture as an American one, a couple of years later. Larkin -- like Salinger, adopting, as a literary technique, a non-literary voice and a persona -- tells us that "books are a load of crap". Later, also following Salinger (who has Holden report some "fuck you" graffiti in chapter 25 of Catcher), Larkin will unfurl his own f-word, telling us that "they fuck you up, your mum and dad".

7. They seem unlikely rebels, the preppy Jewish recluse from New England and the bald Hull librarian. They bring swearing into literature almost against their will; Larkin tells John Betjeman, in the 1964 BBC Monitor documentary that peppers this page: "I read that I'm a miserable sort of fellow writing a sort of Welfare State sub-poetry, doing it well, perhaps, but it isn't really what poetry is, and it isn't really the sort of poetry we want. But I wonder if it ever occurs to the writer of criticism like that that really one agrees with them. That what one writes is based so much on the kind of person one is, and the kind of environment one's had, and has now, that one doesn't really choose the poetry one writes, one writes the kind of poetry one has to write."

8. In other words, these were not radical writers who loved swearing and could sing the praises of what Ken Tynan (the first man to use it on TV) called "the sweet word fuck". They were rather cautious conservatives with strong misgivings about the modern world, but men who nevertheless believed so strongly in literature's empirical duty to reflect reality that they had no choice but to use in literature the sweary words that people use on the streets.

9. The shock for readers wasn't so much in encountering words like "crap" and "fuck" as seeing them printed on a page published by a reputable and legitimate publishing house. The sword cut both ways: literature got some street cred, but swearing also received a literary blessing of sorts.

10. And with that mutually-beneficial exchange the whole game began to shift, and the values to invert. When I read The Catcher in the Rye in the 1970s it was already a literary antique, its street slang ("crumby", "phoney", "lousy") faintly quaint. The cutting edge quickly became more recent, more radical American authors like Kathy Acker. Far from disparaging Dickens, Kathy Acker sat down and rewrote Great Expectations, appropriating him word-for-word in a section headed "Plagiarism" then quickly branching out into her own tale.

11. In Acker's version of Great Expectations, published in 1982, "literary" and "street" reach a new settlement. You could say that Acker skips the 1950s empirical-street-literary model and goes back to the biggest, baddest European rebel writer of the 1940s, Jean Genet.

12. And this is where I have to chime in and say that I'm with Acker and Genet, rather than Salinger and Larkin. In a world in which informal has become the new formal, jeans and rock are the universal signifiers of normative respectability, couture kowtows to pret and the street is the new salon, the "subversive" thing to do is to resurrect and re-invent the maligned category of "the literary". My Book of Jokes (which has a chapter featuring the characters from Genet's play The Blacks) adopts -- as Genet did -- a deliberately high-flown literary tone all the better to contrast the obscenities and street smut it trades in.

13. As for Dickens and his "David Copperfield crap", I'm interested in getting closer to it. Dickens is actually a key part of the "signature specification" for my next novel, codenamed Super-Empathy.

14. The informal, empirical "street" tradition isn't dead, though. Writers can still shock us by putting clumsy everyday things into published books. Since the new street is the internet, the author currently doing this most shockingly -- and best -- is Tao Lin, who filled Shoplifting from American Apparel with apparently-inconsequential Google Chats. If you want today's J.D. Salinger, look no further.

15. Have a listen to Chris Harrald's radio play Mr Larkin's Awkward Day on BBC iPlayer. It isn't crap.
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