Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why I Like What I Like

I wrote this on facebook:
I'm trying to figure out why I like the movies and books I like. Maybe I will wander over to my blog and write until something makes sense. The simplest answer is a lifetime of reading science fiction and fantasy has twisted my mind.
I can't remember when I read various books or why. But I can remember (mostly) what I've read. So I'm going to discuss my reading in relation to the history of literature, especially English literature. My reading has been pretty similar to the reading of any literate English speaker, till we come to the later 19th century, though I have a couple of quirks. As a kid, I read more East Asian literature in translation than was typical, because my mother had grown up in China, and there were a lot of translations from the Chinese in the house. And I read a lot of Old Norse literature in translation, because my father was Icelandic descent, and this was our literature. And I had a bias toward myths, fables, fairy tales, folk tales and any kind of fantastic fiction.

I read Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Pilgrim's Progress, Boswell and Johnson, Fielding, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Twain, Melville. Partly, this was because I was an English major until my senior year. But I also read a lot on my own. My parents had a house full of good books.

But I have not mostly read the High Modernist or 20th century classics, except for the books I read for school. Once we reach the fiction of the the late 19th century, the period when popular fiction emerged as a clearly separate genre with its own audience, I shifted to reading popular fiction.

Kipling, Wells, Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, the wonderful Arsene Lupin stories, Zane Gray, Max Brand, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, a zillion other crime novels, Georgette Heyer romances, science fiction, comic books...

Though I do like 20th century literature that is fantastic: Borges, Calvino, Marquez, Allende, Angelica Gorodischer...

Genuinely popular poetry did not exist in 20th century North America, with a few exceptions, such as Robert Service and archie and mehitabel and -- this was the big exception -- the lyrics of popular songs. Lacking popular verse, I kept reading literary poetry, along with the Child collection of English and Scottish ballads and and the Sharp collection of ballads from the American southern mountains. In the late 60s I became interested in the English poets who modeled their poetry on rock lyrics.

As far as I know, literary fiction and popular fiction came into existence as categories at the same time and in opposition to one another. Earlier books -- the novels of Dickens, for example -- were read by everyone at the time they were published. They became high art later, to be read in school and by people seriously interested in literature.

As a kid, I read what I liked. Sometime in college, I began to have a political analysis. But I don't know how important it was. In the end, I always read what I liked. And what I liked tended to be popular, rather than high art.

Why? A good question.


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