Scott had a delightful column over at IHE last week, demonstrating to tyroes like Matt Seligman and Ezra Klein how you really show off your bookish erudition to the world (by affecting, of course not to be at all interested in what the world thinks of your erudition; see further Chris on the cultural politics of ironic gnomes) .
Klein and Seligman seem to share a belief that book ownership can, and indeed should, serve as a medium for displaying something important about yourself. They signify either what you already know or whom you would like to be — and (this is the major point) they do so for someone else. By this logic, bookshelves are a medium of social interaction. … All of which makes perfect sense if and only if you are not a total nerd. Which, all things considered, is a pretty big “if.” A very different set of principles is in effect if you are someone for whom reading itself actually counts as one of the primary forms of social interaction. It’s not that you don’t have “aspirational taste,” of a kind. But the aspiration plays itself out in a very different manner — with different consequences for how your living space is organized.
My experience (which can’t be unique) is that some books end up accumulating out of a misguided attempt to win the approval of authors already well-entrenched on my shelves. A few years back, for example, Slavoj Zizek started to insist that I had to be familiar with the work of Alain Badiou – a French poststructuralist philosopher whose work I had never heard of, let alone read. Well, OK, sure. Thanks to some busy translators, Badiou volumes started crowding in, next to all the Zizek titles.
The online conversation generated by Seligman’s and Klein’s remarks has at times reflected a kind of guilt that no really bookish person would feel. For there are, it seems, people who feel stress about owning volumes they haven’t read. Evidently some of them believe a kind of statute of limitations is in effect. …Likewise for bookshelves. Many items there are staples. Others are ingredients that, like salt, are only good in combination with something else. Some things you keep around are healthy, if not very tasty, while a few might count as junk food. (A couple of scholarly presses are indeed known for their Pop-Tarts.) And it’s hardly a decent pantry if you don’t have a few impulse purchases you later regret, or gourmandizing experiments that didn’t quite pan out. No formal rule can determine what belongs on the shelf and what doesn’t. It is, finally, a matter of taste.
That po-faced (or perhaps given the game in play, I should use the term pince-sans-rire instead) final sentence in particular is a very nicely judged piece of symbolic violence. But it also seems a nice segueway to the trouble that Hilzoy got into at Obsidian Wings the other day when she suggested that
romance novels* (update below the fold) are not “books”, as that word is normally used. They are either tools for relaxation or the female equivalent of porn. They should therefore be compared not to War and Peace, but to either Ultimate Sudoku or the Hustler centerfold. Personally, I think they come out fine in either comparison, but that’s probably because I’m just a dumb woman.
and got walloped in comments for her purported arrant elitism. Without getting into the actual merits of romance novels (I understand that Georgette Heyer, for example, is very good, but have never gotten around to reading her), I think there is an interesting secondary question here. Why is it that romance novels in particular have little cultural capital – that is, why are they more or less valueless as symbolic tokens in the display games that people play with their bookshelves? As a soi-disant ‘cultured’ person, you can get away with shelves full of science fiction or fantasy quite easily now – indeed, they have so little bad-boy chic these days that they’ve become somewhat devalued on the market (those who buy f/sf books these days may, horror of horrors, actually do so because they want to read them). Comic books are better value if you want your bookshelves to give off that slight whiff of transgressivity. But romance novels, for some reason, are still de trop. Indeed, their presence on your bookshelves suggests that you’re guilty of active bad taste. Tellingly, in his not-very-good Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson has his cliched hipper-than-thou female po-mo academic meet her final downfall when her ex discovers that she has been hoarding romance paperbacks in the basement.
Romance novels aren’t quite at the bottom layer of the hierarchy of culture – that place is surely reserved for detective novels in which the cat solves the mystery. But they’re not too far up from there. This can’t be because they’re formulaic; plenty of formulaic novels have high cultural value. P.G. Wodehouse, indeed is positively respectable. Nor can it be because they’re simply bad – there are surely many good authors of romance novels, just as there are of other genres. There has to be some other reason. What is it?
Update: True synchronicity – as soon as I finish writing the post, I click over via Brad DeLong to Clive Crook’s blog where he argues that :
Obama, he suggests, is the Barbara Cartland of American politics. (I have to wonder how many people have been inspired by Barbara Cartland, but let that pass.) Gideon’s tastes are more refined than that—as are mine, needless to say. But Obama’s speeches impress a surprisingly wide demographic, if this point is correct. In fact, Obama seems especially liked by the kind of metropolitan intellectuals who share Gideon’s and my disdain for brainless romantic fiction. Something about him, whatever it is, clicks with poor urban blacks and with Harvard academics.
Update 2: and Matt Yglesias opines immediately afterwards on how readers of Tom Clancy spin-offs can’t hold their heads up high. Must be someone put something in the DC water supply this morning …