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Criticizing books you haven’t read

We have encountered Jonathan Jones previously on this blog. We suspected then that he was in the business of controversy, not criticism.

He’s reached a new low in the Guardian this week. Apparently, he knows that Terry Pratchett is not a literary genius, even though he’s never read any of Pratchett’s books.

According to Jones A middlebrow cult of the popular is holding literature to ransom. God forbid that literature should ever be popular. This resembles not criticism, but the kind of guff put out by NME journalists in the 80s, adamant that we should all be listening to whatever obscure album they’d found in the back of an old record store in Notting Hill rather than music you actually wanted to dance to.

This is not a new theme of course. There’s a splendid Orwell essay called Good Bad Books which buries the pretensions of the likes of Jones ruthlessly, and is ripe with well honed phrases that rebut Jones even though he probably hadn’t been born when Orwell sat at his typewriter. My favourite is there is such a thing as sheer skill, or native grace, which may have more survival value than erudition or intellectual power.

At heart Pratchett is a skillful writer. His prose may appear flat to Jones, skimming the book while standing in Waterstone’s rather than reading it properly, because Pratchett eschews poetic phrasing and flowery language to allow space for the fantastic inventiveness of his narratives. Those fantastic narratives (I’m using fantastic in its original sense, not as hyperbole) in turn leave space for characters to develop and grow, unconstrained by mundane reality and yet thoroughly ordinary and acutely observed.

Jonathan Jones doesn’t get this, because he hasn’t read the books. Now, think about the decline of the modern press, that an editor will allow one of his critics, a man who regards himself as an authentic touchstone of what is good about art, a diviner of taste, to say he knows that something is good or bad without actually reading it.

When I wrote about the couple in Newbiggin I suspected that Jones had never actually been to Newbiggin, that he’d only ever seen pictures of The Couple, and that he’d not actually experienced the work in its setting. That’s why I wrote about my experience of the work in its setting, to make that point. Now we have Jones, diviner of taste, admitting that he can judge something he’s never read.

In the Lovejoy novels by Jonathan Gash, which fit perfectly Orwell’s definition of good bad books, the eponymous hero is capable of telling, by some inner sense that he cannot explain, that one piece is a genuine antique, and another not. Gash was writing some time before we all knew the story of the Getty kouros, of course, and such expertise is the topic of much writing by the likes of Malcom Gladwell and Daniel Kahneman, and much controversy. In the parlance of his trade, Lovejoy is not a diviner, but a divvy. Apparently, the Guardian’s editor thought it a good idea to allow Jonathan Jones to claim that he, too is a divvy of books, a man who knows without reading that a book is good, or bad, or inadequate or brilliant.

With editors like that Jonathan Jones doesn’t need enemies. To paraphrase Orwell in another essay about book reviewing, Jones is condemned to a life inventing reactions to things about which he has no spontaneous feelings at all. And so the old hackneyed phrases leap to life, like iron filings drawn by a magnet,and Jones sets out his manifesto, that literature is a canon of work curated and policed by an intellectual elite who will sneer at anything that they choose to exclude. That elitism would by definition exclude Pratchett, the jobbing journalist who got his education at technical college and learned his trade not at the feet of masters but by practice and repetition.

Jonathan Jones, in setting out his manifesto, that he can know without experiencing makes and rebuts the case for elitism, the cult of the highbrow, perfectly. If he were a satirist, his article would be a work of genius. SInce we have to assume he’s actually serious, we can only pity him and his pretensions.

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5 comments on “Criticizing books you haven’t read

  1. Alex
    September 2, 2015

    I wonder why the Guardian is criticising a hugely successful, tallented, recently dead, self-trained novellist.

    http://www.theguardian.com/guardian-masterclasses?INTCMP=NGW_FOOTER_UK_GU_MASTERCLASSES

    I haven’t bought this comic for over 10 years. I do click on the odd bit of clickbait for the comments; the Guardian has a far better readership than it deserves. So thanks for that link, it did not dissapoint.

    IMO it is the Guardian, not Jonathan Jones who has reached a new low. Jones after all is just a jobbing hack who churns out whatever drivel he thinks will sell. I am reluctant to criticise anyone who is managing to make a living from writing in the 21st century no matter how talentless they are.

    Don’t you agree the blame for this article must lie with the Guardian for not spiking Jones?

    And thanks for the Orwell link. Still relevant after all these years.

    Like

    • jemima2013
      September 2, 2015

      I was saying this to Carter this morning, about the Guardian becoming a waterdown parody of the great paper it once was, i think they didnt spike him cos its pretty balatant clickbait, and all they care about is hits, the daily mail for the metropolitan intelliegnsia

      Like

    • cartertheblogger
      September 2, 2015

      Alex, as I said, with editors like the Guardian’s, Jonathan Jones doesn’t need enemies. I sympathize with him as a jobbing hack, since I am, in my trade, a bit of a hack as well. However, there has to come a point where you either give up in disgust or accept that that’s all you’ve become and try not to throw your weight around.

      Like

  2. Not a Nun (@elrondmiddleeng)
    September 2, 2015

    How can anyone critise Terry Prattchet that way. He provided enjoyable writing, with funny stories. They kept me amused for many a lonerly night.

    What better books to get adolescents interested in reading as well. Back in the dark days before social media, my daughter used to read the Terry Prattchet news group. She became an avid reader because of these books.

    Like

    • jemima2013
      September 5, 2015

      And i am sure she is not alone in that

      Like

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This entry was posted on September 2, 2015 by in Uncategorized.

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