Advice, Books, English major, Rant, Reviews

Liking Things That Aren’t Excellent

I’ve just finished reading Haunted by Chuck Palaniuk. It is the second novel of his that I’ve read (the first being Fight Club, which I have complained about before), and definitely my favorite of the two, as it has lead me to the conclusion that I quite like Chuck Palaniuk as a writer. His work isn’t for everybody (Haunted has reportedly made people faint with its incredibly graphic stories, and many people who are already Palaniuk fans won’t touch it–something I did not know when I picked it up), but it is, in my estimation, visually striking* and deeply entertaining, so long as you can stomach the gore.

But even though I quite like Palahniuk, I recognize that his work isn’t exactly groundbreaking. In fact, it’s pretty negative and, occasionally, regressive, and much of its appeal relies on shock value. His books are entertaining but not insightful, and you know what? That’s totally okay. They don’t have to teach me anything for me to like them, and that’s a point that I think many people forget.

The problem with Palahniuk, in my opinion, is that the philosophy behind his writing is overly simplistic and one-dimensional (at least in the two novels I’ve read so far; I reserve the right to change this opinion when I’ve read more of his books). If you’ve seen Fight Club then you already know what I’m talking about; he pretty much continuously harps on the whole “people are intrinsically awful and/or sheep” concept, which is fine if you’re an angsty teenager determined to hate everyone who crosses your path, but it just doesn’t hold up if you pay any attention to reality. In the real world, people are generally well-meaning and considerate, though sometimes misguided, and they all have complex internal lives. They definitely aren’t all secretly murderers, as Palahniuk books would have you believe. His novels are fun, and the sheer violence in them might give you nightmares if you’re into that kind of thing, but in the end they’re about as insightful as See Spot Run. You don’t learn anything about yourself or humanity from a Chuck Palahniuk novel**.

But that doesn’t mean Palahniuk isn’t a worthwhile writer, because he is. I certainly enjoy his work, despite disagreeing vehemently with its basic worldview and premises. You don’t have to endorse the ideas and concepts in a book to enjoy reading it. If you did, no socially-conscious person would be able to read anything written before the 50s, and not much after either, due to the blatant sexism & racism. That means no Lovecraft (seriously that dude is racist as hell), no Doyle (hello, complete lack of female characters, and more blatant sexism), not even any Shakespeare (“Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise; / Awake the snorting citizens with the bell, / Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.” –Othello, though to be fair Iago says this and he’s pretty much intended to be a dick). The ability to filter out bigotry and synthesize conflicting ideas to understand the context of a story–and enjoy it on its own merits–is what literature degrees are all about.

In fact, I would argue, not only is it possible to read and enjoy a text that you disagree with philosophically, but it’s actually necessary. I have made this point before, but it bears repeating: you should be reading things that aren’t meant for you. You should read opinion pieces written by people you disagree with. You should pay attention to media directed at people both younger and older than you. You should seek out perspectives that don’t match yours, be it in gender, race, religion, political philosophy, country of origin, or whatever other dimension you can think of. It’s the only way to make sure you don’t get caught in a feedback loop and become an ideologue, unaware of how crazy you are because everyone you’re willing to talk to agrees with you. Read things you disagree with. Do it often. Challenge your opinions.

Too often, I hear people say that they can tell everything about a person from the books they read, to the point where they feel comfortable rejecting friendships on the basis of what’s on somebody’s bookshelf. There was a whole buzzfeed article about this, which really just serves as further proof that it’s a stupid concept. Owning/liking a book does not mean you agree with every assertion made in it. You can even know a book is bad and still like it. Instead of writing people off as bigots or tasteless morons on the basis of their taste in literature, you would be far better served using the titles you find in their library as a jumping-off point for a conversation.

I should have foreseen that this would turn into a rant. TL,DR; it’s okay to like books that are bad, and reading something does not mean you agree with it. Let’s all think about one another a little more complexly, please.

Judgmentally yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“Find joy in everything you choose to do. Every job, relationship, home… it’s your responsibility to love it, or change it.” -Chuck Palahniuk

*It’s hard for me to read Palahniuk’s novels without lamenting the fact that he isn’t a screenwriter. His stories are intensely visual, but in a way that doesn’t always come out in his prose. His imagery is begging for a silver screen, which is probably why the Fight Club movie was so much better than the book. Of course, making it as a screenwriter is infinitely more complicated than making it as a novelist, and screenwriters have a lot less control over the final product, so his work likely wouldn’t have attracted the kind of audience it has if he were writing movies. Sigh.

**In fact, even Chuck Palahniuk doesn’t hold with the depiction of humanity portrayed in his novels. He’s actually a pretty positive dude, as evidenced in this post’s quote.

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5 thoughts on “Liking Things That Aren’t Excellent”

  1. Wholeheartedly agree (with the general principle — don’t know enough about Chucky P to comment on him specifically. I read “Rant” once, I remember thinking that the first couple chapters were absolute goldmines of exciting ideas, which he then did nothing interesting with for the remainder of the novel). Even in my Master’s seminars there’s a tendency to get so hung up on whether a book is sexist/racist/progressive for its time, whether the writer was a bad person, and so on, that very little attention is devoted to whether a book is fascinating, or beautiful. I can understand WHY, and I enjoy and value those discussions — but I sometimes feel like postmodernity, postcolonialism, feminist theory et al have left us with this nagging suspicion that if a book isn’t completely utopian (or satirically dystopian) throughout, then we ought to disregard every single word of it.

    1. Yeah. Sometimes it seems like people get so excited about the sociological implications of a novel that they forget that it is, at its heart, entertainment. It’s interesting and important to consider those other elements, too, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it on a story level.

      1. Sure — also a novel’s failing in one sociological regard shouldn’t disqualify it from being interesting in another. Woolf being a first-rate snob about servants doesn’t mean her gender politics aren’t laudable, &c.

        1. It’s also annoying when people are like “this story is [racist/sexist/homophobic/other-ist]! Even though it was written in the 1920s, the author should have known better!” Because like…yeah, it would be nice if people could think outside of the cultural construct in which they were raised, but for the most part they can’t. So. Let’s keep that in mind.

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