Monday, March 02, 2020

Culture as class performance

From Normal People, by Sally Rooney.

On readings:
A couple of weeks ago Connell attended a reading by a writer who was visiting the college. He sat at the back of the lecture hall on his own, self-conscious because the reading was sparsely attended and everyone else was sitting in groups. It was one of the big windowless halls in the Arts Block, with fold-out tables attached to the seats. One of his lecturers gave a short and sycophantic overview of the writer's work, and then the man himself, a youngish guy around thirty, stood at the lectern and thanked the college for the invitation. By then Connell regretted his decision to attend. Everything about the event was staid and formulaic, sapped of energy. He didn't know why he had come. He had read the writer's collection and found it uneven, but sensitive in places, perceptive. Now, he thought, even that effect was spoiled by seeing the writer in this environment, hemmed off from anything spontaneous, reciting aloud from his own book to an audience who'd already read it. The stiffness of this performance made the observations in the book seem false, separating the writer from the people he wrote about, as if he'd observed them only for the benefit of talking about them to Trinity students. Connell couldn't think of any reason why these literary events took place, what they contributed to anything, what they meant. They were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.
And later, at the pub:
Connell's initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything.
See also The cult of Sally Rooney.

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