Monday, September 1, 2008

Ten Ways of Starting a Literary Argument

By Stuart Sharp

Literature and third pint arguments in pubs have a long and distinguished history. Just look at Christopher Marlowe. On the occasions when no one plans on stabbing anyone else, or on sparking impossibly boring arguments about whether Marlowe faked his own death and became Shakespeare, they can even be fun. After all, if people didn’t love a good, lively debate accompanied by a certain amount of alcohol, there wouldn’t be such things as academic conferences, would there? So, to get things going, a few easy ways of starting a suitably bookish argument. Just remember to have a coffee table sized hardback handy, for if things turn nasty.

1- Insult a Favourite Author: This is the easy one, and in a lot of ways the most childish. After all, there’s only so many times you can really go round the ‘…is great! No, they’re rubbish!’ cycle. The beauty of this, of course, is that almost everyone has a favourite author, and almost all favourite authors have flaws. To allow my argumentative inner self to pick on a couple of my own favourites for a moment-

‘Neil Gaiman? He’s too weird, and he mostly writes comics.’

‘All right, so David Gemmell wrote some good stuff, but he mostly wrote the same story over and over again.’

See, it’s easy.

2- Genre Differences: Why settle for insulting someone’s favourite writer when you can go for a whole genre? There’s always something to start an argument over, whether it’s chicklit’s empty-headed lightness, the thriller’s refusal to believe in deep characterisation, or fantasy’s enduring attachment to goblins. The best bit is that, thanks to sub-genres, even if you happen to like the same sort of thing, it’s still possible to start a lively debate on the relative merits of, for example, vampire focussed supernatural romance versus straight ahead urban fantasy.

3- Hardback v Paperback- When in doubt, take things back to basics. Avoid the arguments over story completely by focussing on what the things are printed on. See someone clutching the paperback? Point out that it won’t last five minutes. The hardback? Ask them when they took up the weight training. Of course, these days, the whole debate has been enlivened further by the joys of the e-book, allowing us not just arguments over the merits of the whole idea, but also over which format is best. Be cautious though. It’s only a short step from debating the merits of the Kindle to waking up and realising you’ve become a computer geek. I, for one, would much rather remain a confirmed book geek.

4- The ‘Literature’ Debate: Go on, admit it; you didn’t finish Moby Dick. Or Ulysses. You were too busy reading something enjoyable. But it might be that you know someone who has. Almost certainly, they’re going to be the sort of person who wouldn’t be caught dead reading the latest Jim Butcher novel. Just happen to mention any genre novel you’ve read recently, and they’re almost guaranteed to come back with ‘yes, but it’s not literature is it?’

It’s almost too easy.

5- The Booker List: Really a specialised sub-set of the above. It seems that the world can be divided roughly into two categories. Those who read everything on the Booker short list as soon as humanly possible, and those who see a book there and vow never to even open the cover. There’s no known way to reconcile the two schools of thought, which means there’s all the scope you’ll ever need for an argument. Alternatively, debate who should really have been on the list, why you would have made a much better judge, or why the whole thing is obviously rigged for picking the member of the short list you least wanted to win.

6- Ok, you love the same genres. You love the same authors. You love the same novels by the same authors. But I bet you don’t love the same characters. They’ve developed a crush on the main character, while you’ve secretly re-read all the sections featuring sub-plot character 3B. They think you’re weird for focussing on someone who just isn’t the point of the novel. You think they’re just being obvious. You see, you’re arguing already.

7- References, Allusions, and Minor Eastern European Plays: The last point is, of course, a reference itself, harking back to Terry Pratchett’s complaint in the introduction to Unseen University Challenge that there are some strange people who write to him explaining that they’ve spotted that the phrase “‘please open the window’ has clearly been taken from a Czech play last performed in 1928.” You don’t need to be that thorough. You just need to have spotted something about the book you’re reading that lets you go ‘Of course, you know where it’s all taken from, don’t you’ at the optimally annoying point.

8- What Does it all Mean? Not the universe, obviously, the book you’ve been reading. You’ve got to save yourself something to argue about in the pub tomorrow. Entire English departments have been built on the fact that two perfectly reasonable people can read the same book and decide it means almost completely opposite things. Entire arguments can be built on the fact that the same thing also applies to unreasonably contentious people too. Though actually, you’ll probably find a fair few of those in the English departments. You might see Alice in Wonderland as a deeply meaningful metaphor for growing up. I see it as a bunch of random silliness. You see, we’re debating.

9- Alternate Endings: DVD extras have a lot to answer for. Specifically, they have to answer for the idea that you might take a story you like, and imagine the possibility that it might end in a dozen ways rejected by the author as too unsatisfying, too pat, or simply too much like hard work. You might even decide that they ending you’ve thought of is better than the original, though anyone you mention it to will immediately disagree. Except possibly in the case of Douglas Adams, of whom it can best be said that he wrote some great beginnings and middles. If you don’t believe me, read The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul.

10- The Book or the Film? The book, obviously. Why are we even debating it? Unless it’s the book of the film, in which case it might be acceptable to question how this stuff comes into being. I briefly met someone who would actually become quite violent at the mention of the Harry Potter films. Suffice it to say that it’s a corner of the North East of England I’ll be avoiding from now on.


Anonymous said...

When it comes to the Booker Long or Short list, I am afraid I fall into the category of those who run screaming from the room when faced with this annual Borefest. Over the years I have tried to read those chosen and have managed to read quite a few, though not many, and have either enjoyed them and had to admit it, or hurl them across the room with a cry of relief that my prejudices were being confirmed.

Totally irrational I know but it does make for a great argument as you say

Eva said...

Hehe!! This article made me laugh out loud in my gtad school's library. :D

Carl V. said...

Ah, fantastic! Well done. I think we can all easily admit that we've been in these sort of arguments...or if we are being polite we call them "discussions"...before!!!

They can be incredibly fun in the right group of people, or with the right individual, and can get down right nasty at the drop of a hat! It is amazing how fertile a field for argument the written word is!

J.S. Peyton said...

Oh, this is too true, and hilarious because of it! I've been in a number of these "discussions" myself. Very recently, I very nearly came to blows with someone who was arguing that books are now null n' void, and everyone should just get e-readers. I have a tender spot on that subject and almost gave the person with whom I was arguing a tender spot on the head for it.