[25 September 2006]
Housekeeping vs. The Dirt is the sequel to The Polysyllabic Spree (2004), which was the first collection of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column from the McSweeney’s-affiliated literary magazine, The Believer. The Polysyllabic Spree collated the first 14 monthly columns; Housekeeping vs. The Dirt contains the next 14, from February 2005 to June 2006. The author, best known for his novels High Fidelity (1995) and About a Boy (1998), has been a busy lad. His novel How to be Good came out in 2002, and a new novel, A Long Way Down was published last year. Some authors experience mid-career writers’ block; Hornby, on the other hand, doesn’t seem able to stop.
In his column, Hornby lists the books he’s bought during that month, and contrasts this with a list of those he actually read, which may or may not contain the same titles. As anyone familiar with his work might expect, Hornby’s columns are lively, frank, and fluent, always personal, and often tongue-in-cheek. The book will doubtless do very well—Hornby has a lot of fans—although it’s not clear who’ll buy it, since Believer readers will already have copies of the columns. Perhaps it will appeal to fans of Hornby’s novels, or to Believer readers who want a bound version of the columns for themselves, or as gifts for friends. Maybe it’s aimed at people who occasionally pick up The Believer, who liked what they read of Hornby’s columns, and who want to read more.
The point of a regular column is that the columnist has a voice that is familiar and recognizable, matches the tone of the publication, and assumes certain things about its readership. The problem for people like me, who’ve never read The Believer, is that Hornby’s columns seem awfully cliquey and clannish, as with the running joke (that quickly wears thin) about The Polysyllabic Spree which, the author explains, is a reference to the numerous “white-robed literary maniacs who run this magazine.” Their one rule, apparently, is that no author can say anything critical about another author’s work. As a result, Hornby decides to read only those books he knows he’s going to enjoy, and if he doesn’t enjoy a book, he won’t mention its title. The unanticipated result is to make him seem totally undiscriminating, the kind of Pollyanna-ish book-lover who finds something rewarding and uplifting in everything he comes across.
Even more off-putting is the regular back-slapping and name-dropping; in every column, it seems, Hornby dishes out praise for new works by McSweeney’s writers like Sarah Vowell, Seth Mnookin, Sean Wilsey, Melissa Bank, and Joshua Ferris. He also reviews a children’s book written by his sister, and regularly mentions the work of his brother-in-law (are we supposed to know who he is? Was the Hornby family tree published in an early issue of The Believer?). Almost despite himself, the author seems compelled to refer to readings he’s given, book tours he’s back from, parties he’s been to, people he knows. At the same time, he tries to put himself across as an ordinary bloke, nobody special, worried that he’s “unworthy of the space in a publication as smart as The Believer,” full of faux-naif anxieties that his “American readers” might not understand his English sensibility (doesn’t he know—we’re all the same these days?).
This clannishness won’t be a problem for fans of The Believer, but there’s a more serious problem with Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. While monthly columns may be lively additions to a literary magazine, put them all together and you end up with ... well, a messy collection of individual columns, rather than a coherent book, with a clear shape, sound structure, and consistent tone. The columns may work one by one, but when you put them all together, you can’t help but see the joins.
I think the main problem is one of tone. Hornby seems unable to decide if this is a serious book about reading, or a light-hearted diary for his friends and fans, to be taken with a pinch of salt. His strongly worded introduction certainly seems to be dead serious; here, he explains that his approach to reading is unambiguously democratic. Writing, too, he believes, should be as straightforward as possible. “I am not particularly interested in language,” he says. “I spend many hours each day trying to ensure that my prose is as simple as it can possibly be.” He has no time for “clever-dick journalists” who insist “unless we’re reading something proper, then we might as well not bother at all.” Reading, he claims, should be entertaining, should be fun: he’s got no time for books that involve a struggle. In fact, he thinks people these days are reading less because they’re under the misapprehension that, for reading to be rewarding, it has to be hard work.
I don’t actually think it’s true that people are reading less than they used to—I think they’re reading in different, less familiar ways. In fact, I think people spend more time reading than ever before, it’s just that they might be sitting in front of a computer screen in a busy office rather than curled up quietly with a book in their lap. More to the point, Hornby seems to assume that those not reading books are succumbing to mental atrophy, and it’s only readers of books who are constantly in the process of gathering fresh experience and new knowledge.
In order to encourage people to read, Hornby emphasizes that you should read whatever you want, whatever absorbs you, without fear of prejudice and ridicule. He’s very serious about this. But when it comes to discussing individual books, or when he sees the chance to be funny, he doesn’t hesitate to contradict himself.
A good example is the book’s title, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. Housekeeping refers to the novel by Marilynne Robinson, which, despite his belief in transparent language, Hornby praises for its “neo-Old Testament prose”, adding “I have always prized the accessible over the obscure, but after reading Housekeeping I can see that in some ways the easy, accessible novel is working at a disadvantage” (he really never had this thought before now?). Similarly, after reading Robinson’s Gilead, he says: “This column has frequently suggested that a novel without forward momentum isn’t really worth bothering about, but that theory, like so many others, turned out not to be worth the (admittedly very expensive) paper it was printed on”.
Hornby believes that “high” and “low” culture shouldn’t be seen as polarities—but, in opposition to Housekeeping, he presents us with The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, a Motley Crue biography that, as Hornby takes great pains to point out, his good friend Erin bought for him, for no reason he can discern. Although he mocks those who make sneery comments about popularity being “the litmus test of aesthetic achievement”, he goes to great lengths (albeit always tongue-in-cheek) to distance himself from The Dirt, which, no doubt, will appeal to many more readers than Housekeeping. The Dirt‘s author, Neil Strauss, “one suspects, has class,” ventures Hornby—and all because Strauss chooses a quote from a “proper” author, Wilkie Collins, as the books epigraph. “I’m guessing that this wasn’t Tommy Lee’s idea”, adds Hornby. Ouch. The great populist has clearly been too busy reading Candide to catch VH1’s Tommy Lee Goes to College.
While reading John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts?, Hornby becomes “increasingly amazed at the muddle that apparently intelligent people have got themselves into” when they attempt to define the relative importance of “high” and “low” culture. Hornby himself makes for a perfect Exhibit A.