Literary Taste: How To Find It In The 21st Century (After Bennett)

2014 Artwork Literary Taste Article Sketch

Late last month, I was randomly surfing the internet and I found this fascinating old novella-length essay from 1909 called “Literary Taste: How To Form It” By Arnold Bennett on Project Gutenburg. Seriously, even if you don’t agree with everything he says, you should read it.

If you can get over Bennett’s slightly old-fashioned writing style (which I personally quite enjoyed), there’s actually tons of interesting stuff in there – Bennett is a literature geek who, like all geeks, talks enthusiastically and in depth about the thing he loves.

Not only that, Bennett also gives us whole bunch of completely timeless insights about the value and purpose of literature too (and it’s very telling that, even in 1909, people didn’t like how Shakespeare was taught in schools LOL!).

He also makes a really interesting argument that all literature is connected and, like clicking on the links in a website you love, you should look for similar and related books after you’ve finished a book that you like. In addition to this, he suggests buying as many books as you can get your hands on too (*sigh* he’s a man after my own heart).

Seriously, as old as it is, this essay is an absolute joy to read.

But, saying all of this, he has a rather narrow idea of what literature is and what it “should” be. He dislikes stories that push people to an excess of emotion (eg: fun stories) and he’s slightly cynical about most modern literature (kind of like how I’m slightly cynical about most modern computer games).

In Bennett’s view, “literature” should consist of old books which a select cabal of literature geeks and critics throughout the ages have venerated and – if you don’t like these books – then it’s your problem and you should damn well learn to like them!

So, because of these flaws, I thought that I’d provide list of my own ideas and advice about how to develop cool literary taste.

1) Follow your geekiness: If you’re a subscriber to the sci-fi channel and regularly go to “Star Trek” conventions, then try reading some scif-fi novels. If you play MMORPGs and “Magic: The Gathering” obsessively, then try reading some fantasy fiction. If you watch programs like “CSI” obsessively, then try reading some detective fiction.

If you love action movies, then try reading thriller novels. If you (how can I put this politely?) enjoy or have enjoyed visiting the “adults only” parts of the internet, then try reading some erotic fiction. If you like watching gory horror movies, then try reading some classic splatterpunk fiction from the 1970s-90s. I’m sure you get the idea….

The fact is that there are 6-7 billion people on this planet and we’re all unique. So, like with everything, there’s no “one size fits all” idea of what literary taste should be.

Although this goes completely against everything that Bennett says in his essay, you should develop your tastes based on what interests you and you alone. I can almost promise you that there will be other people out there who will share your tastes too, so you won’t exactly be walking a lonely path (unless, like me, you enjoy solitude).

Trust me, if you try to fit yourself into someone else’s ideas of what you “should” read/believe/look like etc… then this will bring you nothing but fear, hollowness, existential despair and misery. So, be true to yourself when you’re developing your literary taste.

2) Know your history: In Bennett’s essay, he talks a lot about how important it is to read old books from the 19th century (and earlier). Whilst this might seem slightly snobbish and pretentious to modern readers, what you have to remember is that – at the time Bennett was writing – the 19th century was as recent to him as the 20th century is to us.

So, what I’m trying to say here is that, when you’ve found the type of literature that you enjoy, look for famous older examples of it from the 1920s-1990s. Each genre had it’s own “golden age” in the 20th century, so it might be worth doing some background research to see which decades you should focus on.

For example, science fiction was at it’s best in the 1950s-80s and horror fiction was at it’s best in the 1970s-90s. However, some genres are pretty much timeless and you can find lots of great examples of them in every decade of the 20th century (detective fiction would probably be good example of this type of genre).

The reason why you should read these “old” books from the 20th century is because many of them have influenced and inspired modern books in your favourite genre. Not only that, it gives you almost instant geek cred if you can talk about famous old 20th century books in your favourite genre.

For example, if you’re a sci-fi fan, then you can probably either impress or make yourself at home amongst other sci-fi fans by talking about the Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, William Gibson and Isaac Asimov stories that you’ve read.

3) Try some other things too: With a few exceptions, I’m not really a huge fan of romantic fiction -but I’ve read a few romantic novels and even enjoyed some of them. You see, the interesting thing about very occasionally reading things in genres that you don’t usually read is that you’ll sometimes find something that you like.

Not only that, you’ll also be able to talk about books from other genres when you’re talking to people who are fans of a different type of fiction than you are.

Plus, if you read books from different genres sometimes, then you’ll also get to encounter different types of characters and/or settings to the ones that you normally encounter when you’re reading.

4) Read the occasional “cool” book: Although there’s no real single definition of what is and isn’t “good literary taste”, some books generally tend to be seen as “cooler” or more “important” than others. I’ve never quite understood it either, but it can be a good idea to read at least one or two of these books so that – although you already have great literary taste – you can still impress people who have very fixed ideas about “good literary taste”.

But, the good thing is that quite a few “cool” books are cool for a reason – many of them are fairly readable, some are fairly short and the ones that aren’t either of these things are full of all kinds of brilliantly weird and strange stuff.

To get you started, here’s a list of a few writers to check out if you’re interested: William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Albert Camus, Allen Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson, Kathy Acker, J. G. Ballard, Jeanette Winterson, Chuck Palahniuk, Charles Bukowski, Hubert Selby Jr., Gore Vidal, Marjane Satrapi and George Orwell.


Sorry that the advice in this article was so basic, but I hope it was useful 🙂

3 comments on “Literary Taste: How To Find It In The 21st Century (After Bennett)

  1. […] “Literary Taste: How To Find It In The 21st Century (After Bennett)” – “Animation Doesn’t Have To Be Difficult” – “Learn More About […]

  2. Arnold Bennett says:

    Interesting post. In fact I think AB would agree with most of your observations; he was more ‘modern’ in his views about literature than is generally credited, especially towards the end of his life when he wrote a weekly review column for the London Evening Standard.
    You may be interested in these extracts from the Arnold Bennett Blog:
    Sometimes, and this was one of those times, when I think back to a conversation or social encounter I am ashamed by my own pomposity. I think I have gotten worse as I have grown older. Do I really feel that I have some sort of monopoly of judgement about what constitutes literary taste? Of course I wrote a book on the subject but at that time I don’t think I was the dogmatist that I seem to be now. My Standard articles sometimes incline towards the didactic but I like to think that they are softened by humour; unfortunately I find humour less easy to come by in personal intercourse.
    I have been extremely fond of reading since I was twenty, and since I was twenty I have read practically nothing ( save professionally as a literary critic) but what was “right”. My leisure has been moderate, my desire strong and steady, my taste in selection certainly above the average, and yet in ten years I seem scarcely to have made an impression upon the intolerable multitude of volumes which “everyone is supposed to have read”.
    I have been reflecting, in the pages of the Evening Standard, on ‘modern’ poetry.
    Thinking afresh about the situation of modern poetry on the map of modern literature, I doubt a little if modern poetry is on the map at all! Thousands of people will argue for and against the value of a modern novel, but only tens of people will argue, even mildly, for and against the merits of modern poetry. To be ‘up-to-date’ on modern novels is deemed to be important; nobody, however, is going to worry himself about not being up-to-date concerning modern poetry.
    The reason, in my opinion, is that modern poetry has been revolutionary. The new poets have grown absolutely sick of the old material, and their impatient verve chafed under the old forms. So the new poets scrapped the old material, and stretched the old forms till they snapped like elastic bands. That, roughly, was the revolution. The British public is not partial to revolutions. It believes that your revolutionary is most effectively dealt with by leaving him alone!

    • pekoeblaze says:

      Thanks 🙂 Although it’s been quite a while since I read Bennett’s entire essay about literary taste, I’ve just taken a quick look at it again and I’d have to agree that his views were more modern than they might seem – especially given that, in the first chapter of his essay, he defines literature by the effects it has on people etc… rather than because it is part of a canon or tradition of any kind.

      Thanks for the extracts too 🙂 It’s interesting to see how his views have changed over time, not to mention that his comment about not being able to read literally everything that “everyone is supposed to have read” is probably even more relevant these days (given that it probably now also applies to films, TV shows and videogames too LOL!). Plus, it’s amusing to think that – even back when he was writing – poetry was still seen as an obscure and esoteric thing.

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