What is it about? That’s the first question that pops into mind when I see a book cover, or a magazine article, or the blurb for a film. What is it about? And that ‘about’ pretty much determines how interested I’ll be in it.
I remember being warned, in an A-level English Lit class by a lecturer whose Roman Catholicism sat uncomfortably with a Ted Hughes poem involving the rape of Virgin Mary, that the ‘subject’ of a book or poem was not what we were to be interested in. That subject was taboo. We were to deal with the treatment of the subject as given by the author – the how, not the what – a study if you like, of craft. And yet, and yet. If ‘what it is about’ is why I pick up a book, it is obviously important – as evidenced by the hordes devouring Twilight novels in which there is minimal attention to ‘craft’.
The ‘how’ though must also be important – as it sucks up attention outside of criticism. The anniversary of the Battle of Britain has been performed, maybe as an action to keep in public attention the bravery of a group of men who defended the UK. What though of the bravery of those other men, those of bomber command, volunteers all whose average age and life expectancy was 22? What they did, what was asked of them, was that so horrific as to obscure the how of it – their bravery and unstinting selflessness? Finally their bravery is becoming the subject, the ‘how’ becoming part of the ‘what’.
So, maybe the how/what is a false dichotomy – the how of that Hughes’s poem also constructed what it was about, the medium, as I’ve heard said, is the message. I’m recommended books that will be easy to read, told that their very facileness of style (and therefore content) will be enjoyable. They remind me of hamburgers: easy to eat but with so little sustenance you’re hungry again half an hour later. The opposite, difficult styles used to dress up easy ideas, are equally bad.
From what little I know of criticism, it seems, thankfully, to have moved on since those A-level days. In the end in both writing and reading I care about the craft and the ‘about’, they are one and the same. Don’t ask me to ignore misogyny or other vindictiveness, be interested in something about trains – or ignore a sentence that clanks.