How to make a literary boob of yourself

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The Independent Online

All right, so who do you think has got the best tits in the English novel? I ask this readerly question in the light of the poll recently carried out by the Orange prize for fiction to ascertain which character from literature women would most like to make goo-goo eyes at over dinner. If it's good for the goose, it's good for the gander. The women chose Mr Darcy, wouldn't you know, with James Bond, Superman and Heathcliff in close pursuit - though I doubt Le Caprice would give Superman a table without some serious adjustments to his clothing - so now it's the men's turn to show off the depth of their reading. Who's got the best tits in prose fiction, who's got the best bum in blank verse, and given the choice between Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Little Dorrit, who do you think would give the best blow job?

Nominations by next week please, only don't send them to me, send them to the Orange prize.

Is that enough now? Any chance we might get back to being serious people again?

I know the arguments. What's wrong with girls falling in love with men in books? It keeps them off the streets. It stops them getting pregnant. And it spurs them on to further reading. As in, you fall for Mr Darcy today and you'll have your nose in Superman tomorrow. Progression, that's the claim. Start stupid, end up smart. Harry Potter for breakfast, Eugénie Grandet for lunch. Fine when it works. But the evidence is that he who starts stupid, stays stupid. If it's progression you want, begin with Eugénie Grandet and then you might not need Harry Potter full stop. We are failing our children, that's all I am saying. And failed children turn into failed adults. It is important you know that it wasn't only among girls in their teeny twenties that Darcy topped the poll, he was also voted most scrumptious company by women in their fifties. Mothers. Grandmothers. Matrons for whom the heyday in the blood should now be tame.

Don't get me wrong; I am not suggesting that they should have chosen Mr Knightley instead. It is not the youthfulness of the candidates that concerns me, but the whole business of reading novels as though they are lonely hearts listings. Novels might sometimes be about sexual hysteria but I am not sure it is their function to provoke it. "The greatest powers of the mind" were what Jane Austen found in the novels she admired, "the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour", not a catalogue of dinner dates.

Forgive me if I talk about the architectonics of the novel, its ordering of meaning, its exploration of territory beyond the idolatrously personal. I was a teacher of literature once. And the students any teacher of literature recognises to be in most need are those who cannot tell the difference between a book and what happens in their lunch hour, those for whom reading is simply an extension of daydreaming, those who are so smitten with their own species that they do not see that characters are words, those on whom "the greatest powers of the mind" are lost, because they do not detect a mind at work

Snob talk, this, I am aware. We are going through one of those who-are-you-to-tell-us-how-or- what-to-read phases of the national consciousness. Could be the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, which sets the nerves of many a not quite literary person on edge at this time of the year. Or it could be the coming BBC battle of the books, setting the trivial agenda of our times. Whatever the reason, dumb-headed egalitarianism is in the air. I came across a prime example of it the other day in an article by Jeremy Clarkson, whom I know you are not meant to take remotely seriously, but to the scientist of contemporary taste, even froth is worth examining.

"Who says books have to be miserable and dull?" he asks, lowering his head and giving literary critics the woolly-sheep charge. In fact, no one says books have to be miserable and dull. Liveliest effusions of wit, remember. And the truth is you don't find those in Jilly Cooper, longing for "a kind word in The Guardian", any more than you find them in Jeffrey Archer, longing for the Nobel prize.

Pure fantasy on Jilly's part, Mr Clarkson, though you offer to feel for her, the idea that there are novelists proper (Hay-on-Wye novelists) longing "to be able to do what Jeffrey and I do". I know of no novelist who longs to be able to do what she and Jeffrey do, and cannot for the life of me imagine why they should. If you are going to envy another living novelist his gifts, it will be Milan Kundera, or Mario Vargas Llosa, or Saul Bellow, not Jill and Jeff. You might, of course, envy the inferior writer his sales figures, but that's another matter.

According to Clarkson, though I wouldn't want you to think he argues this with any conviction, those "of a literary persuasion" are only heaping praise on "highbrow treacle" in order to frighten off the "uneducated wildebeest like you and me". Which doesn't sound like very good marketing. But then, "highbrow treacle" doesn't sound like very good arguing. Does Clarkson have any book at all in mind? Almost certainly not. All that's really up his nose is the activity of discrimination itself. Which is strange coming from a professional critic of automobiles for whom discrimination must be second nature, the ability to tell the difference between what is cheaply and cheerfully tossed off the conveyor belt, and what is beautifully and expensively engineered, the very reason for his existence.

We are all severe critics in our own sphere, forever pursuing excellences we understand. It's only around novels that we go trashy, making them the wastebins of our hearts.