Today on HuffPo books, Jay Crownover discusses the different subcategories of the “literary bad boy,” which include “The Unattainable” (Sherlock Holmes), “The Nonconformist” (Holden Caulfield, of course), “The Alpha” (Achilles), “The Lothario” (Bond), “The Misunderstood” (Ponyboy from The Outsiders), and, in a bold move, “The Anti-Hero,” as represented by Hannibal Lecter.
It is hard not to wrestle, increasingly, with the listicle-ization of lit, the too-easy shorthand of Virginia Woolf finger-puppets, cheeky pro-book tote bags, Dickens bibs, and twee-pop-Brontë mashups. There is reading, and then there is reading as signifier, in which we don’t lose ourselves in books themselves so much as turn them into easy, quotable advertisements for ourselves. Sexy librarians? Sure. “Keep Calm and Read On”? Okay. “What Would Jane Austen Do”? How about live two hundred years ago in an unrecognizable world with a completely different set of mores? How much less scary when Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not a cultural battleground but just a vintage cover on a T-shirt.
That said, I wear my Jane Eyre T-shirt. I covet the Barbara Pym doll on Etsy. I love to see a cat reading the classics as much as, if not more than, the next guy. Like, I imagine, most of us, I am glad of anything that makes books approachable and appealing, so long as we don’t forget their power. (And yes, I immediately did ask myself, “What Is Your Literary Bad Boy Type?”)
Richard Hoggart, the academic who was instrumental in ending the censorship of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Britain, died last month. In his testimony at the 1960 obscenity trial, the cultural historian said of the book’s depiction of sex, ”The first effect, when I first read it, was some shock, because they don’t go into polite literature normally … Then as one read further on, one found the words lost that shock. They were being progressively purified as they were used.” It was a different world, yes, and it is perhaps too easy to point to the Lady Chatterley’s Lover lampshade, or locket, or sweatshirt you can now buy, and wonder about the nature of progress. And the difference between “purifying” and “diluting,” and whether, in the end, both are inevitable in the march from the forbidden to the merely “bad.”