Books to Read: A is for Absurdist Literature

Hello and welcome to a Sunday Morning Meet-Up
and welcome to the start of a new series in which I explore Literary Genres A to Z.
This episode is A for Absurdist literature. While reading is generally encouraged, there
are some genres that people often see as something to be ashamed of reading, that is to say,
books they don’t want to admit they enjoy. There are two main reasons for this: partly
because they are seen as being ‘low quality’, but also because they are seen as neither
academic nor prestigious enough to be displayed proudly on your living room bookshelf. However,
I do think there is a case for these ‘shameful pleasures,’ and would argue that we shouldn’t
feel so ashamed of them after all. Firstly, I think ‘low quality’ needs to
be defined. Some people may say that this includes books with common tropes, often-used
plots, or predictable endings. While this is admittedly frequent in certain genres,
it is not always the case and there are many which are more original. Even though these
genres can be accused of being cliché, other genres have their own frequently used tropes.
For example, mystery novels will have red-herrings and almost always end with the reveal of the
culprit; that is simply the framework and necessary ingredients of the genre. A book based on a commonly used storyline
does not automatically mean that it is of low quality. Although the popularity of something
doesn’t always prove its quality, I think the popularity of the romance genre and mystery
fiction does suggest that we should appreciate these works and that the achievement of these
authors should be admired. For me, it is more appropriate to judge a book as badly written
if characters are unrealistic or underdeveloped, if there are plot holes, or if there are overused
descriptions. Therefore, even though romance novels often use similar storylines, we shouldn’t
criticise them for it, as long as they have been written well. The other reason why we feel ashamed of reading
certain genres could be because we feel expected to read something more challenging, thought-provoking
or academic. Whilst it is undeniable that the classics have value, I believe that romance,
chick-lit and other ‘shamed’ genres have their own value and can be equally ‘thought-provoking’. Chick-lit and romance is generally more light-hearted,
which makes it relaxing to read. Although some argue that chick-lit is anti-feminist,
perhaps for their exaggerated and stereotypical presentation of women, it still frequently
places women in the centre of the narrative which is a contrast to the majority of the
classics. To free ourselves from the shame, we should
be judging the quality of books individually and realising that we don’t always need
to read what others have established as acceptable Although our classification of ‘the canon’
is gradually changing, they were predominantly written by and for a very narrow demographic.
We might see classics as valuable, but we should also see their flaws and not dismiss
the value of different genres. We should realise that the canon is not perfect.
Even when a book is badly written, it isn’t necessary to feel ashamed for enjoying it,
as a large part of reading is about enjoyment. Often we see books as a way of furthering
ourselves, and that can be true – and can also be achieved through the genres we label
as ‘shameful pleasures’ – but reading can also be beneficial in terms of enabling
us an opportunity to retreat from our everyday stress, and providing simple enjoyment, in
whichever genre you find it. At the end of the day, everyone is going to have their own
taste when it comes to reading, so there is no reason to feel ashamed.
But, are you bored by the pretentious literary establishment?
Is ‘Literary fiction’ pretentious, self-absorbed, and snobbish. I wouldn’t be so pretentious,
self-absorbed and snobbish to say so! But isn’t it time to read books that you really
enjoy and want to read? Thrillers, spy novels, romance, historical fiction, mystery’s,
adventure, humour, crime, fantasy, sci-fi, family sagas and stories with plots and fascinating
characters. Or do you want to plough through the turgid and pretentious prose that is modern
literary fiction in the hope of finding something that may actually be interesting and worth
your while to read when you know that for the most part the prose is going to disgust
and turn you off and you will end up DNFing 50% or more of what you begin. When realistically,
it would be much more advantageous to acknowledge that what you actually enjoy is what the snobs
call low-brow literature that is actually enjoyable and much more to your real taste.
Right, now that I have alienated 50% of my viewers, we can begin to explore the fascinating
world of Literary Genres, because, make no mistake about it, genres are literary and
the most interesting and absorbing literature that you can read.
So today I discuss Books to Read that are Absurdist. Other terms for this are Surreal
or Whimsical. Absurdist and surreal fiction challenges casual
and rudimentary reasoning and even the most basic purposefulness found within life.
L’Étranger is a 1942 novel by French author Albert Camus. In English it is called The
Stranger or The Outsider. Its theme and outlook are often cited as examples of Camus’s philosophy
of the absurd. The Stranger aka The Outsider is the story
of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach. Camus
explored what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.” The title character is Meursault, an indifferent
French Algerian described as “a citizen of France domiciled in North Africa, a man of
the Mediterranean, yet one who hardly partakes of the traditional Mediterranean culture”.
He attends his mother’s funeral. A few days later, he kills an Arab man in French Algiers,
who was involved in a conflict with a friend. Meursault is tried and sentenced to death.
The story is divided into two parts, presenting Meursault’s first-person narrative view before
and after the murder, respectively. In January 1955, Camus wrote: I summarized The Stranger a long time ago,
with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: “In our society any man who does not weep
at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.” I only meant that the
hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game. Absurdist literature is often, though not
always, connected to comedy. Whimsical has to do with a sense of eccentric
or quirky humour. It exaggerates real life in a whimsical, eccentric, quirky or fanciful
way, sometimes including ‘magical’ extensions of reality.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol is a perfect example of this. When Alice follows the White
Rabbit down the rabbit hole, little does she know that she is traveling to a world of magic
where common-sense is turned upside-down. The dream world of nonsensical Wonderland
is full of the unexpected: a baby turns into a pig, time is missing at a tea-party, and
a wild chess game makes the seven-year-old Alice a queen. The absurdist genre focuses on the experiences
of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life most often
represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty
of existential concepts such as truth or value. The Trial by Franz Kafka is a terrifying psychological
trip into the life of one Joseph K., an ordinary man who wakes up one day to find himself accused
of a crime he did not commit, a crime whose nature is never revealed to him. From then
on, his life becomes increasingly unpredictable. Once arrested, he is released, but must report
to court on a regular basis – an event that proves maddening, as nothing is ever resolved.
As he grows more uncertain of his fate, his personal life – including work at a bank and
his relations with his landlady and a young woman who lives next door – becomes increasingly
unpredictable. As K. tries to gain control, he succeeds only in accelerating his own excruciating
downward spiral. The closely related/overlapping surreal genre
is predicated on deliberate violations of causal reasoning, producing events and behaviours
that are obviously illogical. The Metamorphosis also by Franz Kafka is the
story of traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, who wakes one morning to find himself transformed
into a large, monstrous insect-like creature. The cause of Gregor’s transformation is never
revealed, and as he attempts to adjust to his new condition, he becomes a burden to
his parents and sister, who are repelled by the horrible, verminous creature Gregor has
become. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy
dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was laying
on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could
see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the
bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous
legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before
his eyes.” With this startling, bizarre, yet surprisingly
funny first opening, Kafka begins his masterpiece, The Metamorphosis. It is the story of a young
man who, transformed overnight into a giant beetle-like insect, becomes an object of disgrace
to his family, an outsider in his own home, a quintessentially alienated man. A harrowing
— though absurdly comic — meditation on human feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and isolation,
The Metamorphosis has taken its place as one of the most widely read and influential works
of twentieth-century fiction. As W.H. Auden wrote, “Kafka is important to us because his
predicament is the predicament of modern man.” Let me know in the comments below if YOU have
any favourites in this genre. And I’ll be back soon with another BookTube

8 thoughts on “Books to Read: A is for Absurdist Literature

  1. Hello Alan, I've read all 4 of these novels. Alice in Wonderland is my favourite. Kafka is disturbing in a good way. Reading The Trial especially made me both uncomfortable and outraged. I'm sure I've read more from this genre, but nothing comes to mind at the moment.

  2. I have not read any of these books since I was a teen, and your video makes me interested in pulling them out again. Your discussion about shamed genres is quite interesting.

  3. One Hundred Years of Solitude in which the author uses magical realism to tell the story.
    William S. Burroughs is an author in this category.
    Naked Lunch is one that I've read.
    Saw the film which is totally absurd

  4. Interesting discussion. Disagree very strongly with some of your points. For sure chicklit and romances have their own merit and value as a genre but to say they are equally thought provoking as literary classics is just not right. Genre by definition is limiting. Best of genre is not of equal quality to the classics and never can be. For this you need to remove the limits of genre, and if you that then such work is no longer genre.

    Then to say classics were written by limited group of people for a limited group of people is misunderstanding what classics are. No one has ever sat down to write one! Classics are those work that display one or more of these – literary merit, sustained popularity over time, influence, inventiveness, etc. It is not a genre – rather a very loose list of books that are considered to be worth reading above others. From these we draw an even smaller list if truly Great Books – those few books considered to be essential reading for a well read or educated person.

    Sorry for ranting, not intended to cause any offence.

  5. 'The Master and Margarita' by Mikhail Bulgakov
    'The Blizzard' by Vladimir Sorokin – "Garin, a district doctor, is desperately trying to reach the village of Dolgoye, where a mysterious epidemic is turning people into zombies. He carries with him a vaccine that will prevent the spread of this terrible disease, but is stymied in his travels by an impenetrable blizzard. A trip that should last no more than a few hours turns into a metaphysical journey, an expedition filled with extraordinary encounters, dangerous escapades, torturous imaginings, and amorous adventures."
    'White Light' by Rudy Rucker – "Felix Rayman spends the day teaching indifferent students, pondering his theories on infinity, and daydreaming. When his dreams finally separate him from his physical body, Felix plunges headfirst into a multidimensional universe beyond the limits of space and time β€” the place of White Light."

  6. Looking forward to the rest of this series. I think part of the proof of your opening thesis is that all four of the books that your featured are now considered classics and are read by people who enjoy a good story and interesting characters and people who just want to be seen reading certain titles. Well done sir.

  7. I completely agree with you. You have almost convinced me to attempt Alice now that I know I'm not supposed to understand it's absurdity. What a relief. You have to try harder to alienate me, Alan. πŸ˜‰

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