Essay 48: The Goblin Market
I am reading a Boring Book. Boring is probably the wrong word, because I hate it so much that it keeps me uncommonly alert, but if not boring then just wrong. Just not up my street at all. There are so many things wrong with it. I will accept novels whose action takes place in the Victorian era, as long as they are written by a person who was alive in the Victorian era. I’m afraid that I will only in the most exceptional circumstances, however, accept a book whose action takes place in the Victorian era but was written by a person alive right now. Is this my worst kind of book? Maybe. All filled with people lacing up their pointy shoes and getting onto wooden ships, or settling themselves comfortably into their carriages. All kinds of vivid details about people being slightly delayed because olden-times shoes are made out of inconvenient materials, but no so delayed that anyone is catastrophically late, because the scene where the woman tugs impatiently at her leather laces leads nicely into a bit where she is allowed to either dash or race into the busy street to meet up with her stupid brother. Her scapegrace brother. They both have such pink cheeks. They are both greedily stuffing currant buns into their pretty red mouths. These books are so full of phrases I would never use. This is fine in principle, as my own vocabulary is quite limited, but the reason I would never use them is because they are terrible. There are so many descriptions of eating or laughing which rely on words that I would prefer to be removed from the language altogether: people are always gulping or gobbling things down, and they are chuckling or chortling or snickering as they do it. Men are guffawing. They are saying O! instead of “Oh”.
I will accept no novels which make too free with the word “whore”, especially when the writer seems all thrilled and invigorated that they are allowed to use it because that’s just what you used to call them then. The same way that they get a nasty old kick out of saying, for instance, “the Chinaman Ah Gow.” You imagine the writer taking out her fountain pen and writing “The Chinaman Ah Gow entered the dancing hall” and you just want to reach across space and time and whisper mean contemporary swearwords into her reddened ears. Her ears are that colour because she only writes by candlelight and actually that can get quite hot. I especially object when the word is used every time the woman appears, like “the whore Jane entered the room.” “He wondered why he felt such affection for the whore Annabel.” Maybe it’s because the whore Annabel, in spite of her debilitating dependence on opium, is a girl with a healthy appetite and is constantly seen to be gobbling up pies and washing them down with Ale. Maybe it’s because men always like girls with healthy appetites in books like this. They are extra sad when the girl with the healthy appetite is murdered in a way that seems unnecessarily sexual. It is not essential to the plot that it happens like this, and yet it does. You imagine the writer refilling the green ink in her pen and you just want to reach across space and time and set fire to her collection of vintage underthings. “It’s called a bra, pal,” you whisper. “It’s called underwear.” “The next time you type ‘lacy underthings’ into eBay, you will hear a loud explosion.”
The thing about this book is that I knew I wouldn’t like it. It came out a few years ago and announced itself immediately as the enemy. I was sure that I would never read it, but then I was at the airport and I panicked. I realised I had nothing to read on the plane. Normally the answer to this is many expensive magazines, but I am trying to be a better person these days, or at least not do anything deliberately bad, and spending over four hundo on magazines falls pretty squarely into that category, I think. So I bought this nightmare of a book instead, and now no one is happy.
Except me, of course. What do you call it, when you are in a mood where hating something gives you near-undiluted pleasure? If I were the whore Annabel, I would say that the only pleasure it compares to is the private joy of the opium pipe. If I was myself, I would say that getting actually giddy off disliking something is sort of the same as spending over four hundo on magazines. Not good for you. Warps your facial expressions. Gives you an entirely unwarranted sense of superiority. Makes you talk and talk about things that no one can care about as much as you. Ultimately turns you into a goblin.
In “On the Pleasure of Hating”, Hazlitt says “without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.” This is exactly the kind of thing a goblin would say, but I am on board. Hating things whose feelings can’t be hurt (like a book or a style of singing where the mouth is open too wide and the person is just belting it out and you immediately think of the word “lusty”) is not very nice, but it is a victimless crime. Hazlitt then goes on to say, however, “We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.” This is where it gets tricky, in the move from the dizzy hating of books to the more destructive hating of people, and the most corrosive hating of oneself.
The answer is to confine oneself, then, to the hating of small things, but the rule is you are allowed to hate it a lot. You are allowed to sit and hate it so much that your whole face and all your toes crunch up. And then after that you stop. You splash some water on your face, you put on your easy-to-wear shoes, and you go outside to greet the day.