Number 42 (march 2019)

Non-prescriptive prescription


[Versió catalana][Versión castellana]

Jordi Gràcia

Professor of Department of Philology
Universitat de Barcelona



The word 'prescription' no longer stirs surprise for anyone and, in fact, it is a well-integrated feature of the language of pedagogues, intellectuals and cultural agents. However, I am not sure we are always talking about the same thing we when we assert the prescriptive value of an incident, when we gauge the prescriptive impact of a suggestion, when we defend the prescriptive value of a supplement, magazine, blog or radio programmes, or even when we decide that certain forms of cultural consumption are the result of a symbolic prescription, whether it be direct or indirect.

I tend to think that prescription as a contemporary phenomenon has undergone a positive sea change insofar as it has lost its monotheistic perspective and gained an informed and pluralist sense of relativism. In other words, we are experiencing the paradox of the hegemony of literary and cultural prescription just as intellectuals have lost the prescriptive authority which they were traditionally attributed and which meant that people did as they were told when the leader of their reading group proposed a new book to discuss, students paid heed to their compulsory reading list and even the reading public in general dutifully followed the recommendations made by public or private awards.

The intellectual class has also mutated, having fragmented and multiplied to the extent that it can no longer prescribe, despite many people dreaming of perpetuating the old world order. But this world does not exist anymore and there is no binding focus, universally appreciated voice or unanimously accepted spokesperson to tell us what to read, listen to or consume, culturally speaking.

Obviously, this is good news, even though it often leaves us with our back against the wall to some extent. Without any golden or haloed oracle, to whom should we pay attention? Whom do we have to obey? Whom ought we to trust when choosing what to read? How can we be sure, when we buy a twenty-euro book, that we are not wasting our money on something basically trashy, despite the marketing paraphernalia, or that, despite coming from an unknown publisher or writer, the novel our twenty euros is buying us is a work of authentic quality?

Now, as always, there is no right answer for a wrong question, because there is no single type of reader nor a single reason for reading. In fact, it makes no sense to even harbour the hope that a single kind of reader might be captured en masse, as there are many mass types of reader. This has been a radical change, not only because of the diffusion of online and digital reading, but also because the book market has built an unassailable fortress of offers, ranging from tawdry to passable and from enticing to downright extraordinary, not just in a single field but in many, and not only with respect to a single culture's literature but rather a multitude of literatures translated and more accessible than ever before.

Precisely for this reason, there has been a stronger resurgence than ever of the aversion to prescription, guidance, authorised or at least recognised counsel, but without the slightest trace of monotheism, because it has been usurped and replaced by a plurality of bigshots and know-alls, opinion makers of varying qualities willing to fight their corner and defend their claims in the world of public opinion cultural hegemony.

So, are we more gullible and unwary than we used to be when presented with a recommendation or prescription? I don't think so. We are, however, more adult and freer, both of which are really bad news because they force us to take responsibility for our decisions, without being able to shift the blame onto somebody else.

The illusion of unshakeable, stable and universal cultural or literary quality has long since vanished. In contrast, the world of culture has been dominated by a conviction for plurality in terms of audiences and the cultural options on offer. This is great news insofar as it ensures a plural and levelled richness of texts for potential readers with the ability to find and connect to their own books. Previously, the small number of publishers and prescribers enabled them to have a relative degree of control over what people read. For many years now, this has been obsolete and naive, without this having to imply the prologue or prelude to the end of fine, quality and valuable culture.

This final irony means that prescribed literature continues to be so in all imaginable ways, except that the prescription has turned into a set of diversified precepts to cater for the wide variety of circumstances in terms of education, interests, expectations and needs that audiences have asserted gradually since the Second World War through their popular consumption, addictions and devotions expressed in monetary terms.

Nostalgia for a broken hierarchical order often grows out of the experience of pluralist consumption, as though some form of guilty conscience were hiding in wait behind the pleasure of reading the latest bookstore blockbuster, which may well be prosaic, but enjoyable nonetheless, and this triggered a kind of Catholic guilt that required us to repent by spooning down the opening pages of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, or the first volume of Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities or, at the very least, rereading the closing pages of Marcel Proust's Time Regained. The canonical and prescriptive value of these works is beyond question and this enables us to quickly assuage the guilt of having happily relished the latest novel to top the lists of books given to loved ones on the feast of Sant Jordi; predictable and bland but oh so enjoyable.

However, this particular manoeuvre remains a little trickier for younger readers at the various stages of the educational ladder: these readers are still more subject to the continued existence of prescribed or compulsory reading in the academic realm, even though prescription is probably not as much a reality for secondary school leavers or sixth formers as it is for university students, whose mentors still relish the intangible excitement of having irrefutably stipulated the canonical values of a literary and cultural tradition. I have just mentioned a few such works and they are certainly outstanding examples of enduring classics. Luckily, however, alongside the excellence of such greats, the latest batch of researchers and lecturers also embraces the ideological, ethical and cultural desirability of frequenting texts and authors that are less revered as absolute literary classics because their existence in the world and the historical and cultural circumstances under which they were written are more irregular, complex and conflictive.

We cannot understand the world today only by reading John Maxwell Coetzee and Philip Roth, Ian McEwan or Claudio Magris, and it is well worth checking out less prescribed contemporary authors who are equally stimulating, despite their aesthetic distance from the classics: it would not do any harm to read Sergi Pàmies or Empar Moliner, although regular doses of Pilar Rahola might not be that healthy and one might beware of mistaking Arturo Pérez-Reverte's narrative agility for literary quality.

The most hazardous terrain, however, comes at the start of the journey: the age bracket that ranges from childhood to late adolescence, when passions are unleashed through the electric contact with cultural, social, musical and any other kind of reality. Must children's exposure be limited to a few hallowed names or may we justifiably resort to secondary, disputable and perhaps even transitory values in order to expose teenagers to the literary experience? This long-running, stale debate does not seem very fruitful: both options are reasonable and not mutually exclusive, particularly if the system interiorises the ultimate purpose of literature, philosophy and history within secondary education.

I am no expert of the precise workings of reading prescription at these educational levels, but I can say that there are experiences shared by parents and teachers. In their Spanish and Catalan classes, children and adolescents have often been made to read texts translated from other languages, as if there were no worthy books in their native language. Moreover, the list of potential texts has often been set in stone, in accordance with a prescriptive approach that has become obsolete in the present. Naturally, Pío Baroja's El árbol de la ciencia remains a great novel, while Miquel Llor's Laura a la ciutat dels sants is still a lesser novel, but I see no reason whatsoever to perpetuate them prescriptively. In fact, just the opposite: I see a host of reasons for opening up the choice of readings to include short stories and novels from the last fifty years, which would encourage contact with fiction (or essays and poetry) at a more intense, united, committed and appreciative level.

The potential list is very long, but it is not backed up by a canonical safety net, as it does not have the guarantee of the undisputed greats. This tends to make reading lists of books for children very conservative, as though exposing them to the humorous novels of Juan José Millás, the televised parodies of Álvaro Pombo, the caustic humour of Quim Monzó, the eroticism of Pere Gimferrer, the narrative naturality of Javier Cercas or the analytical transparency of Joan Margarit could spoil children's literary sense of taste. In fact, it would have exactly the opposite effect, as reading literature is a mature, adult, slow-learning process that takes place below the surface. But luckily, even if children aren't pointed towards these writers, there are still other excellent authors who can help readers catch that reading bug at an almost palpable level, simply because they do not strive to be seen as the authors of absolute classics but rather as writers of value, intention, style and sensibility.

Is that not enough?



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