Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Reverse Snobbery of Low Literary Aspirations

First of all, the title of this post is admittedly hyperbolic, which was necessitated by my desire to echo Michael Gerson's famous line about "the soft bigotry of low expectations," as delivered by our 43rd president.

And such a hyperbolic title necessitates the caveats up front. If people are setting out to write pulp and pure entertainment: more power to them. I think that's great. Not trying to criticize pulp. There are people who call their books "trashy" with pride, and I think that's awesome. Fun/unpretentious books = cool by me.


A funny thing happened with my post on Tuesday about themes: people agreed with me. And the more people agreed the more I started having this weird feeling like, "Wait. Stop. Don't agree! Stop agreeing!!!" And then I found myself nodding along with some of the dissents.

What happened in the comments thread is that people took my caution against writing queries like English class-y term papers and my opinion that the marketplace is moving toward accessible literary fiction, and then some used that as ammo against what they perceive as a culture of snobbish literature that is difficult to understand.

As I mentioned in the comments section, I think we're in a cultural period that celebrates mass appeal and democracy and devalues experts. I'd bet that more people read Amazon reviews than the New York Times Book Review. More people check Yelp for restaurant recommendations than a city's local restaurant critic. People don't particularly listen to the judges when they vote for their favorites on American Idol and they certainly don't listen to movie critics when they decide which movies to see. The Internet has opened up all kinds of ways for the crowd to be king.

And I think this has resulted in a cultural moment that celebrates mass appeal rather than the elite. Which definitely has its benefits: I happen to really like literary fiction that is both meaningful and accessible, such as KAVALIER AND CLAY, and I don't know that bringing literary fiction down from a lofty perch is necessarily a bad thing.

At the same time, there is definitely something that is lost in the over-celebration of mass appeal and the lowest common denominator and the dismissal of experts, and I really think it can be taken too far. What about aspiring to create something that is great, rather than merely popular? What about pushing the envelope even when it's not what's currently in fashion? What is wrong with being elite and appreciated by experts if not by the masses?

And when writers start thumbing their nose at dense and challenging literature solely because it's hard to read it really starts verging on reverse snobbery.

I understand that everyone has different tastes, but there is no pride in ignorance of literary fiction. Genre writers can learn from literary fiction, just as literary writers can learn from genre fiction. There's a middle ground.

Now. Does someone who wants to crank out genre novels need to spend all of their time reading Proust? Probably not. But to thumb one's nose at literary writing because it's hard to understand is to stop learning about what is possible with words.

Writers ignore good writing at their peril. In order to have a book published it doesn't have to be literary literary literary, but the writer has to do something very well. While there is an insanely common sentiment in the comments section that so many books published are trash and oh well anyone can do it: that's really not the case. You may not like it, but quite a few people along the way did in order for it to find its way to the bookshelf.

Not every talented writer is a published author, but (nearly) every published author is talented. Even if you think they suck.

For now, in order to have your book published you're going to have to impress the experts, i.e. the literary agents and editors who demand a certain level of quality in the writing. And the current culture that treats everyone as an expert shouldn't be taken too far: Not everyone is an expert.


The Rejectionist said...


Christine H said...

I don't pay attention to movie reviewers because they usually run contrary to my taste. I think they are jaded by watching so many movies all the time for their jobs.

I feel the same way about literary reviews, restaurant reviews, etc. There does seem to be a kind of snobbish upper crust to any creative field that is out of touch with what average people (who don't spend all day every day in that specialized world) want to watch, read or eat.

I don't think we should write for the lowest common denominator, but I also think that there is room for a wide range of literary types.

Neither the intelligentsia nor the proles should belittle the other - they just have different tastes, that's all.

Charlie Pratt said...

We've come so far, and pondered so hard, to realize that hey, holy cow, there's room for everyone. From pulp to Proust. Given a certain degree of talent, there's an audience for every type of writer. The reason we're confused is because the status quo is changing and previously-locked doors are being flung open. What we have at our doorstep is quite possibly the Renaissance of the written word.

jjdebenedictis said...

What an awesome post.

There's use in telling people they can do whatever they set their minds to, because so few people try to push themselves to their limits.

However, it's a lie. You can't do everything you set your mind to. You can do more than you thought you could. It's an important distinction.

CommonSenseWriter said...


Julianne Douglas said...

Thank you for encouraging both writers and readers to stretch themselves.

"But to thumb one's nose at literary writing because it's hard to understand is to stop learning about what is possible with words."

Beautifully said, and so very true.

Matty Byloos said...

Nathan -- so much in this post, it's difficult to know where to respond, and whether it's best to specifically respond to the literary aspects of the post, or to the points that touch on larger cultural (specifically American) issues. We've developed a culture of "experts" who we give way too much authority too, and most of this I believe stems from the 24-hour television news cycle, and the subsequent blowback on radio in their response. We fill our hours with people who merely speculate on current events, rather than providing hard news analysis and insight. If you listen to the majority of these "experts" talk, you quickly realize with just an ounce of brain power, that the vast majority of them are just pushing talking points and very thin agendas.

In terms of great literature, it's just not for everyone to write -- it wouldn't be great anymore. That would become popular literature. And not all amazing things are understood as amazing in their time. So yes, it's difficult and worthy of merit if a person writes a novel and gets it published, but I don't necessarily believe that makes it good, which you may or may not actually be saying. It might mean, the vast majority of the time, that someone in publishing believed it was worthy of a gamble in the pursuit of financial payoff.

Good and amazing literature, like all great art, rises to the top on its own. Eventually, the right people find it and talk about it with insight and passion, and others catch on. It would be woefully depressing to believe otherwise.

Kristin Miller said...

Here, here! I think there is a vast difference between those who appreciate lowest common denominator pursuits for the joy of those pursuits and those who appreciate them simply because they are too lazy to attain to something greater. Is there room for both mass market pursuits and expertise? Of course there is. But decrying the elite just because you don't personally have that level of attainment is bogus. I've never met an author of commercial fiction who didn't admit to benefiting from reading great literary works. And I know literary authors who appreciate a bit of pulp fic, as well. Like it or not, there is no "average people" segment of the population; we are all vastly different.

Shakier Anthem said...

Yes. Thanks for this. I've seen snobbery at both ends of the continuum: literary writers who turn their noses up at anything remotely "genre," and fantasy/mystery/whatever writers with a knee-jerk anti-literary reaction. (Hint: Being snobby about a group of people one thinks are snobs is just sort of silly.)

I've also seen negative attitudes from writers in both camps toward their own writing -- for example, literary writers saying "So I know plot isn't important..." or fantasy writers saying they're fine with writing stereotypical characters.

The bottom line is that all writers need to write their best, no matter what they're writing about, and remember that genre classifications are largely marketing terms. Some of my favorite books are the ones that blur those boundaries, anyway.

Anonymous said...

I have only one response...well said!

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

Everyone's different. we got different styles, preferences, tastes, and aspirations.

Anyway, it's all about balance. We should try to stretch ourselves out and tread onto unfamiliar territory.

Natalie Whipple said...

Awesome post. There is room for everyone. I don't think any reader/writer should limit their shelves to one genre. We can learn from everything.

Laurel said...

I think the nerve you struck with the "theme" post was more knee-jerk reaction in defense of our guilty pleasures. Why should I be embarrassed for enjoying the same book a gazillion other people plunked down money to read?

When you troll publishing blogs, you run into more of the "I can't believe it ever got published" sentiment than other places.

The truth is I can like Faulkner AND a current bestseller. And I do. I shouldn't have to defend my intellect for reading one nor should I have to defend my ability to relate to current trends in publishing for reading the other.

Or, as someone else once said, can't we all just get along?

Kirsten Hubbard said...

thank you for this. agreed and agreed.

Leah said...


Margaret Yang said...

Today I listened to an interview with Margaret Atwood on NPR. Margaret Atwood writes grand novels full of literary goodness and big themes. When the interviewer asked her what lessons they should take away from her novels, she said something like, "You should take away the experience of having read this novel, that is all." To her, even talking about theme was beside the point if you didn't like the novel. Yes, she acknowledged it was there, but you didn't have to go looking for it, or even talk about it.

I like that.

jscolley said...

OK, you liked The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay! I like you better now -- not that I didn't like you before. ;-)

Years ago -- before fb and twitter -- I emailed Michael Chabon after I finished his book at 2am and told him how great I thought it was. To my great surpise, I got a return email within seconds! I saved the email and printed it out. Still have it.

I find when I REALLY love a book, it is usually literary fiction. Although, on occasion, I do enjoy just a plain ole good read.

T. Anne said...

I purposely strayed from yesterday's conversation. I love beautiful words strung together thoughtfully, don't shoot me. Some of my novels border on literary but do have that whole plot thing happening to get the reader from point A to point B as to not get lost in the la la land of lyrical prose. I'm glad to see there's room at the trough for us all. Now if only I can get an agent, editor and publisher to agree....

Anna said...

Reading (or at least trying) different authors is the best way to expand one's horizons, equally for the joy of reading and seeing HOW others DO IT.

(As an aside, if you happen to live in the SF Bay Area, JATBAR is a fab way to discover great eats.)

Marsha Sigman said...

I read to be entertained, to take me somewhere out of my own life for a time, and thats how/what I want to write. I don't think thats an easy thing to do and I do not have low aspiratons, despite my sarcastic remarks.

I'm not knocking literary fiction, there is an audience for it just as there is for genre fiction. We can co-exist without any snobbery...but they started it.

Rich Inman said...

This reminds me a lot of your post a while ago about writers saying that they want to write because everything else the read "sucks." If people like to read snobby elitist literature that has more simile and metaphor than plot and character development, then more power to them. Nothing wrong with being entertained. On a side note: I never listen to movie critics because I disagree with them too often. As such, I think I have developed a keen sense of what I like and I go by that.

Anonymous said...

Two days ago, I received a comment from an editor about a part of speech that I was not familiar with.
I looked it up,studied it, and tried to follow the suggestions logically. In doing so, I realized the editor was wrong. I know that doesn't happen often. But it is worthwhile to defend your work before you throw it out or make changes. That way, the process makes a writer better and/or more confident in their work.

Unfortunately, in my (very intelligent) crit group, dense writing is often too much work for many members.

And yet, learning to take in such material (including the Bible) can be well worth the effort. It also does require a commitment by the reader.

High literary standards may fly over the heads though of an all-in-one-gulp world.

Stephen Parrish said...

You earned your blog pay today.

RedHeadedQuilter said...

Charlie said: "The reason we're confused is because the status quo is changing and previously-locked doors are being flung open. What we have at our doorstep is quite possibly the Renaissance of the written word."

I really hope you're right! As a writer, I'm tired of people saying it's the end of writing, the end of books. The world is open to so many ideas right now that anything could happen. We just have to wait and see.

And as a writer who is trying her best to write something literary, I'm hoping there will still be a market for it when it's ready.

Sean Craven said...

Let me join the chorus of praise.

As someone who's working in the gray zone between pulp and literary fiction, I've gone back and forth on this subject, and my current view isn't that far from yours.

I'm bothered (angered, actually) that a lot of wonderfully literary writers such as Avram Davidson or R.A. Lafferty aren't acknowledged as such because their work appeared in lowbrow venues.

And I'm also bothered by the way that literary fiction of the New Yorker school has congealed into a rigid genre of its own. I mean, those guys used to publish John Collier!

But to dismiss literary tradition and academic theory is frequently a way of making ignorance into a virtue. And that attitude is usually a means of disguising guilt and regret over said ignorance.

Me? I like to read broadly and steal tools from as many different genres, forms, and writers as possible. Even if I'm not crazy about a particular creator or work, I can frequently find something of value there -- and I thoroughly distrust my tastes as a source of absolute judgment.

We have no way of knowing what's going to last. We have no way of knowing how any given work will read in a hundred years, or a thousand. And most work is the result of sincere effort. Let's show a little respect.

Rebecca Knight said...

Thanks for this, Nathan :).

Everytime someone says "anyone can write a book" or "everyone's got a book in them," I find myself a wee bit insulted. Writing well enough to be published is a skill/an art--something that requires talent and hard work.

Saying that everyone is good enough, is like saying that everyone can compete in the Olympics. Those that get published have reached a level of skill that is truly impressive, and I hope to be among them one day and have it mean something.

I don't want that to be devalued.

Nothing But Bonfires said...

Oh, so well said.

Kelly Bryson said...

I read so many different types of books-Maya Angelou right now, before that Lisa McMann's WAKE. They both fulfill something, like sometimes I like to watch tv, and sometimes I like to go on a bike ride. I'ts not either/or.

Travener said...

The distinction between literary fiction and commercial or genre fiction can be artificial. Is Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" literary or commercial? I thought it was a pretty good story -- so who cares? I read Pynchon one week (even though he exasperates me) and Michael Crichton the next. Tim O'Brien followed by Carl Hiiassen. If you read nothing but straightforward genre fiction you're denying yourself art; if you read nothing but hifalutin' literary fiction you're denying yourself the page-turner thrill or a good laugh. The best writers, like the old master Dickens, do both at the same time.

D. G. Hudson said...

This is a great post, Nathan, and I agree with your comments. A lot of people like to discount literary works. Some of the time, it's because of not understanding the time period in which these works were written.

I had to change my ideas about Hemingway's writing when I read some of his earlier works that exposed more of the man rather than the legend.

Snobbery of any kind limits what we expose ourselves to, and we lose that chance to learn something. We need to have knowledge of all forms of writing, in order to distill from that what we need to pursue our own writing style.

Anonymous said...

I love beautiful work.I can follow art around if it leads me in.

My husband likes extremely intellectual work. I wouldn't be able to follow a lot of what he reads without his (or someone's) expert guidance to help acquaint me. I love that I have and have had such help. I would have missed a number of amazing writers without it.

Bradley Gavin said...

Wow... am I the only person who actually does check the review of a movie before I drop ten bones on a ticket?

I agree wholeheartedly that there is a move being made toward literary fiction that is more accessible. In the last seven or eight years, I've noticed that Vonnegut (my personal favorite) has started reaching a far bigger audience than just the classroom. There's nothing difficult about his books and yet, he delves into the deepest terrain (albeit laughing all the way). By his own admission, he can't write "for sour apples."

On the other hand, I must confess that after enjoying Don DeLillo's "White Noise", I quit on "Underworld" after four hundred pages. The writing was fantastic, truly the work of a master craftsman, but it was just too slow for me.

I, however, did notice marked improvement in my own originality after being bombarded by his relentless (if long-winded) creativity.

Nathan Bransford said...


Unfortunately, the part of your post about Vonnegut's writing should be in the past tense.

The Writing Muse said...

So true!

Anonymous said...

I wish more publishers felt this same way, though, when editors are deciding which books to buy.

I'm the author of one of those "amazing, high-quality" YA books. Though it's been to acquisitions at several pubs, its been shot down as "too quiet," meaning it isn't about a vamp, werewolf or the like.

One editor even told me point blank, that she wasn't used to getting a book with such "profound" writing and that the characters "lingered," for her. Again, the book was shot down. I read a month later in PW she signed an author in a six-figure deal for a superhero book. Trust me, I don't need six figures. My agent told me to start writing big huge hooks and later dropped me as a client altogether because I didn't have blockbuster potential.

It's pretty rough out there for people that don't crank out wham/bam/thank-you ma'am books.

Anonymous said...

I've tried to like the books called literature (current books), but when I spend hours of an afternoon reading a book only to realize when I'd finished that I'd spent those hours with characters who - in real life - I would have crossed the street to avoid, I have to wonder at that book's value.

There are, no doubt, many worthy books called literature, but too many to my mind are thin veils for schadenfreude and a particularly ugly form of voyeurism.

I see books labeled fiction (and praised as fiction) that are little more than the writer's relatives and acquaintences in a roman à clef (artistic tweaking notwithstanding). As a writer, I wonder, how creative is that?

There are other issues that concern me: using those of a lower social class as objects of ridicule, opaque language for the sake of displaying one's virtuosity, etc.

Yes, many if not all of those are personal taste issues, but they are indeed aspects of the books currently called literature that make me ask just what is so wonderful about them? What makes them worth those lost hours?

Nathan Bransford said...


I agree. I think publishers are so nervous right now they're not letting editors trust their instincts.

Morgan Xavier said...

I was one of those who commented about how relieved I was to hear that not all fiction needs to be great literature. At the same time, I would never want to use that as an excuse to strive for mediocrity in my writing. I think it is important to balance excellence with realistic expectations. We must write to the best of our ability (which someone has already commented 'should be more than you thought you could') while not berating ourselves with comparisons to those literary greats.

I get very intimidated at times. I try to use that fear to push myself to the next level, knowing that I can only accomplish as much as I am willing to work towards.

I think the bottom line is to love what you write, but strive for excellence in it -- and do it for yourself first, not for others.

Maureen said...

It's good to be able to have choices. Sometimes we are in the mood for thought-provoking, image generating meaty literary fiction. But then other times bring on the fun fiction -- a little adventure, intrigue and romance. I enjoy both, but I have to say more and more lately, I really enjoy hopeful, upbeat literature because the news is just so weighty. But I'm so grateful to have a vast selection of wonderful authors and books to choose from.

Liberal Cowgirl said...

Thank you.

Keith Popely said...

Nathan, what is the purpose of writing?

Is it to teach a lesson or morale? Evoke emotion? Communicate a philosophy or point of view? Or is it simply to entertain?

Shakespeare was popular entertainment in his day. Will "Harry Potter" be considered "literature" two or three hundred years from now?

I disagree with the notion that because something is "hard to read" it is necessarily "good" or the inferred opposite, that because something is accessible, it is not "good."

Caviar sucks. A cheeseburger can be excellent.

Just because a piece of writing uses a lot of big words and the story is about high-minded individuals having long-winded conversations does not mean it's particularly "good" or "literary." It's far more important for the writing to accomplish its goal: tell a story well.

And, yes, every writer must strive for excellence in the nuts and bolts of this craft, but that does not mean a "low brow" story can't be "good." Excellence takes many forms. Gutter writing can be far more effective than respectable writing (Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler, Chuck Palahniuk). Proust is boring as hell. I would never read him again. Therefore, Proust is not "good" writing. It blows. Bukowski is far, far better writing than Proust. Call me proletariat, if you like, but if we're judging quality, then we have to look beyond subject matter and language to substance.

C.S. Gomez said...

For myself, my problem has never been with literary writing. It's with writers who sound too much like they're trying to be literary instead of just writing from their hearts.

During the English course I was taking this past summer, we read a book of short stories by a debut author. I couldn't stand her writing--not because it was literary, but because it was trying to hard. There was one story that began with a section titled "After", where the two protagonists have gone through the beginnings of a relationship and have finally hooked up. The next section was titled "Before", and showed how they met and how they fell in love and went through trials and storms. But it ended before the actual moment of reconciliation. It was as if the author came up with this story that had a happy ending, then realized that "great literature" didn't believe in happy endings; the author moved the ending to the front to turn it into the beginning and then ignored the turning point of the plot. And all I could think was how it made me feel taken for a ride.

I've read some great books in school, and some great short stories, and enjoyed studying them and finding their artistry. But that was one that really stuck in my craw because it was all too obvious the author was writing entirely for the elitists.

I don't consider myself a "pulpist", but neither do I consider myself an "elitist". The novel I'm currently writing definitely falls in the category of escapist adventure, but I have other projects that are more "themeful" (if I can be allowed to invent a word). I like to think there's room for both not just in our culture, but in myself. That I can dabble in different forms and genres and writing styles, so that each story I tell can have a unique voice while still being imprinted with my own.

Jeanie W said...

Anon @ 11:48 -

Please hang in there. One of these days the market is going to be so glutted with the wham/bam/thank-you ma'am books that the profound novels with the lingering characters are sure to become the hot stand-outs. At least, I'm hoping they will. Having nothing but Dan Brownish novels has to seem exhausting for more readers than just me.

Bradley Gavin said...

Nathan - Right you are.

It still stings a little. I've re-read all of his novels with a heavy heart because I know there won't be any more.

I guess I still think of his writing in such a living, active way that it's hard to write about him in the past tense. His influence actually seems to be GROWING.

The back of the last Chuck Palahniuk book I bought, it said something like, "He seems poised to assume the role of a modern Kurt Vonnegut" and I thought, "Wow. I didn't realize Vonnegut was that much more famous that Chuck."

"Fight Club" was such a cultural event and all of Vonnegut's movies turned out so poorly that I figured Chuck would have the advantage when it came to name recognition.

Anonymous said...

Something awesomely inspiring about humanity began when Luther tacked his manifesto on the church door, when Gutenberg began setting moveable type; the individual became more than a cog of the mob.

Lately, like with anything else, the culture pendulum swings as innovative paradigms arise, like technology. The populist mob rules for a while, then truth-seeking individuals become sovereign again. There's about a generational age in time between one extreme and another. 1990 + 25 = 2015.

One consequence of digital technology is interconnectivity that encourages mob action. Inevitably, the individual will emerge again. Robert Frost accommodates the duality of mobbism and individualism in his poem "The Road Not Taken." If for nothing else, the predigested pap of mob consciousness quickly wears thin and then an individual consciousness promotes a vigorous new viewpoint and perspective. I prefer the situational "ironic" interpretation of Frost's poem.

The Road Not Taken

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference." [Wikipedia: The Road Not Taken]

Welcome to the realities of postmodernism, self-awareness as less than self-enlightentment, more as questioning absolutes, questioning certainty, questioning authority, questioning reality, questioning everyone and everything, not least of all the self's neoexistential significance in the scheme of things and stations.

Mismatism; concerned with the discernible nano minutia of meaning.

The Mismatist

Thermocline said...

I doubt The Monster at the End of This Book, starring lovable furry old Grover had high literary aspirations, but it rocked my world!

Anonymous said...

I want to be inspired, entertained, taken on an adventure, wowed, etc.

But, especially in depressed times, the "literary" character who is depressed or depressing is not what people are interested in more of.

That's my theory anyway. Life is depressing enough, already!

I still think that inspiring, moving literary fiction will be read.

Rachel Bateman said...

Thank you for this post, Nathan! It is a great one.

I write YA fiction. It is fun and entertaining. It would not be considered literary at all, but that does not mean I am not working my tail off to make it the best written book I can. I believe other authors–literary or commercial–do the same thing.

While I don't write literary fiction, I know for a fact that reading it has helped my own writing.

C.S. Gomez said...

Oh, Nathan, I forgot to add: I posted a question on the post "When In Doubt, Query Me", but I don't know if you saw it. Is there a place to ask general questions not answered in the FAQ?

Sorry for being off-topic. :)

Monica Pierce said...

Why can't we have both? I see no reason why genre/mass fiction can't be imbued with the themes and qualities of literary fiction. A little bit of symbolism, handled masterfully, can and will bring depth to any piece of fiction.

HWPetty said...

I'm not a fan of naval-gazing, overtly themed, omg-you-know-they-spent-a-week-on-that-sentence, literary stuff. But I can recognize beautiful, artful writing when I see it.

I think that kind of writing is important. I think it should be recognized and marveled. I mostly think it should kick my ass and make me less lazy about striving to that level of beauty in the way I string my words together.

Still, when I stare at my shelves looking for something to read, I'll always wince away from the high literary. I know I should probably wear the great red B of literary blasphemy for that, but like you said, just my taste.

(Picking Terry Pratchett over James Joyce should, however, be lauded.)

But I really think the attitudes against literary have more to do with the long-time elitism associated with that genre. I agree that high literary writers could learn a lot from a good genre fiction read... but will they?

There is this attitude that has pervaded our culture forcing us to assign "greater than" and "less than" signs to all the arts. And I think that's a shame. We should always be learning and grasping for more.

But I don't blame those who flip off the high lit scene in publishing while walking to their genre hill of choice. Being handed a less-than sign to wear around your neck makes you kind of cranky.

Sad that the publishing industry breaks down a little like Breakfast Club. Do we ever get over high school? ;)

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Bransford said...

c.s. gomez-

There are posts in the FAQs about the topics you raised.

Steph Damore said...

I don't write much literary fiction, but I read it a lot. I think there's something cool about having the intelligence to understand what the writer is trying to say - it's like a VIP club or something. Plus, generally the stories are just really, really good. Which is why I haven't set out to write a literary novel yet. My skills aren't there... yet.

Anonymous said...

Important to remember:

Super Heroes are mythic and mythic figures are classics.

There are deeply satisfying psychological reasons why we love Super Heroes.

We are not just shallow if we do.

They symbolize inner needs, struggles, hopes.

My favorite "great books" are easily the comic book heroes of their times.

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Myrna Foster said...

I agree. I love reading beautiful writing, and there is plenty of it available to read. I am most drawn to children's, YA and literary fiction, but I think the variety available is incredible. I will never have time to read all of the books I want to read.

As to reverse snobbery, Chekov gave excellent writing advice before Stephen King or many others quoted today. One shouldn't discount a writer because they are literary anymore than one should discount a writer for being popular. If they are either of those, they've done something right.

Anonymous said...

And, also, not to forget, literature came up from the church in England with its social agendas, morals, etc.

Many a literary "classic" protagonist featured a selfish or self-sacrificing dullard as a model.

The craving for a conquering hero or adventurer will always attract a following. I think it is more natural.

If it is beautifully written, it just becomes all the more powerful!

mythicagirl said...


I didn't get a chance to read the entire line of comments to your earlier post, but I'd like to share this video link, as when I think of literary high brow, too often the works of other cultures are dismissed as not being literary enough (for example, the Nobel prize in literature overlooking American Authors). I realize we're slowly working towards inclusion and change,
But I saw this piece and thought it was very powerful and wanted to share it.

If this has already been touched on, sorry if I'm repeating it.

Keith Popely said...

"Moral," not "morale."

C.S. Gomez said...


Thanks! I don't know how my eye slipped over those posts in the FAQ.

P. Grier said...

Last year, my seventh graders all decided to read "The Metamorphosis" last year. They just thought it was fun stuff. As I do. When I was their age, Kurt Vonnegut was my passion, and still is.

So, I go back to, tell the story. Tell it well.

Steph Damore said...

One shouldn't discount a writer because they are literary anymore than one should discount a writer for being popular. If they are either of those, they've done something right.

Nice Myrna; I like it.

Mira said...

Just not brave enough yet. Also, I hate being on the outs with you Nathan.

Interesting post. Feels like you're working something out here, about the market vs. quality which is interesting to see.

And in terms of wanting people to argue with you - it does occur to me, Nathan, that you like debate on the internet almost as much as I do.

Almost. I don't think it's possible that someone could like it as much.

So, the parts that I agree with - you are so on target about the current climate celebrating mass appeal - popularity - and equating that with quality. They aren't the same thing! A quick hit of entertainment that everyone enjoys is a far cry from beautifully written and crafted literature. And there very much is a place for people who study the craft and become experts in what does or does not make up quality.

I will disagree that those experts are necessarily in the publishing field - which is primarily interested in the popularity factor. Individual editors and agents may vary, but as a whole, the publishing industry is, and should be, primarily about selling. That is how it stays viable and healthy, and can afford to print sidelines of literary fiction.

The other thing that I disagree with - not all great literature is literary fiction. There have been many commercial works that were exceptional in terms of quality and outlasted their generation.

As for me, I don't enjoy literary fiction as much as I wish I did. I'm often glad I read it, because it haunts me, but I only read it occasionally.

On the other hand, I plan to read your client's works, Nathan, just because, well, they are your clients. And I know them. I'll always read the works of friends or people I know well on the internet. Of course. But other than that, I limit my literary reading.

mythicagirl said...

Sorry, the whole link didn't go through. Here's the video link again (there's also a written transcript)

ryan field said...

Good post.

Jen P said...

Perhaps it all comes down to why we write? If you hope to make big bucks or for literary fame - which I believe was one of your past posts.

I think one can certainly aim to write well and write quality books in a literary style, but still we must be careful that the style does not hold back the story, characters and plot. The writing needs to be so polished that the plot glides along, rather than grating on the grammar and forced themes.

I am just back from browsing at the local Waterstone's - front two tables as you walk in the door, big names, big books, book club fiction, known-names, Steph Meyer 3 for 2 and Stephen King. "Classics section?" "Upstairs. Next to the maps." Maps? Maps? Jane Austen lies forgotten next to the Sussex A-Z.

M said...

I echo the incomparable Rejectionist.

I just discussed this idea yesterday with a group of friends. We are all adults who love books. Some of us only read Really Serious Grown-up Books With Deep Thoughts. Others read only YA that skews to a young audience. But most of us fall somewhere in between; we just want to read Good Books. Books that grab us and won't let go. Kavalier & Klay, Oscar Wao and Harry Potter all fit that mold.

This was the article that got us talking:

Lev Grossman is quoted as saying: “Millions of adults are cheating on the literary novel with the young-adult novel, where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed, even encouraged.” (emphasis added)

The sentiment I derived from Nathan's post on Tuesday is that
it doesn't matter what you write, whether your books skew literary or commercial. What matters is that you tell a story, and you tell it well. If there are themes, awesomesauce. If there aren't, well...just make sure you have a damn good story that people will be desperate to read.

Laurel said...

Anon 11:48:

I'm the author of one of those "amazing, high-quality" YA books. Though it's been to acquisitions at several pubs, its been shot down as "too quiet," meaning it isn't about a vamp, werewolf or the like.

I want to read that.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why people assume "literary" means hard to read?

Kavaliar and Clay wasn't a hard read to me. Neither was David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest -- because they interested me.

While those books are dense, thick books, I balk at the notion that all literary fiction is, or that literary means something you have to "suffer" through.

Some of the best books ARE books you think about afterwards.

I couldn't get into Frazens' (sp?)The Corrections because I didn't care about the characters -- it didn't matter if the book was well-written. But I also can't stomach any more John Grisham -- no matter how breezy the writing -- because it all feels so familiar (the underdog lawyer who miraculously defeats a giant).

As for genre writres feeling they are looked down on by the public, I always wonder how they come to that conclusion. Genre writers have the book buying public by the balls, from where I stand.

Blank said...

This frustrates me. The Publishing gods know all.

I agree with Mira.

Publishers/Agents/Editors: They want to sell.

There are authors.

There are writers.

Some authors (not all) are bad writers. And they are published. And successful. Sure. They did something right. But they can still be bad writers. Popular authors have even admitted this!

Sometimes it's about selling. Maybe it's not about how well-written the book is, but how well it can be marketed. Maybe it's about a plot-twist. A spin. Something clever. But not necessarily about the writing.

Also capitalizing on other people's large success. Following trends. That happens.

Arabella said...

Thank you, Sir, that's exactly what I was thinking. Reverse snobbery of the aw-shucks type is every bit as annoying as its opposite. In fact, it might be more annoying.

Anna Claire said...

I think eventually, and it could be 20 years or more from now, our culture will swing back the other way and develop a greater appreciation of experts again. Cultural feeling about media is so cyclical. We'll eventually get tired of the yammering from everyone and their grandmothers and seek out the experts who know what they're talking about. I'm already feeling this way about the news, and nearly always try to seek out reputable news sites rather than the nonstop op-ed blogosphere.

Every era is "a difficult time of transition" for the people living through it. We'll pull through this like other writers have pulled through their respective eras for the last few millenia.

Anonymous said...

I liked Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea when I first read it as a fifth grader, not assigned nor required, not even for school. It was about fishing to me then. Later, when I read it as an assignment for a high school literature class, it meant something different to me, like, an old man confronted with the nature of suvival of the fittest. Later readings become more enjoyable as I found new depths and meanings. I fancy my latest reading will be the most appreciation of the story's meaning to me. But there's the rub, as my reading comprehension skills advance, the story takes on more personal significance. My latest reading was most significant because of my close reading abilities that evolved from studying literature, though there was a dark time there where I couldnt read anything for enjoyment because of my hyperacute focus.

And that's it, that's what literary works do that I enjoy, they have emerging depths that continue to provide entertainment.

The sad thing for me is, you know, my classmates back in high school (and later in college and in life in general) who treated literature as an assignment that had to be endured and gotten over with as quickly and easily as possible and never done again if it could be in any way avoided. How much they miss out on.

robin said...

Interesting. I don't enjoy literary books. I think it's partly because so many people around me expected me to love them...and I don't. I've read a few, and although I like aspects of a couple, I only have so much time, and spending it reading books I don't love is not for me. That's why reading is such a joy -- there's something for everyone! And I won't expect others to love what I do, as long as they won't expect me to love literary books.

Blank said...

The Time Traveler's Wife can be considered literary.

But it also has time travel in it. OOOO. SHINY!

Kristi said...

Most people who trash any type of book, be it literary or commercial, are unpublished - save for a few famous authors who can do whatever they want. I'm a heavy reader of literary books but a proud writer of commercial genre fiction. I think there's room for all of us.

Also, I think the reverse snobbery is a reaction to the long-time snobbery by some, not all, literary types. As in everything else, when the pendulum swings too far one way, it tends to swing back with a vengeance before settling somewhere in the middle.

Bane of Anubis said...

As long as James Joyce is lauded as one of the top authors by critics, I'll keep a healthy dose of reverse snobbery...

yes, we can learn some from people outside our genre/understanding. but that doesn't necessarily mean we can't learn more elsewhere (and keep ourselves entertained).

And, IMO, something popular is something great (even if we may not individually like it)... mass appeal is no less a metric of excellence recognition than approval by an oligarchy of 'experts.'

If anything, mass appeal should be the highest measure. Expertise w.r.t. to right-brain activities is too subjective and thus a high statistical sampling is required to determine value (another subjective criteria, admittedly, but democracy is the best form, flawed as it may be).

Anonymous said...

In an eighth grade writing class, the class was disbanded for a general school district-wide lack of grammar skills. I was so dissappointed, but had passed the grammar competency exam required in one of those fleeting school board decisions that didn't hold for more than a year.

Anyway, I spent the year in the library reading whatever I wanted and doing response papers. My advisor didn't like the first several "book reports," but at least he didn't care what books I chose. More than advisor, mentor; he said, there's only one overt reason for studying literature, and that's to encourage development of your critical thinking faculties. To get you to think for yourself. There's no right or wrong interpretation of literature. It's all subjective. Take a stand, make a point, and support it. I took his advices to heart. He liked my "reports" after that because they were my insights.

Kate said...

In a recent conversation with a fellow English major who's become a tad jaded since commencement, he said he thought analyzing literature is the biggest waste of time. That kinda made me sad because I learned some great lessons about myself and the world through four years of literary analysis. Not to mention those books that have changed industries (not publishing) and cultures! Books have that power, I think. But just because they don't change the world or win a Nobel prize, that doesn't mean that they aren't worth reading--even if it's just for fun.

NinjaWerewolf said...

Excellent post. I think there is room for all fiction, from cheeky pulp to high art. But I do sense a certain disdain growing for all (well, most) things nuanced. We live in an age that celebrates reductionism. I can't help but feel, between Twitter, texting, talking points, and the media's obsession with sound bites, that we might be losing a little something along the way. Then again, maybe not. Also, this is my first post; and I love your blog. Keep it going, please. Thank you!

Ink said...


I was wondering... how much of the current accessibility trend is techno-induced and how much is simply particular to North American culture? It seems like many of the European countries are still quite willing to celebrate difficult writing in a way that we aren't right now. Or at least that's the impression I get, that the market for such writing has not shrunk in the same way over there.

And, I promise, no Kings jokes.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I don't pay attention to some experts (like movie reviewers or even buffs) because I love my ignorance.

Not so with books. I read reviews of books I'm never going to read all the time. I pay attention to my industry and spend a great deal of my time trolling blogs and sites to keep up.

That said, reading has been ruined for me by writing. So I can't stand reading books that don't match my aesthetic, particularly my writing and learning aesthetic. It's literally painful.

And really, life is too short for bad books. (by bad meaning not-my-taste, of course).

Marsha Sigman said...

M, new fav word. Also great title for a novel...almost as literary as say...JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW.

Don't we usually write what we like to read?

Anonymous said...

I think most of the stuff published is crap. I’d always heard how hard it is to get published, but first query letter out I got a telephone call from an agent in New York who said he was SO RELIEVED to see a decent manuscript for a change. I said why, and he told me to just look at the bookshelves in any bookstore anywhere. “It’s painful,” he said. He assured me he could sell my book in two shakes of a rat’s ass.

Well, thinking I knew how competitive the publishing business is, I didn’t believe it, but two days later I get another phone call, this time from an editor at one of New York’s biggest houses. She said thanks for saving her job, and I said why, and she said heads were rolling everywhere because editors were buying and publishing too much crap. That’s the word she actually used, crap. She said she’d get my book through the mill faster than a Sarah Palin autobiography on jet skis and would a nice seven figure advance do? I told her I’d think about it and immediately called my agent who said he thought he could get more from another house. He kept using the word auction and mumbling about all the crap that gets published and I told him the editor kept mentioning the name “Bransford” when she spoke about all the crap that is out there. I thought at first she was talking about Richard Branson, but she said, no, Bransford, and then started in again about all the crap that is out there, and so here I am, reading your blog.

Nathan Bransford said...


In a typically American way I honestly have no idea what the trends are overseas.

Mystery Robin said...

Love this post.

Suzan Harden said...

>I couldn't stand her writing--not because it was literary, but because it was trying to hard.

I have to agree with C.S. Gomez's comment. I don't mind difficult or thought-provoking writing, but it seems that the last several literary books I've picked up dealt only with middle-aged angst and the author tried to hard to identify with a life of regret.

If I want to deal with middle-aged angst, I'll go to the local Wal-Mart. It's much more entertaining.

Anonymous said...

At some point can we have (another) post on what is considered "literary?"

Because when people considering that literary has to be War and Peace, Anna Karina, James Joyce or Faulkner, well, heck, I guess I don't read literary, either. Except I don't read all that much "genre" fiction, and yet I always have a book in my hand.

Is there a difference between classics and "literary?"

To me, literary means "The Help," which I recently finished, or "Shanghi Girls" which is next on my TBR pile.

Anyone? Bueller?

Anonymous said...

Nice job at backpedaling, douchebag.

Marilyn Peake said...

I’m really glad to read your blog today. Yesterday, I was about to cross your blog off places I plan to visit in the future. There should definitely be room in the marketplace for both literary and popular fiction. If there comes a time when there’s no room for literary fiction, then civilization has taken a huge nosedive. Most leaders are educated today, and future leaders need books that engage them and allow them to wrestle with big philosophical issues. Does that make them better than anyone else? Of course not!! It just makes them educated and equipped to take on certain types of responsibilities. We need people like that. It’s a dangerous kind of elitism indeed that tries to do away with good solid educational resources. I disagree with you, however, when you say that "Not every talented writer is a published author, but (nearly) every published author is talented." If you read enough popular books, you find the good, the bad and the ugly. There are both incredibly well-written popular books and some that are very poorly written. I recently finished reading THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova and thought it was incredibly well-written. I’m now reading another popular book. I’m finding it difficult to finish it. A YA book, the writing is probably second or third grade level (I once ranked books by age level for schools); there are glaring grammatical errors, huge errors in factual elements of the story, the list goes on and on. I’m not going to name the book because it’s already published and on the New York Times Best Seller List, and I don’t believe in authors slamming other authors publicly, but let’s just say that, by comparison, Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer are literary geniuses.

I’m very proud of something that happened to me today, something that will keep me writing for a long time. I submitted a short story to poet Ron Slate for an anthology. He described my short story as "very effective" but not focused enough on the theme of the anthology. To have Ron Slate take time to personally read my work and write a personal email to me describing my writing as "very effective" means a great deal to me. I wouldn’t want to be criticized for being exuberantly happy about this, or for viewing it as a huge milestone in my writing career, because my focus is on the literary side of writing.

AB said...

In a previous thread I mentioned that every field has to have its hacks and its talents; the hacks need competence. I think my "competence" is your "talent" - we're using the words differently - but for me, writing literature that informs, changes, and challenges, is talent. The writer who holds a mirror up to life and highlights a package of thoughts and ideas that are completely recognizable but haven't been framed like that before is talented. Those authors tend to stick.

Entertaining with a tightly written stories is competence - competence hard won. Every published writer is competent at something. I tend to find people dissing writers outside of the competence they value - writers can be plot, character, or language driven primarily.

Thing is, to become competent yourself, you should learn especially from those writers who do not value as you do. I'm not fond of Twilight, but Meyer is masterfully handling plot. YA is usually very plot driven. So, ignoring theme, character, and language, I can see quite clearly what she has that I need to work on.

Maybe basic competence in lit means a writer must have certain traits: imagination, attention to detail, ability to learn from critique, attention to people/settings/dialogue, the ability to learn grammar. Often, but not always compassion. But that's not really talent in writing per se.

There are some very popular writers who are incredibly talented, or who have a few shining books, and there are some not so popular writers who are incredibly talented.

The talented folks must also be competent writers to be published.

eyeswide said...

Just because something is dense and challenging does not make it good. Does not make it thought-provoking or more profound.

Some of the best literary fiction sticks it right to you. It doesn't get caught up in some forced use of the "ten-dollar" words. They tell a solid story with characters you fall in love with (or should I say with which you fall in love).

I think most writers bust their butts to write a great story. They more than anyone realize that not just anyone can do this.

Literary fiction? Genre fiction? That's something you guys put together. Writers try to write a great story.

Down the line they find out they need to know what category it fits in. They're scoffed at if they don't know what their genre is. And please, no cross-genres! Who's your target audience? What best selling authors is your work similar to? But what makes yours unique at the same time?

It makes blood drip from my ears.

We have to know the answers to the riddles at every gate. The passwords and secret handshakes in order to pass through to the next level, and maybe, finally, get to the inner sanctum.

My point is, we know it takes talent and a whole lot of Hard work to get anywhere in this industry. We know this and nothing is taken for granted.

We're not wanna-be genre writers, or wanna-be literary writers. We wanna be writers. And we want the opportunity to take our craft to market. To share our stories by whatever name the industry currently wants to call it.

I don't think most writers are thumbing their nose at literary works. I think they respect the craft and the ability. I do think, however, that they take heart in seeing that your work does not have to be some profound, abstract piece of art to be appreciated.

It's nice to see that good, solid writing can stand on its own. Not everyone is a "literary" writer, but that does not mean they don't have a good story to tell.

Anonymous said...

Your post made me think of a young teenage girl I know who informed me that she was 'punk.' I then asked her if she listened to the Ramones or Blondie or the Sex Pistols. She responded that she had not even heard of those bands. I then responded, exasperated, that she could not be punk without appreciating the history of the music.
My point: it is ridiculous not to follow the line of evolution of art if you want to be part of it. We stand on the shoulders of giants, although my theory is that the giant is just a slightly tall person on someone else's shoulders, who is on someone else's, ad nauseum. In the literary world, that means knowing your Austen and Fitzgerald and Dan Brown and Dickens and Patterson and Homer and Dostoevsky, etc.

Anonymous said...

Hallmarks of a clichéd poser hoaxing; rejected by agents, editors, and publishers alike:

Claims everything else written or published is crap.

Claims highly successful publishing career.

Names, demonizes parties who've wronged the next latest greatest messiah of the written word.

Pontificates from a soapbox pulpit that everyone else's opinion is, in fact, beneath noteable notice; meanwhile, asserts that its opinions are, in fact, factual facts, unequivocal, irrevocable, absolute, and to be abided and conformed to at all costs, because there can be only the one.

Raspberries all around.

AM said...

I think that today's market wants authors who write well enough and who, with a modern voice, tell an entertaining story that painlessly imparts something more than the story itself.

Scott said...

By far my favoritist post from you, Nathan. I almost feel lighter.

I'd like to add that, aside from reverse snobbery, there exists a very disturbing trend of cheap validation for those who just simply can't, won't or don't challenge themselves. Suddenly, un-challenging is the standard and "whaddya know, I'm already there!" Ugh. And their battle cry? "Down with elitism!" Double ugh.

Whether they're lazy, lack intelligence or are more interested in satisfying simple appetites, I can't say. But there's a mob mentality happening in popular American culture and it's absurdly depressing. I'm with you––there's definitely a place for the middle and low-brow, hell I love it––but railing against the high brow is certainly taking it too far.

Thanks again, dude. Every blog about every damn thing should echo the equivalent of the sentiments here.

Fawn Neun said...

Ha! I don't even know where to start! :) I edit a literary journal that been praised both for its lack of pretention and disregarded as "for the younger crowd" because we do feature a lot of young, emerging artists.

I think that it work both ways, I think literary writers are afraid that in the current market they won't be able to get published, so they cling to status of "fine art" as opposed to popular art to buffer their fragile egos.
Genre writers, on the other hand, cling to their sales to justify their over-reliance on formulas.

I'd love to see things start to meet in the middle, and that's where I try to write. You can become too attached to "mechanics" and remove the entire story from context for most readers, but there's a middle ground there and the Buddha did say the middle way was where the soul found nirvana.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the post and def agree. My main problem with "literary" books is they're often so damn DEPRESSING. I really don't want to read about child abuse, incest, mental illness, etc. etc when so much of that surrounds us in REAL life and on the news. Like many, I want to relax and escape reality when I read good fiction, not be upset by the subject matter. Give me fun and fast-paced any day (not chick lit tho). Why does litarary fiction have to be so serious and often sensational? Isn't there an in between?

Vacuum Queen said...

Recently I got the boot from a classics book club because I admitted that Ruth Reichl was my favorite author. I actually also noted that I couldn't wait each month for Sports Illustrated to arrive for my husband because I loved (now retired) Rick Reilly's essays on the last page more than anything else. Those two are great writers of everyday events. They write like we're in a comfortable conversation together.
But they aren't classic.
So I went through a reverse snobbery for awhile. It started with my constant Seinfeld references during our novel discussions. They would roll their eyes at me, and I'd scoff that they knew nothing of popular culture.
And then I was notified via email that the club wasn't continuing. Although it was. And they were friends of mine! It's not like I wouldn't find out.
But I DID join the club because I AM interested in classics too. I kinda feel like I'm the one who's open to both sides, but it doesn't matter. I have to start my own new club of "anything goes," I suppose.
Sad but true.

B. Nagel said...

Some of the best advice I ever heard is "Write for the smart."

That doesn't mean you have to buy into the elitist bullsh*t, just that you write at the top of your game.

I'm sure someone already said that in the 100 comments before mine.

Word Ver: thersmor, as in, "But wait, thersmor!"

Parsley said...

Also, those oft-vilified "themes" stand out in books because they speak to our own life experiences. Even if I get all, "Ian McEwan's novel focuses on the dangers of fabricated realities," what I am saying is that the novel explores our own preoccupation with the fictionality of our imaginations and memories.

So the presence of "English class" themes often indicates an authorial interest in connecting to the reader. A lot of genre novels have visible themes and could be more deeply analyzed than they are.

And I do think all good books are relatable in some way. Whether they relate to readers' realities or secrets or imaginations or dreams, they are still relatable.

Christine H said...

I'm a little confused, actually.

I would LOVE to make my book a "literary" fantasy. Focus on characters and how they deal with the situation they are in.

But I have been told repeatedly that something like that won't sell.

Action, action, action! You must grab the readers' attention! Story is river... it must flow along like a rushing rapid or no one will want to read it.

So, that's the way I've been writing it. I'm told it's still too "boring" but I'm doing my best here.

(throws hands up in despair)

I also wanted to make a comment about tastes and critics and such. Someone said in the last batch of comments that they think agents are "looking for the next Tolkien."

Which is great, because he's my hero.

BUT... Tolkein was mostly rejected by the critics of his own time. Edmund Wilson called The Lord of the Rings “juvenile trash”. The books didn't really become popular until about 20 years until after they were written, and now are considered classical literature.

So who is right? I dunno.

Laura Martone said...

This is so well said, Nathan, that I don't really feel like adding much to it... except to say that I aspire to be somewhere between entertaining and meaningful - and I agree that we must read a smattering of all writing styles in order to reach our goals, whatever they might be.

I'm glad that my literary and cinematic tastes have always been eclectic - I've learned as much from INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE as I have from BLEAK HOUSE. The trick is to harness some of those "lessons" in my own work - and to that end, all I can control in this uncertain publishing climate is my own confidence, determination, willingness to improve, and openness to other writers, including those who have been lucky enough to get published and those who are still trying, like me.

annerallen said...

These comments show how many different definitions of "literary" there are. Maybe it's not a solid category, but a continuum?

People now talk of Vonnegut as "literary," but he was first published as pulp sci-fi. Shakespeare was all about box office, Jane Austen wrote the chick lit of her day, and Dickens books were published as serials--like soap operas.

"Pulp" can move to "classic" pretty fast. Stephen King gets published in the New Yorker these days, and Elmore Leonard is spoken of in reverent tones in many literary circles.

Maybe someday people will study Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones) along with Henry Fielding (Tom Jones.)

My point is that "Literary" doesn't mean "boring and elitist" any more than "commercial" means "forgettable pulp."

You've made a really important point here Nathan. And the people who say they hate "literary" fiction may actually have read it and enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

It is indeed all about what is (and isn't) possible with words.

And what you want to make possible with YOUR words. You want to make professors of English lit drool with envy? Then go the high literary route. You want to option movie rights and have your mass market paperbacks grace supermarket checkout stnads and airport newsshops the world over? Then write thrillers or romances or supernatural westerns.

neither is better or worse than the other, they're just different goals.


Dawn Simon said...

Great post! I've nothing to add but applause.

Anonymous said...

So Mickey Spillane wrote what most literary elitists of his time considered as trashy pulp novels. But there's a moral there in politically incorrect Mike Hammer that reflected a cultural shift. Spillane, ne Hammer, was a literal misogynist.

The villains of Spillane's who-done-it murder novels were frequently female, intellectually advanced authority figures. Just what U.S. servicemen came home from WW II to find had changed in their absence, women in positions of authority in the workplace.

Spillane aimed for the frustrations of his audience and caught them by their bigotries. Classic artistic literary timelessness, a brutally honest truth about an era for the future to explore in Spillane's novels, even though Spillane had no such intention.

"My work may be garbage but it's good garbage." Quote widely attributed to Spillane.

Anne-Marie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Literary Cowgirl said...

I'm finding this a lot with online review groups. I've had a few comments on a post card story like "It was boring. Nothing happened. Needs more action." Meanwhile a pretty major struggle happens that changes the character and it happens in 250 wds. I find my work is often mistaken for a Western. I love Max Brand, but I don't write pulp. I write literary fiction. That means there isn't car crashes and piro. There are things happening, but it doesn't play out like a video game. It doesn't have to.

People are running around passing judgement on works that are maybe outside of their genre range, never mind expertise. I'm not put off if my type of writing isn't liked by someone, or if my technique is ripped to shreds because there is plenty of room for improvement. What I do dislike is being lamb-basted because someone dislikes the genre and is too ignorant to know the difference. I'm not writing for everyone, and that's fine. There is a substantial market for what I write. With current attitudes, you'd think there was only room out there for Dan Brown and Stepahnie Meyers.

And, if any of you are sick of this mass market genre crap, please check out a fantastic new publishing company. diiarts. In there line-up, due to be released in Nov., they have an intellegent, well researched historical romance, sans regency fluff, and some intellegent literary works filled with amazing prose.

And Please do read this

I love books that don't appeal to everyone and I am proud of it. I am also proud of my dime store western collection.

Anne-Marie said...

great post, Nathan.

I loved Kavalier and Klay, but have to admit, it never crossed my mind to consider it literary fiction. When I think literary fiction, I guess I think more along the lines of classics, or something too dense for me to read. YMMV.

On the subject of snobbery, one of the best lines I ever heard about books was that they could never be elitist, because books are essentially about ideas, and ideas belong to everyone. I always remember that when people get all high-brow.

October 29, 2009 2:41 PM

Etiquette Bitch said...

this is a really, really great post. i know that even when something is crap, a lot of hard work went into it.

and i agree with your sentiments on mass appeal - i think it's sad that yelp is more trusted/read than a Chicago Tribune restaurant article, and yet, I do it.

I took a "writing for the web" class last week wherein the instructor discussed this whole Crowd Sourcing (mass writing?) thing and how the internet has made it so any idiot can spew forth. He asserted that that will change within a few years, because internet readers will demand *good* writing as opposed to just *any* writing. Me, I'm not so sure that's the case.

liznwyrk said...

I agree.
No wait, that will make you mad.
I disagree!
No wait, now I'm a defensive dissenter.

I agree with disagreeing about agreeing

Jil said...

I really like what you say today, Nathan. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Being a writer with vaguely artistic ambitions who would also like to be able to eat, I have worked out why more "literary" writing will become more popular in the future. In theory it will work like this: as all media increasingly seeks to provide instant gratification and entertainment, books with similar goals will be less desirable than their audio-visual counterparts, as one will necessarily be delayed gratification by the act of reading. Yes, people will always get something different out of reading the Da Vinci Code compared to watching the movie but you maximize what you get out of the effort put into reading something over watching it on TV when the author successfully uses words artfully. I've got a three foot hight pile of Proust, Joyce and David Foster Wallace to get through; I'm probably going to wait for the Lost Symbol to come out in theaters.

This may not be true, or even make sense to anyone else. It's just what I tell myself to avoid total hopelessness for my future as a writer.

I don't get the whole "elitist" tag either. I don't have a clue where my eyebrows are positioned on my forehead when I'm writing. I don't have any special interest in coming across as an impenetrable genius. I just try to write what's in my head and if thats not as easily readable as Harry Potter, well, there's only so much I can do about that beyond copying out Harry Potter word for word.

Emily White said...

I see your point, but I often wonder why there seems to be this distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction. Frankenstein, Dracula, The Lord of the Rings, Gulliver's Travels, all of these are genre, but they are also literary.

Why the great divide? I write sci-fi/fantasy, but I would like to think that readers would be able to see the deep meaning behind my words as well as be entertained.

Just my two cents.

L.T. Elliot said...

I'm mostly a lurker here but I had to come out on this one.
The first time I read Jane Austen I thought it was dense literary nonsense but I didn't know what I didn't know.
Once I read more, it because easier to read. Once I applied myself, the fog cleared and what was once Egyptian hieroglyphics became soulful expression that reached me. Now I look back and wonder how I didn't recognize the language of words. I guess you just don't know what you don't know until you know it.

clindsay said...

You can have my Richard Powers' OPERATION WANDERING SOUL when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. All I'm sayin'.

Other Lisa said...

I, uh, read book and movie reviews. I guess I'm an elitist.

Great post...I think there's room for the wisdom of crowds and experts both.

Lady Glamis said...

Excellent post, Nate. Thank you. :)

Anonymous said...

In looking at and encompassing the overall trend of this blog I'm sensing a paramount theme. What does the future of publishing hold for writers? Thence, what can an agent do to take the pulse of the marketplace near future demand for publishing?

Today's breakouts are tomorrow's clichés. An author is only as good as his last novel. A writer is as good as his next story.

Well, there's one common readily realized thread in the evolution of story: increasingly personal, intimate, individual reading experiences. In the early days of the novel, an author's direct address voice was the point of reader access to a story. Then direct address first person voice of a narrator, then the indirect address of first or third person narrator emerged in the middle of the 19th Century. Authors since then have refined the indirect address method until today it's all but universal.

What next will further reader immersion in a story? That to me is the answer of what the future holds. On an immersion scale of zero to seven, out of all the novels I've read, one or two have placed at six, most place at three or four. Sadly, too many place at zero to two. How to do it? That's my question, neither pulp nor casecover holds an immediate answer, but somewhere in a synthesis of forms is satori.

Terry said...

I like what's called, literary fiction, but also what is called, genre. In fact murder mysteries, or mysteries of any kind, are my favorites.

The best mysteries, for me, are the ones that concentrate on what motivates people, not so much the puzzle. They also have some subtle and maybe not-so-subtle social commentary. Does this make them literary, perhaps not. But Raymond Chandler, who was once considered genre, is now often called literary. The line is blurry.

By my lights, it's the ability to tell a good story, high or low, that makes me keep reading. Yes, there is room for all sorts of stories, even the stories that don't appeal to me. They may appeal to you

Giles said...

My big objection with snobs from either direction of this argument is the attitude that their preference, rather pulp or literature, is BETTER, and irrefutably so.

My preference when I pick up a book is to read pulp, but I also enjoyed A Rose for Miss Emily, the language of Shakespeare and Jane Austin do nothing but inspire me. Sure, they don't entertain me in the same way the Dresden Files does, but that doesn't make them less than fantastic!

AndrewDugas said...

Elite or lowbrow, either or both. Who cares? Whenever a reader surrenders their own judgment in favor of someone else's because still others have given that person's judgment some special status, the whole purpose of literature has gone out the window.

Mr. Hook said...

In defense of reverse snobbery:

If a book bores me or fails to hold my attention, I’m not likely to finish it, let alone recommend it to others. I’m not going to waste my time searching for themes or symbols or “meaning” in your fiction. If I purchase your book at all, it’s because I want to hear an engrossing story, something that transports me out of my current time and place and lets me live is someone else’s imagination for a while. I you can do that and do it well, I might come back to re-read your book later to try and figure out the mechanics of how you managed to captivate my attention or care about this character or that scenario. But I’ll do it because I respect you as a storyteller, not as a “writer” or an “author.”

I read my fair share of “classics” in high school, some of which I found to be ridiculously over-rated, others to be surprisingly entertaining and engrossing. Guess which ones I’m going to recommend to my friends and relatives? Certainly not the ones the “experts” told me I _should_ enjoy, but the ones I actually did. Experts be damned! ;-)

AstonWest said...

Writers ignore good writing at their peril.

Except we hear over and over again that "good" writing is all in the eye of the beholder (or in this case, the agent)...

Nathan Bransford said...


Taste is in the eye of the beholder. "Good" writing is more (but not entirely) objective.

Donna Hole said...

Thanks for the clarification Nathan. I really liked J's comment also.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. Nuance is good. Nathan Bransford, meet Andrew Keen, a notorious Net culture critic. You can friend him on Facebook. Personally, I like to read books that value meaning, but i like a good story as well. The Edgar Sawtelle book comes to mind. Also a couple of novels of the Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafon, whose work I just recently discovered in an independent bookshop called Brilliant Books, while on holiday in Michigan.

In my own writing, I try to figure out what the story was 'about' when I am through the first or second draft. That way, I have a story in the box, and I can try to figure out just why I wrote just that story during the later drafts, which I think gives the later drafts a more melodic feel.

Anyway, thanks for the nice post,


Dawn Maria said...

I think there's some irony in the fact that I'm almost done reading WONDER BOYS right now.

I'll put it this way- if Mozart, ABBA, The Black Eyed Peas, Green Day and the Dixie Chicks can all co-exist happily on my iPod, I think my bookshelf can have its own diversity and be just fine.

I'm reading Chabon now and just finished Geraldine Brooks' amazing MARCH. I had to use my dictionary a lot for both books. But the writing was incredible and since I write commercial fiction, it's a great exercise for me to read more literary stuff. We can't let ourselves forget how far good language can go.

Mary Jo said...

Nathan's literary truths also apply to readers, writers, and watchers who enjoy a plethera of television shows.

I myself seldom watch the Book Channel, but do like The Learning Channel and Animal Planet.

In so many ways, we are what we read and see.

Mary Jo

writerjenn said...

My favorite books have it all: a compelling, accessible storyline; a deeper significance (theme); and remarkable writing.

Next said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan Bransford said...


Uncalled for.

Diana said...

I think that it is possible to blend the best of both worlds. To write something that is both popular and literary in one book.

I've found myself on more than one occasion reading a bestselling author and thinking, "Gee, it such a shame that this author doesn't say something meaningful with their story. All those people reading these stories, what a lovely way to reach out and make a positive difference in the world." Which is what Charles Dickens did with "Oliver Twist". He saw a problem that needed to be fixed and wrote a book about it. It was popular in its day and now it is called literary.

However, I am also reminded on my American Lit class back in college. Where we analyzed the poems line by line with the professor telling us what each line meant. Yet, if one stepped back and looked at the whole poem, those interpretations didn't make sense in the context of the whole poem ...

Kimberly Loomis said...

Thank you for this post, Nathan. After that one about themes I was quite...frustrated. I agree with all you said save one: "reverse snobbery". It implies snobbery only really happens in one direction and that's just not true. Snobbery, is snobbery, is snobbery. (pet peeve of mine- if it goes against popular perceptions/applications of a word we stick the word "reverse" in front of it and thus diminish a group of individuals by a very unintentional limitation that was never intended in its origination.)

Thank you for this post, Nathan- I greatly appreciated reading this.

Anonymous said...

I have noticed that one of the effects of the Great Democratization is that new writers are less willing to listen to the voice of dented, scarred, humbled, successful experience.

quillfeather said...

People who blatantly condemn authors books because they don't happen to like them, are not only foolish in my eyes but harbor jealousy and resentment for their own inadequacies.

I am in awe of anyone who has been published.

wendy said...

I like original, complex characters who have vulnerability. I'm sick of reading of the feisty, wordy, high-spirited heroine.For me, stereotypes are the main weakness of some genre fiction while a strength of literary fiction is more intertesting characterisation. I like reading of people who I think, 'I know exactly what he/she is feeling or thinking and being pleasantly surprised as I've never had that kind of connection with a character before.

But apart from that, I stand by what I wrote yesterday that novels written simply with stories that are glorious and compelling - as in uplifting - seem to resonate more with the majority of readers than the clever, dark and heavy-going.

I wonder if the YA reader makes up the majority of readers? Do people of that age read more voraciously? I know I did. Many adults of midle-age tell me that they don't read anymore. I wonder if books therefore that if books (and movies) that can also appeal to YA have a better chance of success as they appeal to a wider readership.

This doesn't mean that I don't think there shouldn't be a place for literary fiction. It definitely serves a purpose on many levels, especially for the reader who enjoys it.

Kathy Collier said...

You go Christine H--and Charlie Pratt. I totally agree. However, it is so unfair that the new person on the block gets blown out of the water before their wares are tasted because they don't have the "credentials" to write. It isn't the college degree or what you have pre-published, it's the talent. Everyone should be given a fair chance as though their work came from some famous writer. How do you know it's not Stephen King or Stepanie Meyer trying to pull one over on you? Ignore the stupid letter and give the novel a chance, give the writer a chance. We can't all be established writers. We have to start somewhere. I feel we are rejected the second you notice we haven't done anything until now. That fabulous novel was just waiting to get out, and now we have to get past the "London Guard", a near impossible feat. Ahh, but don't despair, someone will read our work someday.

abc said...

I completely agree. Plus, Roger Ebert is just fun to read (even if he does throw out those high grades too easily). I love reading the tv critics talk about Mad Men or Project Runway. I appreciate that a restaurant critic knows way more about food culture than I do.

I cringe at the whole "out of touch" judgment thrown at professional critics. I appreciate different viewpoints and expertise. I appreciate A.O. Scott's thoughtful observations about the films I see. And frankly, I'd rather get his viewpoint than Joe the Plummer's. Maybe I am a snob, but not in any way that matters.

Kathy Collier said...

By the way, Nathan, let me say too, I love your site and reading all the interesting blogs and posts. You are ingenious and I like your methods.
I don't always agree, but I like what you have to say. Thanks for giving us the opportunity to sound back.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

This is a link to an essay by Tony Hoagland, Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment -

He's talking about poetry, but I think it can apply to certain kinds of literary fiction as well.

Love his use of the word "skittery."

Christine H said...

I'm going to throw something else out here, just for the heck of it.

I picked up a book tonight and read for about an hour - an hour I shouldn't have spent doing nothing else, but I did. It was a literary novel I picked up at the library. I had no idea what it was going to be, just that it had a nice title and a pretty cover.

I'm exhausted.

It's really good, but it demands a lot of me. And I am just too tired from my week to work that hard just now. But I think I'm really going to enjoy reading it. Just perhaps in small doses.

My point: Sometimes reading preference relates more to a person's available neurons at the end of a day, than to their literary sophistication (or lack thereof). I think we all have seasons of more or less intensity in everything we do - including reading.

Anonymous said...

"That means there isn't car crashes and piro."

Piro? You mean pyro, as in pyrotechnics?

Thing about at least some grnre fic is that it requires some kind of technical know-how! Not everyone can do it.

Shelby said...

Interesting is the key word.

Talented may get one published. Interesting will get one read.

Thus - remembered.

Tell a story worth telling. Otherwise - what is the purpose.

Christine H said...

Kathy Collier ~ Thanks!

London said...

I agree with you... but... I am writing a genre novel, with the whole shabang: sword fights, snogging, etc. At the same time, I've tried very hard to imbue it with themes I care about (I actually wanted to mention this in response to your themes post but didn't get a chance). I think very hard about all of my characterizations, what message my various characters & plot points present to the reader. I hope it's not a moralizing or otherwise obnoxious book, but sometimes I wonder if I get passed over in favor of books that ignore themes altogether. I know my book has flaws, & I'm not trying to sounds pretentious... but, with this economy especially, it seems like the publishing industry is unwilling to expend money on 'risky' books, which might include novels that bridge the gap between literary and genre.
Soo... I guess I'm saying... don't blame the masses entirely. The publishing industry plays into this type of mentality as well ("sell, sell, sell... screw the midlist authors, what is the next vampire bestseller" etc). I've already kind of decided to write a less ambitious novel next time. Something with more mass appeal, & something that a publishing house might buy. I love my current WIP, but I am beginning to think it will never sell, and while I will probably finish writing it in the dead of night, alone in my apartment, I would someday like to have readers, even if not very many.
Just my two cents.

Sally V Johnson said...

It's hard to strike the middle ground. Really nice post.

How do I know I'm talented? I don't. But I do know that if any talent exists, it will atrophy with lack of exercise.

So I write, try to get published, and write some more.

amy said...

Spot on! In any case, isn't the more literary of work the type that endures longer? Will mass market stuff (though successful now) be considered a classic in 300 years?

JDuncan said...

In some ways I think this argument is a bit moot. Writers shouldn't be aspiring to write great literary fiction or any particular type of fiction for that matter. They should be aspiring to tell the best possible story they can. They should be writing that story that ignites the imagination and the passion to put words on paper. They should aspire to make the best possible use of language they are capable of.

Those with the talent and passion for it will likely write great literary fiction without actually striving to do so. They strive to tell a story that is meaningful to them with the best use of their writing skills at their disposal. Some writers are obviously better at achieving this end than others. I'm ok with that. We can appreciate all of the various forms of writing without denigrating one at the expense of another. We read for a great variety of reasons, whether for entertainment, information, enlightenment, or what have you. It's all good and it's all worthwhile. Just strive to tell the best damn story you can with all of the skills you have at your disposal.

Kristine Overbrook said...

I agree with your comment on middle ground. As in most things the middle ground is best. Everything in moderation, from chocolates to Chaucer.

There is something to be said about books that you can read and understood. When writing technical manuals the rule is to write it at an eighth grade reading level. Simple and easy to understand.

Personally I would rather novels that grip me and take me along for the ride, than those that I have to struggle through.

Adam Heine said...

For me, there's a difference between "good" and "pretentious". Obviously the line between them is subjective, but it's the pretentiousness I dislike.

And usually it's not the books or their authors who are pretentious. When it's there at all, it's usually coming from critics and fans.

So I like good writing. I don't like it when people are pretentious about other people's writing, or snobbish about the "bad" writing that I like. In the end, it's not about the writing at all, I guess. It's about us people.

Anonymous said...

If the saying "It takes a village" mated with "Nature abhors a vacuum" the offspring would be at least one villager fills each niche. Applied to snobbery of whatever flavor, literary aspirations, art, writing, and publishing, life, etc., it seems like that's the case.

Rowenna said...

Anyone read the Philip Roth interview in the Wall Street Journal a couple days ago? He made a distinction between "writers" (he put himself in this category) and "entertainers" (he put James Patterson in this category). Now, I thought this was a touch harsh--writers write, and I don't care how fluffy the book, the author wrote it. But it's an interesting distinction nonetheless--there are artistic, literary writers and there are entertainment writers, and, as he said, there's magic in both. That's what I loved about his comment--that each kind of writing has its own appeal, its own skill set to produce--it has a particular magic to it. This kind of goes with the talent post below--there are different kinds of writing talent, and it's definitely not gracious to put down the talents you don't have. Just because you don't get into denser or thematic or slower work doesn't mean that someone else didn't spend a lot of time creating it, that it isn't beautiful, and that other people don't find it enchanting in its own way. And, of course, the reverse is true too :)

therese said...

You don't want the dismissal of experts? You must not have a channel surfer in the house. The airwaves are full of talking head experts with credentials that usually include a book.

While I totally agree with cross-reading of genre & literary fiction, especially for writers, I also feel the talking heads have anesthetized the population into self aggrandizement. Mainly because the TH's are usually in a combat of words and ideas so specific to their years of dedication to a primary focus that the general population is tone deaf. They'll agree with the one that looks like someone they would respect, regardless of the words spewed. This is especially evident in American Idol voting.

Also, being a romance writer, I have been on the receiving end of not just the literary elites prejudice of genre fiction but of romance readers who will slide homogenized covers over their books. The only experts in this field were the ones (for years) silently snickering on the the way to the bank to cash huge royalty checks. The experts called it porn-on-paper and the hysteria of silence was so loud even miserable authors in the field were lauded as stellar. Fortunately SmartBitchesTrashyBooks has blown well deserved holes in that mystique.

The issue I personally have with a lot of recent literary fiction is the absence of character growth and transformation. Which is why I will read the ending prior to even taking a book from the library. To me the literary elite society doesn't give a damn about the general reading audience and are exclusive to style and perfectionism with little regard for reaching an audience that could benefit from their gifts.

Pushing the envelope requires grit, self determination and skill on the part of the writer. Creating mass appeal is the job of the publishing house. That is where the disconnect can occur - the bottom line. Profits. Which book can be sensationalized enough - even if poorly written - to generate the most cash. The best agents and editors with the best proposals from the best writers for the reading public get buried with the latest Hot Topic!

Instead of the strongest story.

Hmm... you really pushed my buttons. Was it good for you?

Terresa said...


Nithska said...

Clive Barker addressed this most succinctly: "I want to be popularist and profound..."

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan –

Before signing off the Internet for the night, I wanted to say that I managed to read through all the comments on the blog today, as well as most of Tuesday’s discussion. Thank you, Nathan, for continuing to keep an open mind and allow strong intellectual debate here. Especially in these times when so many writers, agents and other publishing industry people are struggling with a shrinking market, it’s great to have a place where discussion is mostly civil and people with many different points of view are able to tackle very difficult subjects. I enjoyed today’s discussion immensely. Thanks for all you do.

J.J. Bennett said...

I think there should be a time and place for everything. Some literature should stop you in your tracks and take your breath away. Last week I saw the indi film "Bright Star" about John Keats and Fanny Brawn. It's amazing and I found myself in wonderment at the perfect discriptive elements to Keats' writings. I don't think everyone will fall in love with the film for the same reason as this post in some ways. Some believe it's just too snobby. Personally I loved the film...

Dominique said...

Okay, I concur with this post.
Maybe it's because I'm sometimes an intellectual snob, but I think there's a lot of value in those "dull" books you had to read in a lit class. They were in the syllabus because they were good/important/movement making/ really well written. Just because something's hard doesn't make it not worthwhile. Often, it's quite the opposite.

Kaitlyne said...

I just wanted to say that I'm not sure if it's so much just a dismissal of experts as a mistrust in them. It seems like in the past ten years the ones who we expect to be experts and make good decisions and what not have repeatedly let people down. It seems like these days there are so many conflicts of interest that it's hard to know who to trust. On one hand, I watch the consequences of this and think it's terrible, and on the other hand I also find myself sharing in the mistrust.

It's interesting to me to see authors complain about the idea that popular is best and yet embrace it at the same time. Many authors are upset by the idea that publishers might be moving towards books that have mass market appeal and mid-list and debut authors might be suffering the consequences. Authors complain about the lack of originality in books that strive to follow in the footsteps of whatever the current big thing is. It seems to me that one can't really have it both ways.

I am so tired right now I have no idea if that's even coherent. :)

Leila Austin said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Wonderful post.

Anonymous said...

"I just wanted to say that I'm not sure if it's so much just a dismissal of experts as..."

So many people do this. Why start what you want to say by preceding it with "I just wanted to say that..."? It's wasted words. We know you're the one saying it because it's your name on the blog post.

Why not just start like this:
"I'm not sure if it's so much just a dismissal of experts as..."

Isn't that much more concise and to the point?

Anonymous said...

Are there any authors who have hit the NYT list with both a genre fic trash read AND a literary prize winner? (2 separate books, perhaps using pseduonyms)?

Non-fic doesn't count.

Jill Edmondson said...

"I'd bet that more people read Amazon reviews than the New York Times Book Review."

Goodness gracious, how very, very true!

People are changing their types of literacy and their preferences regarding literature. As writers, we must adapt to this if we want to sell books.

As for reading Proust... well, I haven't read any and have no plans to. I do think my book will sell (to some people in some areas) and my readers will likely not have read Proust either.

Cheers, Jill

Two Flights Down said...

Thank you for posting this.

Chicki said...

Wonderful post!

Christine H said...

Anon 11:53 - I just want to say that... saying "I just want to say" is a common conversational way of softening a point so that it is more easily received.

We are "talking" here, not writing dissertations.

jamiemason said...

Wonderful post, Nathan. Thanks for writing it. Thought becomes words becomes action. Let's let this notion trickle up.

Christine H said...


I have been thinking about this post since yesterday afternoon. It really hit a nerve.

I agree with you... books should be written at the highest level possible for that author's skill and for the intended audience.

I think what people are trying to say about books being published that aren't as well-written as we think they should be, is how FRUSTRATING it is to feel as if you are banging on the door trying to get in, and are being told that your work isn't good enough (for some mysterious, unexplained reason), when even you, the Unpublished, can tell that your work is better than some of the stuff written by people that that DID get into the Hallowed Halls of Publishing.

As I said before, I have been told that I need to craft my first novel towards genre fiction in order to get my foot in the door, because literary novels don't sell as many copies as genre fiction. And publishers don't want to risk money on a new author unless they think the book will sell a zillion copies.

So it seems that the public appetite isn't being challenged because the publishers are selecting books with wider appeal - i.e. the lower denominator. Because publishing isn't about great literature, it's about money.

Am I right?

Richmond Writer said...

"In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them." Alexis de Tocqueville

Nowadays I think they call it group think.

thoughtful1 said...

Nathan, mostly I agree with you. I guess my only hesitation is that what is difficult for a reader should not be the use of language that is inappropriate for the times. Today's grammar involves more direct statements than passive or multiple dependent clauses. Somewhere in my lit crit studies I remember the importance of saying something as directly and simply as possible. If a theme is complex then all the more reason for crystal clear and immediate writing. As for pulp fiction, well, sometimes I enjoy it, but maybe my definition is off. I enjoy Patricia Cornwell. I don't think of her work as great lit, but she writes well in my opinion. Then there are books I pick up for a nanosecond full of immediacy of crude or no brainer themes. So then the question is What Is Great.

Christine H said...

I also agree with the comment that every published writer "is doing something right."

I can think of two examples of authors who have written long series of books that have a faithful readership, whose writing is so bad (IMO) that I cringe when I read them.

But I still read them.

Why? Because they have appealing concepts and characters, and I enjoy the idea of their world even if I think I could write it better.

But I didn't write it. The authors did. So they deserve the credit, and the royalties.

I think that both of them are examples of how less talent but a lot of perseverance (and in one case, publishing connections) can go a long way.

No, I won't name them. But they aren't recent hits - they are long-running authors of "cozies."

anotheranon said...

Roweena @ 8:22pm has a point -- between "writers" and "entertainers."

Interestingly, it wasn't that many months ago where Stephen King slammed Stephenie Meyers publically, saying her writing "just wasn't very good."

I would imagine if Roth would call out James Patterson then he'd also call out Stephen King (as an entertainer). But King (through sales and craft) was eager to distinguish himself from the Stephenie Meyers of the world.

Who is really a writer and who is an entertainer? Where is that line drawn?

thoughtful1 said...

Oh, ye folk who disparage Proust:( Read this and weep:

I would ask myself what time it could be; I could hear the whistling of trains, which now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, showed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveler is hurrying towards the nearby station. . .

from Swann's Way

loronomo said...

I just helped set up a book fair for children in K-12. A few books appealed to teens by using text message language, such as u for you. The librarian said she's had to explain to kids they must use "you" instead of "u" in their term papers. This is as frightening as ghouls on halloween.

I enjoyed viewing the marketplace of books for middle through high school and doing the first-line test, which tells me whether I am interested in reading more. The art of the first line is key, especially in these distracting texting times. Meet your audience and take them with you. They won't wait 20 pages, unless they've read you before.

pjd said...

Nathan, your skills in rhetoric are very strong. A nicely written piece that is difficult to refute. (Not that I would. I agree with the sentiment behind it.)

And I think this has resulted in a cultural moment that celebrates mass appeal rather than the elite.

To translate:

Today, the mob rules.

I believe that, when the mob gains power, the potency of their backlash is in direct proportion to the effects that caused it. France's revolution resulted in a complete and fairly gruesome dismantling (literally) of the existing elite. America's revolution resulted in a reasonably civilized war and enduring diplomatic ties.

Over the past eight years we saw reverse snobbery in virtually all aspects of American culture. Worst of all, it is occurring in our schools, where low expectations are being institutionalized, and standardized tests are creating standardized students.

The reverse snobbery the reading/writing mob exhibits today is, I think, in direct proportion to the perceived snobbery of past decades by the literary elite. It was not so long ago that educated people wouldn't be caught dead holding a popular title. In fact, the popularity of a title was frequently cited as proof of its inadequacy as "literature."

It is not high quality literature per se that the mob rebels against. It is the snobbery of the elite that offends. Unfortunately, mobs are very bad at distinguishing babies from bathwater, so they tend to throw out everything because, well... it's easier, I guess. Mobs like easy, direct, unambiguous action.

What about aspiring to create something that is great, rather than merely popular? What about pushing the envelope even when it's not what's currently in fashion? What is wrong with being elite and appreciated by experts if not by the masses?

Nothing is wrong with it. It's a free country, as we say. This does not fit well, however, with the demographic of writers who frequent the blogs of literary agents. Especially those who are looking for their first modest success. Asking this question here is somewhat like asking a fifth grade basketball team, "What's wrong with trying to win three straight NBA titles?" Maybe one of those kids will do that, one day, and I bet they all dream of it. But you can't hold that as the only worthy goal, which I think the literary elite have done in the past.

Lisa R said...

I have a Bachelor's degree in English and when I was in college I was as deadly serious an English major as you would find. I read A LOT of classics and found myself able to write papers about books that initially seemed dry and boring. But I have always enjoyed a good, fast-paced suspense novel. I was sometimes harangued by my student and faculty colleagues for not reading something "more intelligent" or "more meaningful" or "better written" so I know about the snobbery. Having read on both sides of the tracks, in my experience a truly great book is not necessarily one that keeps you up all night reading or takes your breath away (although many of them do those things) but is one that does two things: 1. It asks questions. It doesn't just give you the story, the theme, the moral or the lesson. It asks YOU questions. You're left going, "Holy crap? I'm not sure how I feel about that or what I think about that." For days afterward you might be turning these questions over in your mind. 2. A truly great book is one you can read over and over again and each time take something away from it. Almost all of the "classics" I read in college did these things. A great example is Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. All of Shakespeare's works do these things. Today books that are touted as great are usually trade paperbacks and are considered more "literary" and many of them that I've read seem to me to be truly great books. Atonement for example--it was beautifully written and it brings up the whole issue of trusting the narrator in the same way that Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground did. I'm sure there are other questions that book brings up but I think I could read that book a few times and take different things from it. At the same time I'm not embarrassed to say that I think Dean Koontz has written some truly great books. There are a handful of his novels I've read over and over again that both raise a lot of questions for me and give me lessons to take from them. So I think it's inappropriate to think that a mass market or genre novel that is not considered "literary" has nothing to offer. There are a couple of other genre writers whose books I could say the same about but I cannot think of any names at this moment.
Also as a writer I find it's too hard to set out to write some great literary novel. My story ideas come to me and that is what I write about. I'm not really worried about whether or not it's literary or even if it has something to offer. I'm just worried about getting it onto the page. Then again, I am one of those writers who would keep writing even if I knew I'd never be published. But I am trying to get published because that would be pretty cool too. I write because it's fun and I write about the things that are fun for me to write about. So far I would say they are suspense novels. Who knows? Maybe if I write long enough a deep, meaningful literary novel will pop out.

terryd said...

The publishing market (for top sellers) encourages this view, doesn't it?

But I'm currently reading a quiet literary novel by Ron Hansen and feeling at one with the earth and with the human condition, in all its screwed up glory, and there's only one reason why writers would pretend to look down their noses at such a heartfelt display of literary power.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that literary fiction, which I define as fiction that takes special care with language and/or that offers unusual insights into the human condition, is BETTER than run-of-the-mill popular fiction. When a writer can combine real intelligence and a capacity for complex, critical thinking with a facility for language in all its beauty, ferocity, and delicacy, the product is a work of art with the potential to move the reader and therefore to change the reader's life. This is no small task. Although popular fiction can sometimes move us, offer us alternative worlds, amuse us, etc. it simply does not have the depths and the power that a work of the finest quality literary fiction possesses.

Also, our culture's skepticism toward experts can offer a healthy corrective to certain staid hierarchies. But to throw authority out the window and conclude that every goofball with an opinion deserves an equal hearing is madness. Just as I would not want my ex-husband, a history professor, to perform open heart surgery on me, so I would not particularly want to subject my intellect to a writer who's writing without training (intensive reading in the history of literature, an apprenticeship in the art of writing fiction).

Christine H said...

Lisa, wonderful points!

I was thinking about the whole "themes" issue, and remembered something I had heard Jerome Kern say on a documentary about composing the music for "Showboat."

He said that (I think) Oscar Hammerstein had encouraged him to use musical themes, even though Kern thought that most people listening to the music would have no clue that they were there. In other words, that it was a waste of effort on the composer's part. For example, the musical themes for "Cotton Blossom" and "Old Man River" are inverted (try singing the words "Cotton Blossom" and "Old Man River" from the two songs and you'll see what I mean.)

"Cotton Blossom" is an upbeat song, so the notes go from lowest to highest. "Old Man River" is mournful ballad, so the notes go down.

Hammerstein told him that although the masses might not consciously recognize the musical themes, they will nonetheless respond to them. In other words, just because a listener or reader can't define what makes a song or book great, they will still recognize its quality.

Anonymous said...


I think you have to separate two different things: 1) the art of reading literary fiction 2) the art of writing a query letter. When you say "Yeah. Forget all that," what you really mean is, "Forget all that when writing a query letter," don't you? I assume you're not advocating that everyone forget the analytical, close-reading skills they learned in college. Rather, you are saying that "themes" (yuck, what a word) should spring forth from the act of reading and should occur to the READER. "Themes" should not be supplied by the author in a query letter.

And really, isn't it true that "themes" shouldn't be driving the writer during the act of writing either? The writer should concentrate on telling a story, whether that story chronicles a traditional plot or the story of a character's inner life.

Anonymous said...

High-concept premises; low concept premises: Low-brow literal meaning; high-brow figurative meaning.

Literary elements: any device or method in a narrative predicated to stimulate emotional response, yeah, like rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion, the art of storytelling. A literary element can be as obvious and essential as a plot, though plot isn't necessarily all that obvious, or a literary element can be as sublime as deep subtext or even more sublime.

How much or how little a story is in its figurative meaning is a filtering mechanism for distinguishing the "literary" from the literal story. But there's the thing, a writer's (reader's too) subconscious is a busier and more talented storyteller than his conscious mind.

What meaning may be found in the figurative story isn't absolutely there in a writer's foremind. Once published though, figurative meaning is no longer an author's to own. It's owned by the audience in its parts and wholes. As long as the literal meaning still tells an engaging story, it's all good.

Anyway, there's a whole lot of reading and writing going on. The masterpieces are few and far between in the now of an era. But the really great masterpieces accumulate thoughout time, so there are a multitude today.

It's hard to write a simple story, harder still to write a complex one, all but impossible to write a masterpiece that will also be widely popular in it's author's own time.

Meanwhile, there's a marketplace void to fill with all the literal stories that serve audience needs until a masterpiece comes along and sweeps aside all the hubris.

Robert Michael said...

When millions of readers fall in love with a common novel, it speaks more highly of the appeal of the content than of the craft. I know that this is subjective and the two can be closely related, but they are not necessarily exclusive, either. Novels with less craft can have popular appeal. Novels that sell millions can also be very well crafted. It is a simple formula.

An element of the reading public, however, takes it upon themselves to lift literature to a higher standard. I do not champion their effort, but I can give them a golf clap for effort. They are often the same element that choose alternate operating systems, word processors and web browsers. And what they are doing is laudable, but not for everyone.

I, for one, sit upon the literature fence. I love the great works of literature and can discern between what is great and why. I also love to lose myself in the "pulp" literature and genre classifications just like the other million readers out there. I read the Harry Potter series and was captivated. I read King, Salvatore, Brown and the Star Wars Legacy series. Call me a dope. But, I feel I am in the majority. Most people read what makes them feel good or has a common element with their lives that appeals to them. We read to live, to learn, to experience. We write to do the same.

To judge content on "literary merit" is one way to qualify our tastes, but often it is meant to elevate our feelings about our own quality. It is a way for us to exercise the ever-present literature envy mantra: "WOW! THAT novel is trash! I can write better than that!"

When our aspirations for our own work is high, it is easy to become snobs. This is true with anything. Just attend a middle school basketball game and sit next to a parent with a child on the bench. We are possibly in the "why not me?" generation.

Keith Popely said...

Blogger thoughtful1 said...

Oh, ye folk who disparage Proust:( Read this and weep:

"I would ask myself what time it could be"?

I don't even understand what that means. Making a sentence difficult to comprehend does not make it good. You want modern literary writing? This is poetry, and yet, it's also understandable:

"My soul grazes like a lamb on the beauty of indrawn tides."

lotusgirl said...

Hear! Hear! I don't write literary fiction, but I love it all the same. My favorite line: Writers ignore good writing at their peril.

stacy said...

Any kind of knee-jerk reaction is bad, but with writers like Roth I just can't help it. I've never vowed not to read his writing, but his attitude is a real turnoff for me.

Polenth said...

The trouble with experts is that most of them aren't experts.

The majority of people saying literary stuff is awesome/popular stories are trash aren't people with doctorates in literature. They're writers who set themselves up as an expert because they wrote a book.

Often the false experts are far harsher about popular stuff than the real experts. They're trying to prove their expertise by criticising the things they see as the opposition. Which is why increasingly more universities run courses in science fiction... but your average self-made expert will tell you that all science fiction is trash.

So I don't think all the backlash is against the true experts. It's a reaction to the over-abundance of experts who really aren't. Sometimes it can be hard to notice the real expert amidst all the rest.

(Reviewers are a bit of a different kettle of fish. I can appreciate they know more than me when it comes to literature review, but that doesn't mean we'll like the same books.)

Charles said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you.
A truer word ain't yet been spoke. Writers can learn from others. I am a genre writer, and proud of it, and I am always on the lookout for what others can do with words. Exactly as you said it.

The Last Witness said...

Out of curiosity, why the little dig at President Bush? It only isolates you from half your audience and reinforces the stereotypical view of elitist liberal publishing.

That's a post on its own, if you think about it; why diss half your audience either way unless your book/story is specifically about politics?

Nathan Bransford said...

Last witness-

what in the world? Gerson was Bush's speechwriter. The phrase wasn't ABOUT Bush, Bush delivered the line. I happen to like the line. My word.

Woodsy said...

It's so rare to read anything about anything anymore that takes the middle ground. Thank goodness someone has the nuance to write what you've written here. It's rarely an either/or situation, as much as we love things black and white. Sometimes the snobbery of both sides is overwhelming and it's almost always a waste of time.

London Mabel said...

Reading something "literary" and really well written is just a totally different aesthetic and emotional experience, than reading most genre. So I definitely keep such books in my mix. Like Nadine Gordimer, who is hard to read, but it's so deeply satisfying/rewarding.

Venus Vaughn said...

I didn't read all your comments. And I haven't seen the original post yet, but I wanted to add that the reason the "experts" may have lost control and respect of the masses is the very snobbery you talk of.

They stopped listening to the pulse of the world around them, closed their mental doors, and started paying attention only to the what the other experts have to say.

They bandwagon themselves, and then throw rotten tomatoes at those not on the wagon with them. Instead of sitting on the sidewalk and listening to the tastes and desires and (dare I say) needs of those on the street--the plebeian, the everyman--they attempt to lord over them with some version of, "Don't worry your pretty little head over it. I know better than you."

Their lack of respect for those they are preaching to (and often those they are preaching about) has come back full circle.

Why would I give credence to someone who insults what I enjoy, and, by extension, me?

I certainly recognize the need for experts, and importance of standards. But their expertise does not negate my pleasure.

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