Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Reverse Snobbery of Low Literary Aspirations

"Passer Payez" by Louis-Leopold Boilly

Originally posted October 29, 2009

First of all, the title of this post is admittedly hyperbolic, which was necessitated by my desire to echo speechwriter Michael Gerson's famous line about "the soft bigotry of low expectations," delivered in a speech 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.

Transition.

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.






64 comments:

Mari said...

I'm with you on this, Nathan. It won't hurt to read some "good stuff" to help improving the quality of one's writing, even if the writer's intention is only to entertain. Reverse snobbery is quite a cool term, btw, heh.

Becky Mahoney said...

I love good literary fiction, and I agree with you that it does us no good to deride the "elite." My complaints about literary fiction stem from the fact that so much of it seems to be written from the same perspective. I want to see more protagonists of different genders, races, sexual orientations, and backgrounds, and I want to see that the author understands their unique issues and perspectives.

Anonymous said...

"Not every talented writer is a published author, but (nearly) every published author is talented."

Key word: nearly.

If I want to read something good, I check The Man Booker Prize list(long and short). 'nough said

Matthew MacNish said...

First off I have to say that reading posts, even re-posts, on your blog that originally occurred before I actually started reading your blog ... well it feels strange. But in a good way.

But I have to agree with you completely. I made basically the same point on ... I forget the name of it now, but that day so many fans celebrate Ulysses on. June 6th, I think. Anyway, I've read Ulysses twice, and The Sound and The Fury thrice.

Both books are very difficult to follow, and I can even admit that I still don't fully understand everything that happens (stream of consciousness is tough for me), but there are moments of pure genius and beauty in the writing, and THAT I can certainly get, and appreciate.

LK Hunsaker said...

This is one of the best posts I've read in a long time. Thank you!

I love literary fiction, some of it. Not all of it is hard to understand. Not all of it is pretentious. Try Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. Easy to understand and read, beautiful prose, wonderful current literary fiction.

I write a mix of literary and romance, trying to break that barrier to literary writing: deep issues, things to ponder, current society... and yet it's also fun and easy to read, heavy on the romance (usually with varying character POV). But try to sell that! LOL

Anyway, I fully agree with you. Let's not dumb down fiction to the point anything not "trash" becomes worthless. That would be a horrible misjustice to the public in general.

Becky Mahoney said...

The Sound and the Fury is one of my favorites! When I read the first two chapters, I appreciated the beauty of the language... but when those first two chapters finally came together for me, I knew I loved the book.

Paul Salvette said...

The elite are only a problem when they suck. All of our Founding Fathers were basically well-educated noblemen who figured they could make more money if they got rid of the King of England, and it worked out pretty well for the rest of us. Right now (as when this article was written almost two years ago), we are seeing a massive distrust of big governments, large media conglomerates, multi-national corporations, etc. It is only natural that people tend to be more trusting of the regular Janes and Joes.

However, I completely agree that this should not give writers the excuse to publish crap and not aspire to greatness (without being pretentious, of course). I think a balance can be sought by writing excellent work that appeals to everybody. Exciting times we live in!

Amanda said...

I completely agree with you (I sure hope you wanted me to...). There is absolutely nothing wrong with mass appeal and fun, "trashy" escapist fiction. I quite often LOVE it. However, lately there seems to be this knee-jerk reaction against anything that smacks of "high literature," academia, and "lofty avante-garde experimentation" that worries me. So much of what is popular NOW began as some "lofty avante-garde experimentation" in academia and high literature.

You can't have low/mass culture without high/elite culture. You need both. And they both have their good qualities and their bad qualities. They're more like two halves the same thing than rivals. Unfortunately, so many people feel that they have to choose sides now, so the two sides keep fighting when they shouldn't be. That's why I specialize in postmodernism -- I get to play with both.

Matt Cardin said...

Excellent! I'm positively stoked that somebody with your large platform is making this important point so well. Many thanks, Mr. Bransford.

You're especially cogent in your recognition that it's a two-way street, and that literary and genre authors both need to learn from each other. The social media revolution away from the formerly and formally entrenched attitude of literary snobbery has brought us perilously close to an equally entrenched, and equally wrong-headed, attitude of what might be called literary "guttery."

I taught high school English for several years, and currently I teach college writing, and it's been bracing, disturbing, and motivating to observe from this up-close viewpoint how many people today, both young and old, are 1) galactically ignorant of books and literature in general (and are therefore gripped by an overall intellectual and aesthetic sensibility that's not too far removed from what we read about in Fahrenheit 451), 2) possessed by a real desire to gain a literary education and the enriched intellectual life and outlook that goes with it, and 3) seriously hindered and endangered in this regard by the phenomenon you note. Personally, and after some serious inner conflict and soul-searching, I've become an ardent advocate of the de-snobbifying that's been taking place, BUT the snapback reaction or pendulum swing is now threatening to go much too far, as you've noted.

So, in short, again, thank you for the stimulating post.

Candice L Davis said...

I've had the fantastic fortune of studying with top tier writers. They demanded a certain level of literary intentions to allow a student to become a part of their workshops. Writing and reading literary fiction has given me some of the greatest pleasures of my life.

Sometimes I just want to read a good story without working too hard, but even if it's commercial, it still has to be well written. I've put down extremely popular books, because they were poorly written. I've also found genre books that can stand up to anything we usually call "literary."

Mark said...

I couldn't agree more on this. But I think blame for this reverse snobbery lies not only with writers who set the bar too low, but also with good literary writers who don't take into account some of the basic pleasures of reading that makes it something to be looked forward to by the average person getting home from work with only a limited amount of time before they have to go to bed.

There was an old National Lampoon article written in the style of the Hardy Boys in which contemporary authors kidnapped F.W. Dixon so they could learn how to plot a story. The feeling of average readers that this played on is still there today, and I don't blame them.

Proust always gets hauled out as the example of difficult literature. But if you've ever felt jealous and suspicious in a relationship and read Swann's Way, you'll be carried along by the most compelling illustration of that state ever written. Hoping not to start a flame war, I'd gently suggest that some of the tried and true elements of plot and character development are given too little attention in books that the NYTBR recommends with great enthusiasm. Many fairly intelligent readers read that book and realize they got a heck of a lot more fun out of the genre book they read just before it. Can you really blame them for going back to where the pleasure is?

Delia said...

Dear Lord, Thank You! Read widely, that's my motto. Never being challenged by what one reads is just as pitiable as never being entertained.

Stephsco said...

Agree, both are needed to balance the force. Or something.

Think of a world with no Dexter and only Jersey Shore... frightening.

Elle said...

I totally agree with this. And I say that as a writer and reader of (mainly) genre fiction. As far as I'm concerned, there's no point in writing unless you're trying to produce something worthy, even if only to yourself. And everyone's standards are different - what's great and worthy to one person might be considered rubbish to another, but it's the aspiration that counts, I think. The willingness to do something to the best of your ability, regardless of what others might think of it.

I also have to say that one of the most complex, experimental, mind-boggling books I've ever read is The Book of All Hours by Hal Duncan - a fantasy novel. It's an incredible piece of work, and I loved it, but it's far from being an easily digestible read. I think books like that, which blur the boundaries between literary and genre fiction, are wonderful things. We need more of them.

Cynthia Lee said...

Thanks for this post, Nathan. Whenever I read someone's elitist complaints or reverse snobbery complaints, I stop listening immediately.

I just don't understand why some writers want to complain about things they have absolutely no control over. It's a waste of time and energy.

Anna Destefano said...

I'd take it one step further to say that being an expert doesn't make you a good story teller, or even a talented writer of non-fiction.

A writer's job is to engage and compel the reader to turn the page and become lost in the journey. Expertise at anything else is craft. What should make a book (literary, commercial, non-fiction) publishable is how well we practice our art, over and above how expertly we execute our craft.

Too often these days, we seem to be caught up in other priorities, like sucess and sales potential and promotability.

Donna K. Weaver said...

"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."

And there you have it.

Cathy Yardley said...

"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."

This so reminds me of an L.A. Noir post called "'Crap' Is Not The Same as 'Stuff You Don't Like.'"

lora96 said...

@Anonymous: I've always wanted to win the Man Booker prize. Unfortunately I'm (a) not British and (b) not even published. Alas.

I try to read a diverse selection of authors so I can learn from the more refined end of the spectrum as well as the "happy quality trash" end when I aspire to reside. That being said, The Elegance of the Hedghog made me cry a lot and left me with a hollow feeling of having been somehow victimized by the writer. Likewise Polanski's Ghost Writer which had the "meaningful" ending I would have rather skipped.
Hmm..sounds like I'm a reverse snob.

BP said...

GOSH more writers need to hear this. Sometimes it's easy to forget classics in the surge of newer formats; jostled words, awkward paragraphs, even in published books! Haha, I beg to differ that every published author is a talented *writer*, although unquestionably many of them are ridiculously talented at persuasion, that being the only obvious reason for their being published. ;) But I do agree that writers need to spend more time with their noses in the classics. It's not just the words or the way they use them; it's the respect these authors of olden years had for a plot, story line, and other general basic fundamentals of a story. I think the best advice overall would be to never stop reading, period. That way, you can read good stuff and bad stuff, but at least you know when you say something's bad writing, it really is! :D

R. L. Copple said...

I had written a similar column at Grasping for the Wind a couple months ago, called "Where's the Plot?"

http://www.graspingforthewind.com/2011/05/16/wheres-the-plot/

I even reference one of your former articles on the definition of literary.

For those not compelled to go read it, the basic conclusion was the best stories with staying power generally have elements of both genre (strong plot) and literary (hidden plots, deep themes, enlightening perspectives). There are literary books with strong plots, and genre books with strong literary elements. Neither side needs to diss the other, because together they form the most powerful stories out there, and appeal to the masses. It is rarely ever one way or the other.

Anonymous said...

"The Internet has opened up all kinds of ways for the crowd to be king."

I agree with the post...in general. But I also think people are waking up to certain things, thanks to the internet. In other words, they no longer have to take a local critic's advice for a restaurant. What he thinks means nothing anymore; no one cars what he things...not when there are tons of customer reviews online.

The television industry has been hit the hardest...so far. I think you've even mentioned here you don't have cable, or you stopped the service. We don't need the choices of a hand few of hollywood cheesballs choosing our entertainment anymore. We can choose for ourselves. The crowd is king. Thanks to the net.

And "traditional" publishing is going to be hit just as hard as the television industry. And the crowd will be king. The signs are already there. If they weren't, there wouldn't be literary agents talking about offering "services" to self-published authors. Just look at all the choices we now have as readers we didn't have five years ago. It's amazing. And many of these choices didn't come from a handful of gatekeepers. They came from authors investing time and money.

Mieke Zamora-Mackay said...

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?

I love this, Nathan!

We all must aspire to create something great, in everything we do.

Love,
This Genre Writer.

Tere Kirkland said...

"...we're in a cultural period that celebrates mass appeal and democracy and devalues experts..."

Just want to leave you all with one thought:

Transformers 3 is the #1 movie in the WORLD right now, y'all (until HP7pII comes out). If that doesn't tell you something about low aspirations and mass appeal, I don't know what does.

Christine Tyler said...

I enjoy reading books for fun as well as to learn, and sometimes that means reading two books at a time so I can devour them in two different ways.

I'll often have a bit of literary fiction that I'm working through, looking for examples of excellent prose, increasing my vocabulary, and frankly, giving my brain just a bit more grey matter.

And then I read genre fiction for a bit of recess, something that moves quickly where my mind can just go along for a Disneyland ride.

Doing that helps me get more out of both kinds of reading. I'm not above either one.

I recently read Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow in conjunction with 100 Years of Solitude.

Geoff said...

Interesting read. I went to that other post on themes and checked some of the comments you were referencing and I found it strange. The mentality of striving only to be entertaining baffles me. Yes, of course I want people to enjoy my book (otherwise why write?) but I also would love to impress the writers and creators that have impressed me. So I strive to write really well AND (hopefully) be entertaining. I don't see why that aspiration should be looked down upon, especially, as you said, by writers!

Christine Tyler said...

Although I will admit, I would rather win a Nobel Prize for Literature (and be virtually unknown among the pop-culture crowd), than make millions of dollars publishing a wildly popular book that I didn't give my full heart and professionalism to.

As a writer, I like to be proud of what I put my name on. I once asked a friend who argued this point, "Would you sell your own crap for $50 a turd if you knew people would buy it?"

She said, "Of course I would, but I don't think that's the point you're trying to make."

I said, "That's exactly the point I was trying to make."

Being proud of what you give to the world and stamp with your name is what I consider Artistic Integrity.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

I get so tired of other writers bashing published works whether it be genre or literary.

In order to get published, your writing has to convince a lot of people that it is good enough.

Not an easy thing to do, so whether you like the book or not, you can still respect the author.

David Kubicek said...

I agree with you on some points but disagree on others. I like novels that are more than just a way to kill a few hours of time, but a literary novel should be accessible to readers who do not have Ph.D.s in Literature. Writers are storytellers, and their novels should tell stories that don't bore their readers; as a reader if I don't care about the story and its characters, I don't care if it means anything. The mark of an excellent writer is that he or she can tell a story that means something while also entertaining the reader (like John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, and I can think of a long list of others).

Roger Floyd said...

When I started writing science fiction, I asked myself, "Would I rather write a novel that's well received by the experts if not by the public, or by the public if not the critics?" I've never answered that question in my mind, and I may not be able to until I publish a book. It's not an easy question to answer, as each answer engenders different responses. Perhaps I've never really decided for myself what it is I expect from a book. Does that seem unusual for an author? Especially a first-time author? I don't know. I'll have to wait and see how well my first novel does. Wish me luck.

Himbokal said...

Thanks for the post Nathan. I'm divided on this topic. I like accessible literary fiction (just finishing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which, I think, would land smack dab in the middle of ALF) but there is something that sets off my Spidey sense when people gush too much about the democratization of everything and how it will be wonderful when we all consider ourselves experts. Which will be great for our self-esteem and bad for our intelligence.

The soft bigotry line reminds me of another line about "the tyranny of the masses". I think Yelp is a good example of this (full disclosure: I absolutely despise Yelp and read it only for the hilarity: one star reviews for restaurants because the reviewer's girlfriend broke up with him there, etc).

For myself, I aspire to literary fiction but ultimately I want to get published. If that means modifying my vision then so be it. I'm under no delusion that I'm the expert, even on my own work. Perhaps later once I've sold something, but until then I'll happily defer to those in the industry.

Josin L. McQuein said...

It's funny when people talk about the accessibility of literature now that it's so easy to upload things on your own. What's happening in main stream fiction is the same sort of literary ecosystem you get with a site like fanfiction.net. (bear with me, I'll make sense in a minute)

The fiction there has always been free, though, as fanfiction, based on others' established universes. There's no incentive to choose one writer over another based on economy because the stories all carry the same price.

However in that freest of free markets, something telling happens if you hang around any given fandom long enough. No matter how much people talk about everyone being equal and no matter how many people pop in with "great story" comments (literally those two words), certain writers gain a following. And regardless of the professed opinion that story trumps all, it's the writers with a clean manuscript and a better than decent grasp of grammar.

People have no problem with "difficult" language, if it makes sense in a given story or universe. They have a problem with forced language and poorly executed plots.

I've had the privilege of writing in several different fandoms, some tiny and some huge, using multiple screen names, and I can tell you from that experience that this is a constant. Sure, it's easier on the writer to have push-button publishing, but the reader isn't interested in how easy it is on the writer. They want something that's easy on them.

Rick Daley said...

99% of this is spot-on. There is one item that seems more 2009 than 2011:

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

Now through self-publishing and social networking, there are more ways to get a book to the market.

A certain level of quality must still be present in the writing, though. That part hasn't changed. There are just more judges / jurors now.

WORD VERIFICATION: roenisse. The use of oars or paddles in a casual manner, as opposed to roenhard.

Brett Minor said...

Wonderful post. I love that my daughter read, but she only reads the new trashy stuff that is so popular today. I have to really fight to introduce her to the classics.

Sharon said...

Read what YOU like. Write what YOU would like to read. Simple as that.

I read for the story. When an author gets too flowery with the words or strings a metaphor along for three pages, I start skimming. Therefore, I don't love to read literary fiction that much. If I find a literary book with a ripping good story, then I'm thrilled, but it doesn't happen too often.

Therefore, I tend to write with simple prose and stick to the concrete. That's just MY style, but it doesn't mean I don't appreciate the talent it takes to use those beautiful words, or to develop that metaphor--it just ain't my thang.

To each their own.

Anonymous said...

"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"

I have a feeling people think this is going to change. But it's not. There are, and always will be, gatekeepers in one way or another.

I do know that amazon is reaching out to literary agents with mass e-mails, asking for them to submit authors for consideration. So I'm thinking this means amazon knows a lot of the self-pubbed work isn't that great and they are looking for better quality...hoping agents will supply them. And I don't see any reason why agents wouldn't oblige.

Stephanie Barr said...

I don't do any type of snobbery, not with literature. For a long time, as long as I can remember, I've read books with an eye to figuring out "what worked" and "what didn't." Books got on my "reread indefinitely" list when I had too good a time, was too drawn in to remember to tear them to shreds. Eventually, I figured it out.

My point is that everything has a story to tell, something that makes it work (or presumably it wouldn't be published) and usually at least one irksome thing (though that can be predominant).

The key is, in my opinion, learning what you need from each type of book. I love Shakespeare, but I wouldn't write that way now. But, I can think of the drama and majesty of some of the passages and use that for inspiration in my own work. Poe vocabulary is likely too much for anyone reading my work, but he had a great grasp of emotional manipulation and suspense, a cadence even in his prose that can lend an eeriness to a passage. My work benefits by learning from the masters even if I don't want to write "classic" novels.

Whatever I want to write, whatever type of book, I want to write the best possible of that type or style. And I think it's why some genre authors stand out among their cohorts and are treasured decades after they stop writing for whatever reason. That's what I aim for.

It's important, if writing genre fiction, to know your audience and the field, but that doesn't mean you should neglect the craft either. I write fantasy/science fiction, but you can find everything, from thrillers to romances to mysteries to classics on my "favorites" shelf, not just because I learned something but because I enjoy them over and over again.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the books I learned most from happen to be the ones I enjoyed most. And they are generally written by those standouts in any particular field.

Jasmine Blade said...

There seems to be a real trend these days toward quantity over quantity, as well as a certain pride over being subpar in either intellect or ambition. I'm not speaking of I-want-to-be-a-millionaire ambition, just a desire and drive to be better. And by intellect I don’t necessarily mean book smarts or traditional learning. You can become famous and have your own reality show, if you’re obnoxious enough. Chris Rock has a great line in his show about how Black men are respected more for coming out of jail than for graduating college. I was raised as poor white trash and I respect my hardworking relatives (some of them), but I determined to do better. I feel no shame for that. I’m not abandoning my people. As a writer, I draw from both sides of my life: how I was raised and how I choose to live now. Therefore, my reading selection is diverse, from Jackie Collins to comic books to Dickens. I love them all, and myself. Isn’t that how it should be?

- -Alex McGrath said...

Justin Cronin's "Mary and O'Neil" always comes to mind when I think of a book that has high quality writing but is still totally accessible. A book can always be both and that's what the best ones are.

Roxanne Skelly said...

"I think we're in a cultural period that celebrates mass appeal and democracy and devalues experts."

To some extent, I might disagree with this view. Culturally, I think we're still in a place where it's desirable to be the absolute best at something (an expert). The best race-car driver, the best doctor, the best writer, whatever.

Instead, I think a lot of the lowest common denominator fictional works (and non-fiction works) take advantage of this by allowing a wider range of people to 'feel' like experts buy lowering the bar.

The skillful works lower the bar in their presentation (language skill level), but maintain the more complex ideas. Personally, I think the Science Channel does a great job of this on television, presenting things like quantum physics in a way that many can understand.

I'm also try to keep my eye on logical fallacies when consuming media. The one that comes into play here is "Appeal to Authority" or "Ad Verecundiam".

I'll pick up a book or watch a movie based on who it was created by, but I judge the contents on it's own merit.

Ok, so I'm a bit anti-authority. Critical thinking is good.

marion said...

Great post, Nathan. Balanced. Thanks.

I don't know if anyone can persuade me to dive into Proust, though!

katdish said...

I found an old copy of Anna Karinina on a recent trip to the beach. And while there were parts of that book that were absolutely excruciating to get through, Tolstoy's writing just completely knocked my socks off. I wonder if that book would even be published today. Writers need to read great writing. It inspires and it challenges us to write better.

Rebecca Kiel said...

Reading a variety keeps my writing fresh. While I don't spend all of my time reading epic fantasies or horror, all good writing has something to teach regardless of genre. In the same vein, literary fiction has tremendous worth to all writers. My confidence may get shaken by reading Atwood, but her ability in this craft is worth studying. My writing benefits from reaching out into the world. My writing improves by studying how writers piece together and tell their stories. If I wanted to limit myself to only one way of doing things, I would have chosen another career.

Pete Grimm said...

For the most part I agree. However, you associate literature with that which is difficult to read and understand. The Hemingway - Faulkner style debate left no doubt in my mind that good literature can/should be easy to read. Understanding is in the mind of each reader. A story is understood differently by everyone.

Bethany Brengan said...

I missed this post the first time around. I'm so glad you decided to re-post it. I completely understand why a reader wouldn't like large portions of what is considered literary fiction, but when "entertainment" becomes the only measuring stick for "good/worthwhile," we are cheating ourselves.

kathrynleighaz said...

I really like this post because so much of the advice I've come across in the interwebs is about writing stuff that's sellable. I know how important that is (because without it, you never make it through the door), but I think the fact that people KEEP SAYING it causes us to create two houses. The sellable house and the true to the art house. And I think we have hit a sort of snobbery in the focus on selling. I'd like to see a better balance between pragmatic and the delight in the art.

Jo-Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Khanada said...

Very interesting post. When you wrote it, I think I was one of those people who relied heavily on just user reviews. But I have definitely swung back the other way and try to seek out expert, or near-expert, opinions again now. One of the Anonymous comments here mentioned that people don't care what the local restaurant critic thinks anymore. I don't disagree with that, but it's definitely not that way for me. I don't care that Joe Smith from Buffalo thinks he had slow service on a Friday night. Or that NancyLovesGardens from Spokane is giving this item one-star on Amazon because she didn't like the third-party seller pricing. I wouldn't say I don't consider customer reviews at all, but maybe just that I'll give an expert review FAR heavier weight.

Kathryn Paterson said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!!!!! It's so weird, because I was just going to post about this sort of thing (and yet again, you beat me to it, Nathan. :) ). When I told my own circle of very literary friends that I was trying to write "a good story, well told," I got slammed for wanting to be "too commercial." Yet my friends who do write more commercially tend to turn up their nose the other way. The whole thing has me feeling a little like I have no place to call home (should I buy some red, sparkly shoes?), but this post is very heartening. I love literary fiction that has a discernible plot, literary fiction where the language doesn't get in the way, and doesn't exist to say "look at me! look at me!" That said, I'm finding some excellent prose in works of other genres, and I think that's great too. I just don't know why literary, genre, and commercial can't all get along and respect one another.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your post Nathan. I don't think there's a feeling of "Eww! The CLASSICS! I wanna gag!"

I think perhaps we're just reaching a time in history where we understand just how suspect, if not outright wrong, these labels -- "elite", "classic", "challenging" -- truly are.

Just because a select group of academics laud something, or because it's really, really, really old, or because a number of critics listed on their "Best Ever" lists doesn't make it so.

You acknowledge this, and yet in your own post you write "And when writers start thumbing their nose at dense and challenging literature"......

Do you think that perhaps, it has nothing to do with "dense" or "challenging"? I don't find Austen that 'dense' or 'challenging' I just don't find anything about those Victorian comedies of errors that stir me. I can read it as well as the next Oxford grad.

Dune by Frank Herbert is 'dense' and 'challenging' as hell. And yet it's just so damn riveting, and it tackles themes both base and complex. And his use of language borders on something out of the old Greek epics.

But....I don't disrespect Austen. Just because I don't think she deserves to be "required reading" in Lit courses doesn't mean I ignore her lasting impact on all literature in all genres.

Hell, I thought The Sopranos was absolutely insipid and banal mob drivel, but I still admire the show's groundbreaking production and acting and it's effect on modern drama. If nothing else I can appreciate how it opened up opportunities for other anti-heroes and highlighted the use of the mid-life crisis in a crime drama.

All I'm saying is, I can listen to the local food critic, the New York Times Book Review, and the Oxford Lit professor. As long as they're willing to accept that maybe their word doesn't begin and end the universe.

Bill

Mira said...

Interesting topic and re-post. I do think literary fiction is getting a hard rap right now. I think it may be partly because it doesn't tend to make money, and it's slowly dawning on everyone that there is MONEY in books sales. It may also be some backlash as commercial fiction tries to defend its right to exist and not be labled trash - it may fight back and label literary fiction as irrelevant and unnecessary.

But I also think there is backlash against the "elite" because membership into the elite is not open. You really need to start out with a certain background and some money to even approach it, and it certainly helps if you are white, and if you are male, doors will fling open that still get firmly shut if you are female. Unfortunately there is classism and other 'isms' involved. Not everyone has the opportunity to be trained to appreciate great literature. And asking those without opportunities to acknowledge and admire those who did have those opportunities may be a bit much.

I do agree - very much - that it is important not to lose the aspiration to create something great. I would argue, however, that commercial fiction can be as great as literary fiction. Many of the classics were commercial writers - Dickens, Austen come to mind. And the greatest commercial writer of them all was Shakespeare, of course.

Not to say that gorgeous, lyrical, innovative, supremely crafted literary fiction isn't great, but so is the best of commercial fiction - imho.

Istvan Szabo, Ifj. said...

"the dismissal of experts"

If someone is advertising their own being as an expert, that won't make the person to one. Unfortunately many on both sides are just advertising that they're experts, but they're far from being one. Someone asked me recently; do I consider myself as a professional, an expert or do I want to be one... and my answer was; if this is professionalism what I see day by day from both sides, nope, I don't want to be a professional, nor an expert anymore. Both "title: is a joke in most cases (75%) and cannot be taken seriously. When industry experts can't recognize basic writing elements, such as imagery, when writers are copying each other instead of figuring out something new, there is no professionalism, no expertism, just endless snobish behavior without any true background.

Istvan Szabo, Ifj. said...

"Not every talented writer is a published author, but (nearly) every published author is talented."

... or a friend or a friend of a friend, or serving some agendas, etc, etc... In a corrupt system, being published doesn't mean you have any sort of talent at all (Especially as "being talent" is very subjective and talent is also missing from the "jury" side too.). In my country we have a nice proverb which describes the present system: Among the blind the one-eyed is the king.

Hillsy said...

Watch "All watched over by machines of loving grace"

The crowd makes a sh@£ king.

Problem is, there are an awful lot of stones everyone can grind their axes on.

Kevin Lynn Helmick said...

I love reading pulp fiction, hard case crime, Dashill, Mickey, Donald Westlake, are some of the best at it, and there are scores that are not as good, but I still love reading them.
But my respect and love for books and writing comes from and will probably remain in literary greats,or maybe what I consider literary greats, Hemingway, London, Updike, and more recently Cormac McCarthy, who I think is a probably the best writer, composer really, of literary fiction in this generation. It could be debated that Cormac, is a horror writer, and any number of other genures, but he's literary to me.
Literary fiction for me does not nessessarily mean dificult to read, (although McCarthy can send you back a page or two once in while.) Literary can be dificult to interpret.doesn't have to be dificult to read.
I think as writers we can learn more from the lesser talented group, simply because the brilliant writers don't show you anything but brilliance and story and you can't really latch on to anything and say, 'hmm, I would have written that sentance like this, or he/she didn't need to tell me that again.' when a writter is that good, you don't notice the writing, and as a writer you have very to learn and you can't mimic what you can't see.
There is always some deep seated passion when I write. I have something to say, of the world,of culture, of art,of human struggles, that's just me, born in, it's the way I think, the way I anyilize, can't help it.
I don't come to the blank page lightly,( I doubt if pulp writers do eithier.) Every book I write, I want to be the best damn book ever written, It's more important to me, to be read a hundred, two hundred years from now than it's currently success or failier, (probably not what agents want to hear)but that's me. There are writers I don't like much and I writers I love. but I have no snobbery for anyone who writes books...period.

Emily Wenstrom said...

Amen! Half the beauty (and fun) of reading and writing is the high art of it.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I couldn't agree more.
Writing for "mass appeal" is a fine way to make a living. Some have made a great living that way.
I don't think I want to, though. And my success, or lack thereof, supports that theory.

However, I'm afraid that popularity, based on sales, based on publicity, is somewhat the current basis for "literary" success, in the U.S. at least. So, whose "aspirations" are actually being lowered? And if they are, why?

By the same token that not everyone is an expert, it should be noted that some experts in "literature" are basing their expertise on books they know became popular, if not for instance in the author's lifetime, perhaps after. There remains a fear, more and more in current economic hard times, of taking a risk. If more agents, and more publishers, were willing to take a risk, no doubt a generation of literary greats of our own is out there right now, hoping to be noticed.

Because someone is either market-savvy, or marketable, doesn't necessarily make them "literary" either.

Would that the publishing business were filled with true supporters of the experimental, the artistic, the painter of worlds with language and creator of beings as real as anyone you might encounter, able to boil to its essence the seed of meaning in a carefully crafted paragraph.

A great man once described the literary writer as someone, if he is truly trying to be an artist, who must each day go far out beyond all the others, to where no one can help him.

There are writers out there. There are literary writers as well. Many have been daunted by the "elevator pitches" and "platforms" and other marketing hoops required to convince an agent, and a publisher, that not only are you good, and talented, and committed to what you're doing, but that you're "marketable."

Where do literary artists come from? Readers. Where do literary experts come from?

There was a time when writers wanted to "beat" an already well-known "great." That's been my goal since I was a teenager. But even then I knew you don't go into a boxing ring as a contender without ever having learned how to take a punch. You don't try and take on the literary greats of a previous time by just saying you know you can. You train.

Reading is training. Theoretically, training for experts.

Short stories are workout sessions, sprints. The novels are the fights.

I put mine out there, not because I think they're "good," ("I'm sure your mother would be very proud," we used to tell cub reporters), but because others have thought they should be published, but weren't able to find someone willing to take a risk to publish them.

My current problem, as a self-published writer, is getting people to read them.

Experts. I await your criticism.

:)

Guilie said...

Who was it that said the intelligent writer writes not for the intelligent people but for the masses? I'm completely destroying the quote, I'm sure, but someone (respectable) said something like that. In my personal opinion, every writer has their own story to tell... For Danielle Steele it's... whatever it is she writes. For Henry Miller it was something completely different (thank the gods). Is one "worth" more than the other? Only in the eye of the beholder (aka reader). Is Stephenie Meyer really so much better/worse than, say, Salman Rushdie? No point in even trying to compare, right? My point (yes, there is a point in here somewhere) is that every writer needs to be true to themselves. Just that. Whatever it is you feel you need to say, whatever vision of the world it is you want to share (even if it's only the most commercial / popular means of making a buck) is worth something to someone. Just... Don't sell out. Don't aspire to be James Joyce when your nature is more Stephen King-ish (hey, I love Mr. King, eh?), or vice versa. Whoever each of us is, is worth listening to IF YOU WRITE WELL.

Glen Strathy said...

Personally, I've never understood why some people draw a line between "fiction" and "literature," as if writers couldn't be both profound and popular (Dickens, Shakespeare, Twain, etc.).

That said, it also seems ironic that many who are anti-intellectual fully support elitism of a different kind.

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Deborah Serravalle said...

The mindset of the majority has permeated all areas of our lives. And in some ways it's been beneficial. But I also agree that the pendulum has swung a little to far - as is often the case when change happens. We need radical thinkers and trailblazers! If you don't agree, consider literature without Virginia Woolf...

Anonymous said...

Dickens wrote for money, and was quite popular. His books are now among the great classics. Shakespeare wrote for money. His plays are now considered among the greatest plays of all time. But they weren't the highbrow plays of the time. His supposedly highbrow competitors are now forgotten. The great majority of classics became classics because people actually wanted to read them. Jane Austen wrote genre romance. But that's because everything is genre. The snobbery is to say "this is literature, while this is merely genre fiction." It is attempting to seize for yourself the title of classic without being judged by those pesky readers. Many people have thought that they wrote something great, but it has been the readers that have judged. Some looked down at Dickens, but Dickens' book left the competitors behind.

Anonymous said...

You know, the highest paying periodicals that publish fiction, most of them—have a strong preference for Literary Fiction. The true snobs, at least those under the age of 50, do prefer Literary Fiction, Indie Films, and snob-approved music: like The Smiths, Radiohead, Iggy Pop. Which, just like Shakespeare, Chekov, Tolstoy or Mozart, are recognized as tastefully infallible. So, simply put—there’s no risk. Snobs do not take risks. And they want to be correct—whatever that means. The arts aren’t like a basketball game; it’s all speculative. So, if you tell me Nirvana (the band) was brilliant, and Motley Crue is garbage—this is based on what? The ability to play instruments (hardly), their offstage demeanor (that’s not their art), what—their lyrics, hooks, style, subject matter—ah, so now we’re talking taste. Universal opinions. So, we’re not talking good VS bad. I mean, I can’t imagine Amy Tan doing a better job writing Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye”. So, if Literary writings echo more perceived taste, and “intelligence” (another overrated word that does NOT measure creativity), then it’s considered a higher quality of work. Kaavya Viswanathan graduated Harvard, and went on to Georgetown, but she flopped as a writer—plagiarizing her first attempt at a novel. (one she received a 500,000 dollar advance for)That’s what people are forgetting—the newest incarnation of snobbery (40 and under) measures status by education, not assets. It’s very common to hear “I really don’t care about monetary gain, or commercial success”. But yet THOSE writers are the first ones to mention their MFA, the designer label University they got it from. The person I just described is reading this thinking—“Yes, I do mention it. I earned my doctorate, and I’m very proud”, etc, etc. But here’s the thing –That doesn’t mean you can tell a good story, it doesn’t make you creative. It’s the first words out of their mouths—“it just reminds me sooo much of when (or some other clever pretense to qualify the following) I was in grad school at Stanford”…That’s the new snobbery. The uneducated “trashy” guy who has flashy new stuff, a fat bank roll, and no education isn’t the snob. Snobs are hyper-concerned with what’s appropriate, what’s right, all subject to proof or universal approval. They’re really cowards. They consider themselves rebels who question “authority” (the Republicans over 50 in some red state they never met—how convenient) when they are the authority. The new silver Mercedes is a pre-owned Subaru Outback (with the Question Authority bumper sticker) The true creative artist’s work flows from an independent wellspring, indifferent to popular fashion or fashionable criticism.

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