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.
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.