|“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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