e_moon60 (e_moon60) wrote,

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Literary Snobbism: a rant

From a catalog received from an organization that describes itself as "literary arts and ideas" elsewhere in our state, came this description of one of the courses being offered, a so-called "Master Class" to "Explore Fiction: "...will discuss the pleasures and challenges of reading contemporary fiction, avoiding derivative, plot-driven best-sellers and examining works of complexity, depth, and originality."

In other words, if it has a plot it's "derivative" and can't have "complexity, depth, and originality?"   That's...ignorant.   That's the conventional attitude of an academic who never bothered to read any good commercial fiction (because that would upset her theory that there is none.)

The instructor, a retired professor of English at Trinity University, describes her own fiction reading thus:  "I read contemporary fiction because it informs, engages, entertains, and delights me.  I almost never read for escape--except in the summer, especially if I go to the beach where I read trashy paperback mysteries...I never remember anything about these books of their plots, characters, themes, or imagery.  I just read for fun and am totally absorbed, flipping page after page, only occasionally pausing to experience a moment of utter revulsion at some graphically described violence.  Only if someone injures a dog or cat do I tend to toss the book away before finishing it...." 

Not to my surprise she likes toy poodles, indoor cats, and fish, and doesn't like "untamed carnivores" or blue herons.   (Ritual disclaimer--there's nothing fundamentally wrong with liking toy poodles, indoor cats, or fish, but together, especially with a dislike of "untamed carnivores" and blue herons, it suggests a preciousness that fits with her literary preferences.)

In a speech given to the Class of 2005 at Trinity (found by Googling her, of course), she said she was an intellectual snob and proud of it.   I think there's a difference between being an intellectual snob (which she clearly is) and an intellectual (which I have my doubts about.)  You can appreciate intellect, ideas, clear thinking, good craftsmanship and scholarship, without being a snob.  And even if you are a snob, you don't have to brag about it.   Bragging about being a snob is just like bragging about not being PC (which means feeling free to be rude.)   It's a power trip, a dominance game, and nothing to be proud of.

Literary snobbism doesn't actually hurt those of us who are its targets...who write books people want to read, rather than have to read in a class.   Oh, sure, it bruises our egos a little--we'd like some real understanding of our efforts, some respect in the ivied halls--but we get worse bruises from reviewers (and sometimes from friends and agents and editors as well.)    But we keep writing and selling, in spite of the harsh words thrown at us.

What literary snobbism does hurt is the public--people who are taken in by the ignorant assertions of "experts" who don't even read what they claim to despise (or read it so carelessly that they might as well be reading a cereal box.)   It hurts the students who think their natural taste for plots that are plots and characters who are interesting is the literary equivalent of original sin and must be excised before they're fit to be called educated. 

Anyone who thinks there's no "complexity, depth, and originality" in commercial fiction needs an education.    Anyone who thinks mysteries (or any other genre) are all "trashy" needs an education.  (Start with Aristotle, whose _Poetics_ lay out the criteria.  Continue through centuries of fiction that worked, up to the present day, being sure to take in multiple genres in each era.) 

So why am I wasting time with a rant on this topic?   Because this catalog arrived when it was storming and I couldn't work outside, and the new book is now in production...idle hands and mind. 

Tags: criticism, literary snobbery, writing
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