Saturday, June 23, 2007

Literary Pomposity; Are you a book snob?

I had a professor once who lectured endlessly about reading material, claiming that the amount of reading did nothing if the material was ‘trash’. His point being, if you did not read great literature, or worthy authors, then reading a library’s worth of substandard literature would still leave you, well, substandard.

Lovely thought, isn’t it? Are you scanning your bookshelves at this reading, with a bit of color on your cheeks, wondering if your selection of great intellect is above par? Well, if you are, cut it out. Personally, I sat in that class, smiling and nodding like the rest of the students who truly needed the decent grade. (ie, someone that pompous does not take kindly to being publicly denounced). But the question still remains; who decides the merits of great literature better than you, the lowly reader?

Reading tastes are subjective; what may qualify as a classic in the public or literary consciousness, may not be enjoyed as such by the reader. Often, mainstream top sellers are viewed with disdain by elitist scholars, or at least by pseudo intellectuals, but perhaps they miss the point. If so many people enjoy a work, then it must say something, and to extend the point, isn’t reading for enjoyment’s sake enough?

Then, too, there always seems to be a number of people that truly believe unless you can quote the ‘greats’, unless you have a working knowledge of, say, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Chaucer, well, the list goes on and on, doesn’t it? Okay, unless you know the classic artists' works, they believe you unintelligent, or at least not as intelligent or educated as they are. Now, I’m not saying these works aren’t a great thing to study, I actually am an admirer of the classics but, of note, many people regurgitate these writings without truly putting their own thought into the process. It’s a shallow depth of understanding that can study a work, repeat standard literary critique, and be done without putting conscious rational analysis into the process. Can this be better than reading a newer book, or one considered trash?

Also amusing to me, Shakespeare was once considered trash, I’m sure many of you are aware. It was rank enough for the groundlings, and theatre performers were not viewed in a good light at that time in our history. So perhaps the critics now are wrong – perhaps some of the trash will be considered classic in a new generation….

Another discussion point, one favored by one of my favorite bloggers, Believin , how much does the reader bring to the work in the first place? It is the reader who brings so much of the analysis and feel to a novel. A careful reader with a vivid imagination is liable to take one picture away from a novel, while a reader prone to skimming and distraction may have a completely different idea of the work. Your experience, details of your life, they all go into your subconscious interpretation of a work.

For instance, have you ever had your heart broken? How did sad love songs, or for that matter, romantic love songs, affect you? Don’t you hear a song at a certain point in time and really identify with the words? Aren’t you possibly doing the same thing in your reading? So what is the reader’s responsibility in the novel?

I don’t know that I’d put any book into the ‘subnormal’ category. Certainly, I’ve read books that didn’t keep my attention, or were badly edited, or perhaps just not my speed. But someone enjoyed it enough to write it, and publish it. I’ve also read a few classics that I hated. I think the read can be about many things; experiencing a new place, winding through beautiful prose, learning a bit, experiencing emotion, thinking about the commonplace, thinking about the extraordinary…. But just as important as these, it’s about the enjoyment.

19 comments:

Travis Erwin said...

I think anything that encourages people top read is a agood thing. Rarely does someone start with the so-called classics. Maybe they will eventually get there and maybe not but genre fiction is what keeps a lot of publishing houses open and to look down on those types of books is to turn your back on the entire industry.

Merry Jelinek said...

I'm with you Travis. I like a good, hefty read that will stay with me forever - but I also love a fun, romping, snack book... the snack books don't generally stick with me, but they're fun and amusing...

Thanks for chiming in.

The Anti-Wife said...

My tastes are eclectic and they change with my moods. Since I can be very moody, I read lots of different things - including what your professor would probably consider trash. But, when my mind is in garbage disposal mode, that's what it wants.

Our individuality is what makes us interesting. Intellectual snobs just piss me off.

jjdebenedictis said...

But just as important as these, it’s about the enjoyment.

Actually, I think that's the sticking point, right there.

Those who turn their noses up at popular literature don't think writing is about enjoyment. They see literature as an art form that should explore humanity's psyche and expand itself by encouraging authors to explore techniques.

As an analogy, the science we teach to kids can be a heck of a lot of fun - it's meant to be. However, you wouldn't expect a research scientist to declare his or her work is all about fun, would you? They might enjoy it, but they would say the worth of their work comes from its ability to illuminate and expand humanity's understanding of the universe.

Some people read and write for entertainment, and that's valid.

Some people read and write as a hard-core artistic pursuit with depth of meaning and very ambitious goals, and that's valid also.

But those two camps will never agree on what "good" writing is. :-D

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Anti-Wife,

I'm much the same, my reading tastes vary widely, depending on my mood and interests at the time. Sometimes I just want to laugh, and then it's a great snack book... sometimes I really want something to sink my teeth into, analytically and psychologically.

Any kind of snob pisses me off... but take it with a grain of salt. Often I find the most snobbish psuedo-intellectuals are only young (often in college or just after) and are really only learning to flex their intellectual muscles. You don't look down on others when you are truly secure in yourself.

Hi JJ,

Nice to see you. That's a good analogy, too - though it lends itself to the belief that mainstream, or certain types of writing are juvenile or easily accomplished as opposed to the heavier artistic writing, which is brilliance... I think it's subjective. I know for a fact that mainstream, ya is not easily written - trying to make the writing dissapear takes a fair amount of work, and a hell of a lot of humility.

I read almost solely classic, literary fiction for a long period of time, and still enjoy it greatly. Actually, that enjoyment put a pretty good kink in my writing, because my voice often mimics a style that is long outdated and not widely read.

It is subjective - it is also, I think, paramount to consider the reader's responsibility. There are many layers in a good deal of fiction, if the reader is willing to look for it. Often what's considered trash has more substance than it's given credit for simply because readers don't analyze it fully.

Jessica said...

Interesting discussion. It brought back memories. My mother is an English prof. and my father an attorney. I grew up with an amazingly diverse library- and this debate.

The first example that comes to mind is John Irving. I consider it literature. He's among my favorite authors. My mother considers it "beach" reading. (!) I love all of the "three stooges", actually. Does it matter what category they fall into?

I agree that it is entirely subjective. Reading can be about far more than intellect- a mood may strike the most intelligent of readers, and they find themselves loving (or hating) a "classic" piece of literature.

Your example of the subconscious interpretation was spot on.

Read something too quickly or with predetermined ideas- and it could be the difference between thinking that Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" it was just some poem describing a painting or understanding the murderous intentions of the narrator.

As always, you are a pleasure to read.

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Jessica,

(are you the same Jess who drives the suv?)

I love Irving and I would definitely not categorize him as beach reading... Janet Evanovich, now there's beach reading... If you like Irving, you might like Wish You Well by David Baldacci... it's not his normal subject matter, it's sweeping and lyrical, I highly recommend it - this is another one I'd categorize as literary rather than mainstream.

I think our preferences play a large role in our ability to read different works with an open eye. Your mom, being an English Professor, gets the pleasure of disecting literature with an analytical eye (if there's one thing I miss about higher education, it's the intense literary discussions... plus, it's not that easy to find anyone in the real world who loves Shakespeare - my blogging friend, believin, excluded as she also teaches literature.)

I wonder, too, if it has to do with the time frame the book is published in. Stephen King is obviously categorized as mainstream and horror, but I think a lot of his writing goes far beyond those labels and his prose are astoundingly well done - I wonder if high sales diminish the literary world's esteem for an author...

Ask you mom what she thought of The Red Tent I believe the author's name is Diamont (I can't remember her first name and may have misspelled the last but I'm sure it'll turn up in google).

That's another newer novel - but it drips like poetry. I picked it up at the spur of the moment purchase near the counter and I swear the author's voice was so lyrical, and the story itself was well worth the time.

Laura Spencer said...

This is an interesting discussion. What makes good literature? I'm sort of an "I know it when I see it" type of person. However, anything that's poorly written or full of typos and spelling errors would definitely fall into the trash category.

Jerseygirl89 said...

What a great discussion! I read a lot of classics when I was in college (not even for classes necessarily) but now I read mostly "trash" - or at least it's trash if you compare it to Jane Austen. However, since I enjoy them as much as Jane, I don't feel so bad. I read for pleasure, pure and simple. Literature can be art, but it's also a form of communication. I think a lot of snobs forget that.

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Laura,

You know, I think the 'I know it when I see it' philosophy is a good one. I love when the writing disappears, when the story pulls you in so far that you stop paying attention the author's writing and really just experience the world. I also love well turned phrases and flowing prose, so I think there is a place for all sorts of different types of literature. And typos and bad editing are a definite killer - the exception being dialect of particular characters or story - well done that kind of flavor can be intense and wonderful...

I have seen poorly edited novels with typos and other seemingly easy to fix errors, both from traditional publishing houses and self published and it kills the story. I'm not a stickler for such things in a blog or letter, or many other forms of communication, but in print or novels, it kills my taste for further reading.

Hi Jerseygirl,

I'm a fan of both trash and great literature, too. I think what the world considers trash is also deceptively well written.

I also think the debate is really pretty funny when you get down to it... tastes change - current trends say that rhyming poetry is juvenile and worth less, yet who would say Tennyson or Poe were hacks? And really, writing of any sort is, at its essense, art - and all art is subjective. Garbage sculptures don't appeal to me, but I've heard of them selling for a fortune.

I can easily say that the buyers are nuts, but the fact remains that that type of work speaks to them, they get some feeling out of it - that's all good art really reaches for, isn't it?

Mary Witzl said...

Having spent almost twenty years in countries where reading materials in English were not always easy or cheap to find, I was forced to develop an eclectic taste in books. I found a lot of interesting books this way, including non-fiction, and many books that I might otherwise never have touched. A Confederacy of Dunces, The Cloister and The Hearth, and Under the Sea's Wind are three of my favorite books and I cannot imagine that I would have read them if I hadn't been desperate for something -- anything -- to read.

I once visited a friend who was wonderfully well-educated and intelligent, and there on her bookshelves were dozens of Barbara Cartland-type romantic novels. I was shocked, but I will never forget how unapologetic she was about having these books. "They're mind fodder for when I don't feel like thinking," she told me. I just loved that line and have used it ever since.

Mary Witzl said...

Having spent almost twenty years in countries where reading materials in English were not always easy or cheap to find, I was forced to develop an eclectic taste in books. I found a lot of interesting books this way, including non-fiction, and many books that I might otherwise never have touched. A Confederacy of Dunces, The Cloister and The Hearth, and Under the Sea's Wind are three of my favorite books and I cannot imagine that I would have read them if I hadn't been desperate for something -- anything -- to read.

I once visited a friend who was wonderfully well-educated and intelligent, and there on her bookshelves were dozens of Barbara Cartland-type romantic novels. I was shocked, but I will never forget how unapologetic she was about having these books. "They're mind fodder for when I don't feel like thinking," she told me. I just loved that line and have used it ever since.

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Mary,

"They're mind fodder for when I don't feel like thinking" - I love that!!!

You know, even in my own pompous early twenties (didn't we all think we knew everything then?) I liked the occasional snack book, but they weren't the ones I'd take with me to the dentist or coffee shop... You stop being embarrassed when you're secure in your self.

Thanks for stopping in and adding to the discussion.

Mary Witzl said...

I've just noticed that you are a Janet Evanovich fan too. My teenage daughter introduced her books to me; at first I ignored her ravings as it hasn't been so many years since she was equally passionate about Goose Bumps. But then I read the first book, then the second and the third -- and now I am a firm convert and can't wait to check out her number 13.

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Mary,

She's addictive! I just finished 13 - I picked it up at the grocery store because I couldn't resist and read it that night. She's pure fun. My mother in law left the first one here and I opened it expecting to hate it - she had me hooked by the first page... so far I've passed the addiction to my mom, multiple friends, and my brother!!!! It's her great sense of humor, I think - you laugh on every page.

I tried one of her other series, but didn't like it as well - I'm normally not a romance reader, occasionally if it's a really good story, but normally it's not my thing. Now I'm on The Woman With The Alabaster Jar by Margaret Starbird - mostly because I want to prove her thesis wrong... however, she even says in her prologue that she can't prove her thesis... after I'm done there I'll probably post on it.

WordVixen said...

Strange, I thought I commented before...

Anyway, I love Shakespeare... and Chick-Lit. And fantasy, but only humorous sci-fi. I loved Scarlet Letter, and Silas Marner, but hated The Pearl.

I can't seem to resist best-sellers if they're in a genre I like, but always end up disappointed.

Since Scarlet Letter and Silas Marner were such a success, I'm working my way slowly through as many classics as I can. I can safely say that I love Jane Austen, but I'm 500 pages into Middlemarch and, boy, is it slow going.

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Wordvixen,

Honestly, I wasn't a huge fan of Middlemarch - though most people think that's blasphemous... And I hated On The Road... I think I read that one too late, though, most people who swear it's the best book ever read it in late high school or by their early twenties... I just read it last year, maybe I would have liked it if I read it ten years earlier.

On the other hand, the first time I picked up Moby Dick I couldn't make it past the first five pages - when I read it again in my late twenties, I loved it...

So there you have it, not only do societies' tastes change, mine do as I age... I never read YA as a kid, either, skipped right up past it... now I love it - go figure.

WordVixen said...

Moby Dick is the one that I'm afraid to try reading. It doesn't help that my friends who are not only very intelligent and not at all averse to hard work but also voracious bookworms, found it dull. Not too encouraging there.

I did read a bit of YA, but for the most part I stuck to Emily Loring and Grace Livingston Hill. Funny- I still love the few YA novels I liked back then, but have trouble sticking to E.L. and G.L.H. now.

Jewell Ertman said...

This post really makes me think about reading the way I think about music.

You begin liking something you hear from the radio, or perhaps from a friends collection. You start listening, finding what you enjoy and in no time you have a large collection of your own.

You become so interested in music you want to find out what musicians pushed the envelope, who began a new genre.

Book snobs. Just like Music snobs...