Writing Update: Literary Snobs

June 6, 2010 in On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

With a week left before all assessments are due, I have officially begun to shit bricks.  However, in true writer style, I am still trying to put off working on them for as long as possible.

So let me tell you about what’s been on my mind.

Literary Snobs

The more I read and write, the more difficult it has become for me to come across what I consider “good writing.”  Not to say that I have become a good writer or a certified critic by any means, but I do find myself being pickier than ever.  I used to be able to go to a bookstore, pick up any book, start reading and just get into the story.  These days, nine out of ten times I’m too busy finding problems with the writing to enjoy it.  Makes me wish I could go back to the days when I was ignorant about what good writing is and just read everything for what it is.

Having said that, a lot of the books I complain about happen to be critically acclaimed.  Not because the writing itself is “bad”, but because I find it tedious, boring, convoluted, distracting, or hard to follow.

One of my classes drew my attention to A Reader’s Manifesto by BR Myers, a book published in 2002.  In it, Myers attacks literary fiction for being “pretentious” but at the same time protected by literary critics for political reasons or simply because they want to seem “sophisticated” when they really didn’t get it.

Amongst those criticised include award winners such as Cormac McCarthy (especially his newer style) and Annie Proulx, two writers I studied this semester and found very challenging to read (often requiring at least two readings to “get” it).

I found the crticisims highly interesting.  We live in an age where literary fiction is really suffering and genre fiction (especially crime and “vampires”) is making the big bucks.  Why is that the case?  Is it because contemporary society doesn’t have the attention span to properly appreciate literature, or is it because people simply want reading to be a pleasurable hobby that doesn’t require too much mental exertion?  And if the latter is the case, what is wrong with that?  Who is to say that writing must be “good” to be enjoyable or that enjoyable writing isn’t “good?”

I agree with Myers in that literary critics are too quick to heap praise on literary fiction and crap on genre fiction.  But I do think it is a bit of a stretch to claim the writings of award winners such as McCarthy and Proulx have no merit.  While they may be in the minority, there are people out there that truly enjoy high-brow literature for whatever reason.  And there’s nothing wrong with that either.

What annoys me is literary snobbishness — people who think readers of genre fiction must be too stupid or uneducated to appreciate literary fiction….and perhaps the opposite too — people who think lovers of literary fiction must have sticks up their butts.  Why can’t we just all agree that people have different tastes and that’s that?

For the original Atlantic Monthly article, click here.

For more information and a summary of A Reader’s Manifesto, click here.