“Why are some authors selling truckloads of novels, but not winning prizes while others barely scratch out a living while filling their mantles with awards?”
This question came up during the same week the kafuffle spiraled out from Christopher Priest’s recent rant about an award shortlist. ‘Spiraled’ including not just the inevitable ‘He stinks!” backlash but secondary discussions of various sorts.
We’re all passionate about our reading, and we all want to read good books. (And strain every wit to write them, if we’re writers.) Sometimes good discussions spark. Then there are the nuclear fallout reactions.
The fastest methods of going toxic are when disputants divide into the same old two camps, either “Popular is crap!” or “Literary is boring and pretentious!” Or when they get personal.
Nobody is listening at that point.They want to shout down the opposition.
When I look at these kafuffles, I’m scouting for the secondary discussions that try to divine ‘What makes a book literary?’ These usually start out well, but things seem to go downhill when people get frustrated when no one agrees with them. Or agrees but with caveats. Or offers another definition altogether. So who is right? Someone has to be right! That’s human instinct. Who’s got the literary authority?
I sometimes have to stop and reflect on the obvious fact that behind the phosphors are the busy typing fingers of a human being. And humans tend to get up close and personal when passionate about something.
Is it possible to keep the personal out of such discussions?
“Oh everything published by New York is crap, because publishing is just a business,” is often followed by, “This is why I don’t sell, my work is just too individual, and New York doesn’t dare take a chance.”
Or, “Literary award winners are all dreary, plotless books, lauded by pretentious bores trying to impress one another.” (Personal attack there as the sting in the tail.)
“X sold because she’s young and cute. There are a million better books out there, but their writers aren’t part of the hip crowd.” (Personal attack right up in front.)
Or, the multiple personality attack: “Who cares about awards? The people who pick them all know each other. Of course they’re going to pick each other’s stuff.”
Maybe we can’t escape the human tendency toward hierarchy. Its too hardwired into our social navigation.
So maybe the problem — if there is a problem — is that we are in a period of rapid change. We’re evaluating the rules that we grew up accepting as given.
One of those is what makes a good book.
When I was a young teenager, and read opinion pieces in Look and Post magazines, because those were what I found lying around at home, I saw references to highbrow and lowbrow. ‘Highbrow’ frequently paired with a caricature of a vast intellectual forehead and a sour, look-down-the-long-nose expression of effete arrogance.
Lowbrow was coupled with a Neanderthal unibrow and hanging jaw, implying the unformed taste for pulp entertainment, stuff written and produced for the non (or anti) intellectual masses.
Then I got confused by the introduction of ‘middlebrow.’ How was I supposed to see that? As ordinary taste, maybe? Except what was ordinary to me wasn’t to my friends, or to people of different generations, different regions. I got the feeling that the adults were having as much trouble with these terms as I was.
Literary authority seemed to be simpler to point at in those days. In college, professors told you what was worthwhile literature and tested you on it to make certain you came to what they felt were the proper (trained, sophisticated) conclusions.
I came out of college with a conviction that I was never going to develop good taste because even though I could now identify it—I could point at what would probably be considered literary, and I could find postmodern themes, and Freudian symbolism, I still wasn’t enjoying these reads, or getting anything new and inspiring out of them. The things I did enjoy and get something out of tended to be works relegated to that lowbrow category — like Lord of the Rings.
As the years went by, the Permanent List of Classics began to go the way of Ozymandias. (Along with the rest of Shelley’s poetry, it seemed.) And Lord of the Rings began to show up on more and more lists of great stuff, though many critics still held their noses and turned thumbs down.
So perceptions of literary authority are shifting about as much as Must Read lists. This is exciting! And yet frustrating, because I keep hoping discussions will build tools for talking about why this book works for me instead of what’s wrong with those people who like that one.