Literary authority up close and personal






“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.


 Sherwood Smith’s e-books at Book View Cafe



Literary authority up close and personal — 18 Comments

  1. I think, to some extent, the ‘canon’ has always been based on ‘what everybody read.’ If you chart the evolution of the canon, because I don’t really believe it was ever set in stone (though it clearly can be continued and reinforced by an establishment) you get an idea of what is in the cultural memory, but you also get a bit of what was popular enough and talked about enough to have people remember it when they’re trying to come up with recommendations or booklists for courses.

    Some may get weeded out because they’re too particular to the time period, or because they are completely incomprehensible to the modern worldview (thinking Ten Nights in a Bar Room here. We’re not interested in the evils of drunkenness anymore.). Epic books dealing with Important Issues get an extra push from the establishment, but honestly, Oprah has just as much of an effect these days, and likely the popular press in other eras did too. They’re still ‘establishment,’ just a different kind. (People tell you what highbrow books to like, and people tell you what lowbrow books to like. Middlebrow, to me, always seemed like failed attempts at highbrow. Possibly they failed because they were trying to appeal to lowbrow sensibilities too, and weren’t skilled enough to find a balance. (Some Terry Pratchett I think, manages to appeal to both highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities at once. But it’s a hugely difficult tightrope to walk.))

    I think any Social Psychologist will tell you that group decision-making is very rarely based on any objective evaluation of the facts. And most critical theorists will mumble about the Zeitgeist, half formed and half reinforced by these new popular books. For every literary book that’s a success, there are a hundred (nay, thousand) literary books that fail to get noticed. It’s the same with other genres as well. And to quote someone in the know, ‘any book that never feels like a waste of time is a good book.’

    Actually, Patricia Wrede has a very interesting post on how to deal with this issue as a writer. How do you write a good book without falling into the trap of listening to those thousand different voices trying to tell you what a good book is?
    What is right?

    • Thanks for that link, Cara.

      I suspect that most writers finally come to the conclusion that they have to write what matches best to that inner vision, or else go mad . . . the question then becomes, how to craft that vision so that it will connect with readers?

      Otherwise we could end up with a devoted audience of one.

  2. We were talking at home about something that I think ties in to this, which is conventions of form, and whether you follow them, and how much you deviate from them. If you deviate just a little, you can surprise and delight your audience in a comfortable way–they’re looking for those little deviations–and they’ll like that. If you deviate wildly, you can either surprise them and they’ll love it, or surprise them and they’ll hate it. Or possibly you’ll just confuse them. Sometimes confusion comes when people are assuming a work is one sort of thing when really it’s another–say, if you didn’t understand “A Modest Proposal” was satire, your reaction to it is going to be very different than it would be if you understand it’s satire. I think people think things are “good” if they meet the requirements of the form (e.g., this is a sonnet and, yep, it’s got a sonnet’s rhyme scheme and meter) and then surprises in some mild way. If it surprises in a giant way, that’s when you get the arguments about it.

    • And sometimes readers diverge wildly. “I loved that book!” “I hated it!” and it turns out they either loved or hated it for exactly the same reason.

  3. It’s interesting to me to see what was considered classic when I was in high school and college compared to what was considered classic when my kids were in high school and now college. I’m not sure if the list has changed primarily due to time, or if the particular area influences that as well.

    Here, in California, for example, the reading lists seem different than they do in Las Vegas, where my kids went to school for a while. In the area where my kids attended here, they trended toward California-themed books and books by California authors. Once my oldest graduated and went back to coach the school’s Academic Decathlon team, they’d moved on to books more about Latin themes (because of school demographics) and even had more popular current litarature. In Las Vegas, there was more genre literature, including sci-fi, in the curriculum, and it seemed to be influenced more by teacher opinion.

    I’ll admit to having had more than my share of the “old” classics when I was younger. I read them outside the classroom as well as in, thinking that’s what I needed to be more intellectual. I didn’t find them entertaining, though, and once an adult, realized that I had more need for entertainment than I did intellectualism.

    Having said that, though, when I find books that both entertain me and make me think/sometimes teach me, that’s my personal mark of a good read right there.

    I definitely don’t see a “live and let live” attitude in all the arguments that break out on the internet. I see more of the attitude of seeing who can come out on top and garner the most attention for themselves…and perhaps the novels they’ve published.

    • Janice: a pleasurable read that has content that engages my mind, oh yes. That’s my good read as well. A book can be chock full of important commentary on the sickness of the world, but if reading it feels like banging my head against the wall, I’ll put the book down and never pick it up again.

  4. Taste is so individual, and mine has rarely been mainstream. I still experience surprise when I find something popular “good”–in the sense that it appeals to my personal taste.
    There’s also something to be said for “try it, you’ll like it” because one’s taste can be expanded sometimes.

    • That’s a good point about trying stuff. (Though sometimes it takes me a while to talk myself around to it. This goes for foods as well as books!)

  5. I like what I like. I write what I like. My writing is most often described as “commercial.” I’m okay with that.

    • Commercial is good–it means a lot of people can sit down, relax, and enjoy the story. P.G. Wodehouse never aimed at anything but being commercial, but now even the critics are slowly coming around to admitting that the guy was a genius. (Whose books have been in steady print for a century, in spite of Henry James insisting he’d be forgotten in a few years, around 1900, when he was predicting the future of the novel.)

  6. A lot of the time, I approach it from the other direction. Even tho the words in a given book are the same (barring scribal errors, typos, and slight edition differences), no two readers read the same book. And I rather strongly doubt any reader ever reads the same book the author wrote. So pretty much every book is trying to perform the difficult trick of saying something meaningful to the reader… And really, the surprise is how often authors succeed.

    To me, “greatness” has as much to do with the ability of the author to speak to a wide range of people, often over a very long period of time as it has to do with hitting particular literary style points. I’ve had a passionate fondness for Antigone since I was about 10. It doesn’t matter to me that the author has been dead for longer than my RELIGION has existed, nevermind my existence. He still manages to talk about stuff that matters to me, and it matters as much to my 34 year old self as it did to my 10 year old self. (it so happens that the author also hits quite a pile of literary high points, but I don’t think that is the primary factor in my enjoyment) Yet when I studied the play formally in high school, my teachers and classmates for the most part just weren’t reading the same thing I was. In some cases, their reading was so far from mine that our short descriptions just weren’t the same story. For a lot of my classmates, it was a pretty extreme case of hatred at first reading. I don’t think most of my classmates really got on with tragedy as a genre tho, so that may have been part of it. Melodramas and comedies routinely got the entire group to be happy, but tragedy was pretty divisive.

    I’ve seen similar things when I read literary criticism of books I’ve read. Sometimes the critic gets the same thing out of the book that I did, but it’s vanishingly rare. It’s far more frequent that particular bits of characterization or plot (or rarely, diction) that I think are exceptionally good have driven the critic right up the wall. Sometimes up the wall across the ceiling and back down the other wall… Yet often the critic still found things that delighted them in the work. Sometimes it’s the things I most hated.

    Another thing I’ve noticed is readers vary quite wildly in terms of what literary elements they’re sensitive to. Most folks care about plot, genre, and characterization, but the fine details that an English professor might focus on are not always accessible to all readers. I’m pretty deaf to meter, and signs tend to make me crazy since I just won’t notice them. Symbols? Some I get easily, some I don’t. Diction tho and form I tend to get deeply passionate about. Yet I know lots of people who are so sensitive to meter that they almost can’t imagine the world without it.

    • 😀
      Just read Antigone again today. Actually, I think I’m a different reader than I was the last time (10 years ago!), and this time I thought it was astonishing and amazing, whereas last time, I found it mostly interesting, but depressing, and kind of pointless.

      But what on earth happens to Ismene?!?!

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