Thursday, July 31, 2008

Literary vs. Commercial Fiction – does it have to be a war of condescension?

I was recently participating in a discussion relating to authors and writing hosted by a European publishing company on their Facebook fan page. I know I have blogged about the topic already and I don’t want to bore people to death but I so wanted to share this!

So what happened is...

One of the contributors saw fit to somewhat ponderously denounce the evils of “publisher marketing” which he dubbed unnecessary glamor. These were his words (names have been changed or deleted to protect both the innocent and the guilty):

“I should clarify my mention of the 'glamour'. With all the very colourful publicity and viral marketing, one could easily be led to believe that [X] publisher's current success is more down to the cultivation of image than to the quality of the writing... I see a double risk in the creation of so much hype and excitement around a book, particularly before it's published… Firstly, the more a book is talked about, the higher the expectations raised, and consequently, the greater the probability of disappointment when it finally reaches the hands of the reader. [Y] and [Z] are both enjoyable books, but I think [the author] will agree that they showed a lot of room for improvement. Secondly, it is not a secret that in today's popular culture, the more a phenomenon is mentioned the sooner people become tired of hearing about it, however promising the quality or delight offered by the subject concerned. Perhaps this is particularly the case among adolescents and young adults, who may feel pressured to consume a particular item (a book, for example) in order to acquire and be able to demonstrate a sense of integration with the central popular norm. What may be considered 'cool' and fashionable today will quickly be forgotten tomorrow, unless of course the talent and message –naked of the parafernalia [NOTE HOW I’M RETAINING THE SPELLING—MAKES THE SUBSTANCE OF HIS POSTULATION EVEN MORE IRONICALLY INTERESTING] which smothers them– inspire enough awe to speak for themselves and project themselves through the changes of time. As Martin Luther King once said, only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. Once the hot air ceases to blow and the balloon is released, we will see how high and far it floats.”

How lovely and insightful for this individual to quote MLK’s words with such idealistic fervor--and demean them in an entirely misplaced context! If MLK found out that someone believes he meant to propose a call to "snobbishness" in his inspired speeches, he'd probably never stop rolling in his grave. Suffice it to say, after reading this amazing post I started huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf. Well, well… I just couldn’t let this pass so here’s MY response to the diatribe complete with necessary quote and all:

“Okay - don't get me started on all of this. I have even blogged - and shall probably blog ad infinitum and in extremis - about the subject of literary vs. genre fiction. Whoever said that writing was intended to be the pleasure of a select few? And who is supposed to judge the purveyors of our literary bounty - a select few?

If the writing is good, are we to judge a book adversely because it is appreciated by the masses and not merely by the supposed intelligentia? God forbid I should wait for someone like that to judge my writing because it's not of the literary calibre of whoever-they-think-my-work-should-be-compared-to.

Robert Duvall said that "Listening to critics is like letting Muhammad Ali decide which astronaut goes to the moon." I came across another quote by an esteemed writer (name presently eludes me) who said that writers write so they can have their books critiqued by those who know not a fig about writing a book.

I'm not saying I agree totally with the above, although I come darn close to it - yet, there you have it. The harsh truth.

If we are to think that books are the exclusive empire of a few people who stand on a pedestal waving their wands around and architecturing which book is worth reading and which isn't - we are in hot water indeed.

I write genre fiction, which is looked down upon by those who like to tweak their noses at "populist" literature. Now how is it that those same people do not direct their acid words toward the likes of authors such as Brontë, Austen, Leroux or Dumas [or as a writer friend pointed out, even Shakespeare]? All these writers and too many more to mention were the "populist" [i.e., "commercial"] writers of their time. Leroux' The Phantom of the Opera, for example, was initially published as a serialized novel under the umbrella of what used to be dubbed "gothic novels" (i.e., the trashy books of their era). When did we decide that these books were literary gems after all?

I agree with [the publisher] that when it's good writing it's good writing and it doesn't matter which audience the book is intended to attract. As certain contemporary authors such as Junot Diaz (who I admire) show well in the pages of their books, the art of writing is best shown in its simplicity and the way with which it touches the heart of every single person who peruses it...not just the "literary snobs".

And what happens when a "literary gem" is transformed into a movie? We've seen it happen with so many books. I could mention Brokeback Mountain, for example, by Annie Proulx. Has this exquisite work been tainted now that it is within reach the grubby hands of the masses - only in a different medium?

We can go round and round with this - it's a subject that I feel very passionate about and I don't intend to offend anyone here. However, my belief is that books should be part of the common heritage and as such, there should be different books targeted to different people. The beach books for intellectuals and the intellectual books for beachcombers... it should be one big pool within which anyone and everyone should find their favorite fish.

That said, marketing is - if you want to call it that - a necessary evil. We can either sit stuck in the past of "This book is way too good to be tainted by the vulgar processes intended to boost sales" or we can move forward and rise to the level of everybody else and put our names on the literary map as we so rightly deserve. At the end of the day, this is the bottom line: Besides the fact that good literature is a great thing to have, publishing is first and foremost a business and ways have to be found to put money in both the publishers' and authors' pockets. If this weren't a priority at this point, we can just keep going the way we've always done...publish books so a handful of people can croon over them.

My two cents.”

The undercurrent is clear here – what the first post above is not so subtly saying that only what he considers glorious works of literature have to survive in this world. Hence, where would that put me and so many others as a genre fiction writer? As the publisher later told me, and I agree, does “good literature have to be unreadable”? Indeed. I’m quite weary of this war of condescension, of this attitude by some that suggests that populist fiction (such as romance and mystery books, etc.) is something to be ashamed of. Besides, I suspect many of these people, when they open a book, barely know what they’re reading about — just like those “connoisseurs” and "intellectual snobs" who stare for hours at an abstract painting thinking they’ve figured it all out.

I blogged a while back about men and women who predicate their dating choices on the potential partner’s reading preferences. It’s true but… methinks, what condescending rot!!! My belief is that ALL TYPES of books (note that I didn’t say “all books”) are worthy of a place on someone’s shelf, no matter who they’re for or what they’re about. And nobody should be judged because of their reading choices.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a firm believer in QUALITY and readers should be respected for plunking down their hard-earned money to purchase a book. It is the duty of authors to give the best of themselves. I also agree that there are such things as bad books we’d rather never see again — I’ve read quite a few of those and was royally pissed to waste my moolah on them. But here I am not debating the difference between bad or good books. I'm talking about the arbitrary condemnations of some literary snobs who hold on to their misguided belief that all popular or commercial fiction is rubbish.

Undoubtedly, this literary vs. populist debate is becoming quite tiring. As to the virtues or otherwise of either: I can say I’ve sometimes dozed off after struggling through reading 2 or 3 pages of a dry “literary novel” while at other times, I stayed up all night reading a highly entertaining, and not so literary, one. Also, just because a novel falls under the category of literary doesn't mean that it has to be boring. One can even see a bit of an inclination today where the contents of some literary novels are becoming a little less pedantic and sesquipedalian (hah! thank you, and more down to earth — thank heavens! (again, I quote Diaz here -- and his style of "highbrow meets street culture," with the latter more powerful than the former)

Some critics and self-coronated “literary connoisseurs” should start seeing the light and perhaps stop sniffing in disgust from their high horse long enough to get sucked into a well-written entertaining novel (although if they did, they'd probably die before admitting it -- reading any commercial novel, that is, and never mention that dratted romance or mystery genre. What blasphemy!). Irish prose writer and poet Brendan Francis Behan summed it up nicely: "Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves." Ain't that true? I wonder if said critics (including the one I quoted above at the beginning of this blog) think about how the tales they regard highly today and study to exhaustion in their Ivy League universities or discuss with suitably cerebral savoir faire at hoity-toity literary salons are precisely those same novels which garnered little “highbrow” respect in their time. Also, for example, these people gush over the Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley [due props, of course] who wrote about nature and love, yet... what about the romantic novelists of our time - even some of the ones whose muse is expressed and pressed between cheesy book covers?

Please let it be known that I'm NOT condemning literary book lovers here - as I fully consider myself to be in those ranks! I love literature in all its shapes and forms. What I dislike is the element of "condescension" or "snobbery" toward commercial fiction which is never called for.

I recently saw (for the umpteenth time) the movie Finding Forrester and it cracked me up when Sean Connery said something about how authors write books and then everyone else fancies that they know what was in the author’s head when he wrote it, then proceed to tear the novel apart with assumptions. I swear -- after reading and/or experiencing accounts of such nature -- if I see another nose twitch in disdainful snobbery after my admission of, “I write romance novels,” or if I'm ever asked when "will I write a real book?" I may just cast up my protein-drink breakfast on someone’s well-starched shirt or polished leather pumps.

What is your view on the above?

~ Angela Guillaume ~
"Breathtaking Sensual Romance"
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"Mile High to Heaven"--"Mr. & Mrs. Foster"--Coming soon at Whiskey Creek Press Torrid