Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Which foot wears the book snobbery shoe?

I was just reading a blog post that made the point that you should never apologise for what you read. People read whatever they enjoy, whatever entertains. There is no need to feel guilty about it. Although I haven’t come across any stuff that interests me lately, I enjoy reading science fiction and fantasy. I will be dipping my toe into A Game of Thrones soon. But it is true that some people look down on Dan Brown and other popular writers (and on SFF).

What I actually find, though, is that a reverse snobbery predominates. People look at you sideways if you say you prefer to read something that might be called ‘literature’; and even more so if you aspire to write it. It is regarded as pretentious if you are concerned with form and language, rather than just a story. Some people care about the words they put on the page, or the words they read there, as much as they care about ‘plot’, ‘action’ and ‘conflict’. I feel the need to defend this point of view somewhat, because it this type of writing that is being excluded from the market, not the Dan Browns of this world. There will always be Dan Browns, but will there ever be another Tolstoy, or DH Lawrence or Steinbeck?

I have no problem with reading as a form of entertainment, any more than I object to a movie that seeks only to entertain (and make money, of course). However, I feel that we are gradually losing sight of writing as a form of art. At the very least, it is pushed to the distant margins, much as cinema as a form of art, and music as a form of art are marginalised. I feel that I must apologise because I am not writing thrillers, or young adult paranormal, or romance, or erotica.

So the snobbery works both ways. Yet it is not the Dan Browns who are struggling to gain an audience these days. People need little encouragement to read Dan Brown or John Grisham. They need a great deal more encouragement to read Peter Carey or Hilary Mantel. Much of the great literature of the past would not see the light of day if it were written today, and I don’t mean just because of a change in writing styles over the last 100 – 150 years. I suspect that much of the great literature of today is not gaining the readership it deserves, either. There is almost a tendency to sneer at a book that wins the Man Booker Prize.

I read ‘literature’, but I also read SFF. (I also read many other genres for professional reasons.) What I hope is that people who love to read thrillers don’t only read thrillers. Step out of your comfort zone. Go and buy a Man Booker Prize winner. It will be a different experience, but not necessarily any less satisfying.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Philip,
    Found your blog thanks to Linkd In. This is a wonderful post. I've noticed this shift as well. I'm a member of a book club that tends toward "recent" books that make it on the NYT best seller list. Nothing wrong with that, but right now, I'm more interested in Dostoyevsky. Of course, I mainly read MG SFF but that's because I love SFF and MG seems to have all the great writers right now. I'm burned out on YA.

    We should never apologize for what we read or write. If we don't write true to ourselves, it won't be worth reading by anyone.