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Literary Elitism


Screaming Turkey Ultimate

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This forum is full of elitists. I posted a thread about Twilight novels and got banned for a week. If you dont like the novels dont enter the thread. People are so immature

Just a short comment on this: people seem to conflate "having an opinion that differs from mine" with "elitism". This is not so.

This place is also not a Twilight fansite. Having a negative opinion of Twilight is not something that goes against the policy of this site, hence you cannot "thought ban" people from entering your thread about Twilight and having a different opinion. What you can do is list your arguments for why Twilight is in fact great, and refute the arguments from the people who disagree with you. This is what a discussion forum is about.

As for literary snobbery, sure, there are some who think that you fail@life if you don't spend your free time reading Joyce, Proust and similar for enjoyment, but they are rare and few, in my opinion. What is far more common are people who love a work like for instance Twilight, and then when encountering people who don't like that particular work, the naysayers immidiately get branded "elitist". I tend to read everything from Harry Potter fanfic to de Maupassant. I spent my summer plowing tomes of 17th century military history and biographies. I doesn't interest me if people think that's good, bad or otherwise, however I am also fully prepared to back up my views of these works with fairly good arguments should someone disagree with me about them. "Reading for enjoyment" unfortunately often gets to stand in as a replacement for "Reading without engaging my brain and actually looking at what I am reading", so sort of the literary equivalent of only watching Hollywood RomComs (not bad per see, only bad if you insist that it's great and serious quality stuff).

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I'm a bit of a hypocrite on this one. I read a variety of novels from classic literature to Nicholas Sparks, sometimes for pure enjoyment and escapism and sometimes because I feel life something deep and philosophical. Although I have read some questionable, yet enjoyable, material myself in the past, I usually recommend the classics and I have been known to citicise people who read popular trash fiction (for example Fifty Shades of Grey).

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:wub:

I read what I find interesting. Is The Great Gatsby a Work of ArtTM? Perhaps. Will I read it? Maybe if you pay me. But if it's a paltry sum I'm just gonna grab a random Stephen King book (yes, even The Tommyknockers or Dreamcatcher) and you can shove your money and The Great Gatsby up your bunghole.

Conversely I have tried thrice in the last 4 years to read Perdido Street Station because it's supposedly The Bees KneesTM, according to people whose tastes I trust both in real life and online. I still can't get past the insectoid sex part :ack:. I think I'd rather re-read The Idiot, which I find to be funnier than Mitch Hedberg, Liz Lemon and Arrested Development combined. I like all three in their own respects, but I think that "boring classic" can make anyone with a sense of humour shart with laughter.

If you're gonna force things into boxes labelled "literary" and "genre" however, I seriously doubt that even people who prefer the "genre" box will want to rub elbows with Twilight, Danielle Steel, and Dean Koontz fans. Bonus link: Paulo Coelho disses James Joyce ERMEHGERD.

I liked Gatsby, hated Perdido Street Station, and (this may come as a surprise) am obsessed with The Idiot. I think you make a good point that many genre fans feel persecuted when others pass judgment on their choice of reading, but have no problem passing judgment on, as Lev Grossman put it, the shitty gerne books.

And no surprise that Coelho would break out the "I'm popular therefore I'm good" argument.

People wanting to get into SFF-esque literature/mythology might like Calvino (Start with Invisible Cities).

People wanting to get into SFF that IS literature might try Vonnegut or Huxley, or Hermann Hesse's secondary world fantasy Magister Ludi. See this is the problem I have with the idea that literature is a genre unto itself; it limits what can and cannot be called literature, and basically excludes ALL genre fiction from literature, when in fact literature spans all fiction including genre fiction. A novel need not be one or the other, it can be both. See Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, Bradbury's Fehrenheit 451, or Stoker's Dracula.

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Errant Bard:

he merely has to prove that distribution of quality is the same, that the worst of one genre is better than the worst of the second genre and that the best of the first genre is better than the best of the second genre.

Which cannot be done, given that everyone has their own opinion of what constitutes literary quality. One person's worthy masterpiece will be another's boring drivel, and vice-versa.

It's not like such things are not quantifiable on a subjective basis, how many masterpiece in tie-in fiction rank up to ASOIAF, in you idea, for example?

Depends. How many tie-in works do I rank up to the first three books of ASOIAF? None. Up to the latest two ASOIAF books? I can easily think of a half-dozen. It depends on the criteria one uses to judge quality.

The idea that a group can be superior to another only when its worst is better than the best of the other one is inherently bizarre. There wouldn't be many medals being given in team sports, for one thing.

In team sports, the criteria used to determine one team's superiority over another – goals, points, time, whatever – are clear and agreed upon by all. In literature, everyone has their own criteria to determine quality, which is normal given that reading is inherently a subjective experience. And to me, such a sweeping statement as "tie-in fiction is inherently inferior to original fiction" is inherently all-encompassing and does not even allow the possibility that individual tie-in works can be qualitatively better than individual original works. You may have a different interpretation of that statement, but to me it is reprehensibly elitist.

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When you dismiss all "literature" as elitist you are the one being a snob. You can't imagine why anyone would read Dostoevsky over GRRM unless a teacher told them to? How about because of the beautiful writing, the heartbreaking stories, or the profound, thought-provoking themes? You wanna let people know why you love genre? Then start arguing for genre, instead of arguing against "literature".

That's not what I said. What I said was: "I really like Dostoevsky, but I can't fathom an objective argument for why anyone should read Crime and Punishment over ASOIAF. Other than your teacher/professor requiring you to read it."

This just goes back the early point about storytelling, and how the appeal of different stories is subjective. I really enjoyed Crime and PUnishment, but I can certainly understand the POV of someone who doesn't enjoy reading about the psychological aftermath of a guy killing an old lady with an axe. The fact that the "heartbreaking story" or "profound themes" appeal to you is not an objective criteria. It's fair to say that D does a great job at what he sets out to do, but what he set out to do just may not be very appealing to a lot of folks. And there's nothing wrong with not enjoying that book because you don't enjoy the theme or story, no matter how technically well-written or well-regarded it may be.

As I said, I personally really liked the story. That being said, I don't believe it enriched my life or affected my worldview any more thandid a ton of other less "classic" books.

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That being said, I don't believe it enriched my life or affected my worldview any more thandid a ton of other less "classic" books.

Yeah, I was thinking that last night. While some books have definitely changed how I see the world, the implication that a certain set of fictional works would change the world if only people read them seems ridiculous.

I do think people should try books [of all kinds]. I always heard Proust was a slog, but when I started reading him for myself I found it to be rather enjoyable.

eta:

"Reading for enjoyment" unfortunately often gets to stand in as a replacement for "Reading without engaging my brain and actually looking at what I am reading", so sort of the literary equivalent of only watching Hollywood RomComs (not bad per see, only bad if you insist that it's great and serious quality stuff).

I think the problem is that people assume "consumes lowbrow entertainment" with "does not engage their brain". I know people who are doctors, EMTs, teachers, probation officers, PhDs, etc who have probably saved and influenced many lives and learned a lot about the world.

They consume tons of low brow entertainment, but their actual lives include many accomplishments.

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Accomplishments? I'd say varied depending on what author or work you are talking about but like in science current writers are standing on the shoulders of giants.

Well, that's a temporal issue more than anything else. It's like music -- a great deal is influenced by what came before. But that doesn't make the old stuff actually better, because the newer stuff may have improved on what came before.

I just think the older works tend to be more thoughtful broadly speaking.

Well, I think there was much less stuff being written back then, and far fewer authors, who also tended to be significantly better educated than the average person. You could say that the proliferation of modern authors, greater ease of publishing, etc., has made it possible for more crappy authors to publish more crap. Of course, you've also got a lot of great talents who might never really have gotten a shot in the old days either.

To me, elitism isn't personally prefering one type of writing to another. It's the belief that you are somehow more intelligent because of those preferences. And that would necessarily include anyone who would assume something negative about a person just because they don't enjoy certain works.

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I think the problem is that people assume "consumes lowbrow entertainment" with "does not engage their brain". I know people who are doctors, EMTs, teachers, probation officers, PhDs, etc who have probably saved and influenced many lives and learned a lot about the world.

They consume tons of low brow entertainment, but their actual lives include many accomplishments.

There's certainly that misconception as well. I consume lots of lowbrow entertainment myself (Eurodisco, van Damme movies, Harry Potter fanfiction, etc) and I covet it badly.

However, when asked I can state why I like it, but I'm not blind to its failings because of that.

The problem enters where people defend their viewpoint of this type of culture with "OMG why are you criticising it? Just let us enjoy it you naysayer", by blinding themselves to its failings on purpose. I don't think that really helps anyone.

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The problem enters where people defend their viewpoint of this type of culture with "OMG why are you criticising it? Just let us enjoy it you naysayer", by blinding themselves to its failings on purpose. I don't think that really helps anyone.

I can see two tracks on criticism. One I think is legitimate - criticizing stereotypes, trivilization of real world issues, etc.

The other, demanding that people understand the failings of the craft....I'm not convinced. It feels like me telling someone playing a video game about how the lighting and AI is bullshit, and demanding they stop their fun to acknowledge the violations.

eta: At the same time I think people on a messageboard demanding people not post their opinions in a thread is also silly. As is the argument that anyone employing a standard on craft is somehow an evil elitist fun-vampire.

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The problem enters where people defend their viewpoint of this type of culture with "OMG why are you criticising it? Just let us enjoy it you naysayer", by blinding themselves to its failings on purpose. I don't think that really helps anyone.

But how does the criticism itself "help" anyone? Why do those "failings" need to be pointed out at all to people who are enjoying the book, unless the opinion was sought, or you're a professional book critic?

I read all sorts of stuff, and am well-aware of all the technical failings of the Harry Potter series, given how often others seem compelled to opine on it. But those failings/shortcomes/whatever don't matter to me. I don't care. I enjoyed the overall reading experience, which is really all that ultimately matters.

Now, if you're on a book forum where the whole point is to discuss the pluses and minuses of books, that's different. That's seeking enjoyment not from the book itself, but from the process of discussing it. Yet even then, I don't think there's any external value or import to such discussions, such that fans of the book being discussed must acknowledge the flaws, or there is something wrong with them. I've said it before -- Bakker makes me want to 1) drive spikes into my head, and 2) punch him in his head. But I can't see any real objective reason why others shouldn't enjoy the hell out of him.

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seem to only recommend and commend the books and authors that English professors and the literary establishment celebrates: Joyce, Pynchon, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Melville, David Foster Wallace, among others

Ulysses: very funny

Gravity's Rainbow: very funny

Infinite Jest:very funny

The Metamorphosis: very funny

etc., etc.

If you walk with open eyes and mind, you will very likely encounter some that are unknown to "all" but the "elitist". Enjoy those "hidden" treasures!

Spoiler
George Orwell

Good Bad Books

Not long ago a publisher commissioned me to write an introduction for a reprint of a novel by Leonard Merrick. This publishing house, it appears, is going to reissue a long series of minor and partly-forgotten novels of the twentieth century. It is a valuable service in these bookless days, and I rather envy the person whose job it will be to scout round the threepenny boxes, hunting down copies of his boyhood favourites.

A type of book which we hardly seem to produce in these days, but which flowered with great richness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is what Chesterton called the “good bad book”: that is, the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished. Obviously outstanding books in this line are Raffles and the Sherlock Holmes stories, which have kept their place when innumerable “problem novels”, “human documents” and “terrible indictments” of this or that have fallen into deserved oblivion. (Who has worn better, Conan Doyle or Meredith?) Almost in the same class as these I, put R. Austin Freeman's earlier stories — “The Singing Bone” “The Eye of Osiris” and others — Ernest Bramah's Max Carrados, and, dropping the standard a bit, Guy Boothby's Tibetan thriller, Dr Nikola, a sort of schoolboy version of Hue's Travels in Tartary, which would probably make a real visit to Central Asia seem a dismal anticlimax.

But apart from thrillers, there were the minor humorous writers of the period. For example, Pett Ridge-but I admit his full-length books no longer seem readable — E. Nesbit (The Treasure Seekers), George Birmingham, who was good so long as he kept off politics, the pornographic Binstead (“Pitcher” of the pink 'un), and, if American books can be included, Booth Tarkington's Penrod stories. A cut above most of these was Barry Pain. Some of Pain's humorous writings are, I suppose, still in print, but to anyone who comes across it I recommend what must now be a very rare book — The octave of Claudius, a brilliant exercise in the macabre. Somewhat later in time there was Peter Blundell, who wrote in the W.W. Jacobs vein about Far Eastern seaport towns, and who seems to be rather unaccountably forgotten, in spite of having been praised in print by H. G. Wells.

However, all the books I have been speaking of are frankly “escape” literature. They form pleasant patches in one's memory, quiet corners where the mind can browse at odd moments, but they hardly pretend to have anything to do with real life. There is another kind of good bad book which is more seriously intended, and which tells us, I think, something about the nature of the novel and the reasons for its present decadence. During the last fifty years there has been a whole series of writers — some of them are still writing — whom it is quite impossible to call “good” by any strictly literary standard, but who are natural novelists and who seem to attain sincerity partly because they are not inhibited by good taste. In this class I put Leonard Merrick himself, W. L. George, J. D. Beresford, Ernest Raymond, May Sinclair, and — at a lower level than the others but still essentially similar — A. S. M. Hutchinson.

Most of these have been prolific writers, and their output has naturally varied in quality. I am thinking in each case of one or two outstanding books: for example, Merrick's Cynthia, J. D. Beresford's A candidate for truth, W. L. George's Caliban, May Sinclair's The combined maze and Ernest Raymond's We, the accused. In each of these books the author has been able to identify himself with his imagined characters, to feel with them and invite sympathy on their behalf. with a kind of abandonment that cleverer people would find it difficult to achieve. They bring out the fact that intellectual refinement can be a disadvantage to a story-teller, as it would be to a music-hall comedian.

Take, for example, Ernest Raymond's We, the accused — a peculiarly sordid and convincing murder story, probably based on the Crippen case. I think it gains a great deal from the fact that the author only partly grasps the pathetic vulgarity of the people he is writing about, and therefore does not despise them. Perhaps it even — like Theodore Dreiser's An American tragedy — gains something from the clumsy long-winded manner in which it is written; detail is piled on detail, with almost no attempt at selection, and in the process an effect of terrible, grinding cruelty is slowly built up. So also with A ñandidate for truth. Here there is not the same clumsiness, but there is the same ability to take seriously the problems of commonplace people. So also with Cynthia and at any rate the earlier part of Caliban. The greater part of what W. L. George wrote was shoddy rubbish, but in this particular book, based on the career of Northcliffe, he achieved some memorable and truthful pictures of lower-middle-class London life. Parts of this book are probably autobiographical, and one of the advantages of good bad writers is their lack of shame in writing autobiography. Exhibitionism and self-pity are the bane of the novelist, and yet if he is too frightened of them his creative gift may suffer.

The existence of good bad literature — the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously — is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration. I imagine that by any test that could be devised, Carlyle would be found to be a more intelligent man than Trollope. Yet Trollope has remained readable and Carlyle has not: with all his cleverness he had not even the wit to write in plain straightforward English. In novelists, almost as much as in poets, the connection between intelligence and creative power is hard to establish. A good novelist may be a prodigy of self-discipline like Flaubert, or he may be an intellectual sprawl like Dickens. Enough talent to set up dozens of ordinary writers has been poured into Wyndham Lewis's so-called novels, such as Tarr or Snooty baronet. Yet it would be a very heavy labour to read one of these books right through. Some indefinable quality, a sort of literary vitamin, which exists even in a book like If winter comes, is absent from them.

Perhaps the supreme example of the “good bad” book is Uncle Tom's cabin. It is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true; it is hard to say which quality outweighs the other. But Uncle Tom's cabin, after all, is trying to be serious and to deal with the real world. How about the frankly escapist writers, the purveyors of thrills and “light” humour? How about Sherlock Holmes, Vice Versa, Dracula, Helen's babies or King Solomon's mines? All of these are definitely absurd books, books which one is more inclined to laugh at than with, and which were hardly taken seriously even by their authors; yet they have survived, and will probably continue to do so. All one can say is that, while civilisation remains such that one needs distraction from time to time, “light” literature has its appointed place; also that there is such a thing as sheer skill, or native grace, which may have more survival value than erudition or intellectual power. There are music-hall songs which are better poems than three-quarters of the stuff that gets into the anthologies:

Come where the booze is cheaper,

Come where the pots hold more,

Come where the boss is a bit of a sport,

Come to the pub next door!

Or again:

Two lovely black eyes

Oh, what a surprise!

Only for calling another man wrong,

Two lovely black eyes!

I would far rather have written either of those than, say, “The Blessed Damozel” or “Love in the Valley”. And by the same token I would back Uncle Tom's cabin to outlive the complete works of Virginia Woolf or George Moore, though I know of no strictly literary test which would show where the superiority lies.

1945

THE END

One cannot read trash all the time. If one doesn't see the difference between Sanderson and Joyce then there is no point in having this discussion.

“Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. So now you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.” Bradbury

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What if, God forbid, people learn about the world using something besides a book?

eta: Not to mention no one has yet produced a study that shows reading "good" books makes you better in any measurable way.

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One cannot read trash all the time.

Could you define "trash"?

If one doesn't see the difference between Sanderson and Joyce then there is no point in having this discussion.

I think everyone could tell the difference between Sanderson and Joyce. I think the question is what those differences should mean to prospective readers. It's certainly true that Joyce was more innovative stylistically and had a better command of language. But it is equally true that many people may dislike his style, themes, or have no interest in his choice of subjects. Such people may prefer Sanderson.

This reminds me of wine discussions. A wine connoisseur may have entirely different tastes than someone who is not. And ultimately, it is how it tastes to each individual, not the technical complexity of the wine, that matters.

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What if, God forbid, people learn about the world using something besides a book?

eta: Not to mention no one has yet produced a study that shows reading "good" books makes you better in any measurable way.

This.

The assumption that seems to underlie a lot of what could be termed literary snobbery/elitism is that "better" books somehow illuminate your life or worldview in a way other books or experiences do not. "Oh, reading Grapes of Wrath is essential to an understand of the Depression." No, it isn't. It's no more valid than any other bit of empiricism. It's the POV of one single person, the author, not some tome of omniscience.

Everyone brings different life experiences, knowledge, and points of view to whatever they read. That suggests that we will, and should have, different reactions to different books.

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It's odd that this topic pops up every now and then, it's like: I like hockey, but the football fans act so condesending to me because of it, bohoo.

Another odd notion is that the people who enjoy genre fiction is somehow obligated to recognize its flaws, as if the flaws were objective and as if they would enjoy it more if they only realized how bad it was.

Honestly, I'm not even sure what literary means, for instance, I've read many Booker Prize winners that I've loved, and many whose books I've dropped half way through. Same goes for SFF. I just don't see what people get so hung up about, either when trying to defend their team or dissing the other, "people should respect SFF because Marukami won a fantasy award" - really? Inferiority complex much?

Hehe, I'm rambling as always, but I wish people could just enjoy whatever it is that they enjoy and don't feel the need to justify themselves by pointing out how bad the other side is.

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This.

The assumption that seems to underlie a lot of what could be termed literary snobbery/elitism is that "better" books somehow illuminate your life or worldview in a way other books or experiences do not. "Oh, reading Grapes of Wrath is essential to an understand of the Depression." No, it isn't. It's no more valid than any other bit of empiricism. It's the POV of one single person, the author, not some tome of omniscience.

Everyone brings different life experiences, knowledge, and points of view to whatever they read. That suggests that we will, and should have, different reactions to different books.

Double this.

Personally, I doubt that I could have enjoyed many of the books I enjoy today fifteen years ago simply because I had not experienced enough nor developed enough empathy.

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