introducing readers to writers since 1995

February 12, 2004

Not Just Snobby, But Since We Read Books,
Also Highly Effete. And High-Strung.

by Ron Hogan

The Book Babes wonder what literary snobs have against airport books, based on the reaction to their interview with Bill Keller about Times books coverage. I think this is largely a case of misdirection; "serious book people" may care more for Great Books than popular fiction, but it's not as if the Harold Bloom Appreciation Society bombarded them (or the Times) with brickbats, or as if anybody suggested there's no room for reviewing popular fiction in the mainstream media.

Heck, I may even think there's more attention to be paid to commercial fiction than many of the editors scheduling the reviews. Ellen Heltzel observes:

I even did my own thumbnail survey of book editors at newspapers around the country to make sure my thesis stood up. To one degree or another, they'll give a nod to the latest Stephen King or John Grisham. But their argument is that 1) commercial fiction will sell whether they review it or not, and 2) it's a waste of time to give it "serious" review consideration because such books are skin-deep and there isn't much to say. 

My first retort is that just because your reviewers can't think of anything to say doesn't mean there's nothing to be said...

Popular media can and does tell us a lot about ourselves as a culture. A good reviewer could easily find tropes of masculinity, or articulations of conservatism, in Tom Clancy, just as Anne Rice's oeuvre has a lot to say about shifting attitudes towards gender and eroticism. Mysteries and thrillers reflect social attitudes about crime and punishment; George Pelecanos uses the genre as an effective instrument to talk about race relations as well.

And the point of reviewing isn't to make sure books sell, unless you're writing for (as I can attest from experience). The point of reviewing is to offer a critical perspective that individual readers can use to inform their independent choices. I mean, by the "commercial fiction will sell whether they review it or not" standard, op-ed writers shouldn't have ever bothered arguing against invading Iraq because it's not like anybody was going to change their mind about it (pace Bill O'Reilly).

Margo Hammond chimed in:

I was amazed at how many people leapt to the defense of so-called serious fiction after that piece appeared. Yet few of them attempted to define what they meant by that term. Even fewer questioned the quality of the current work that attracts that label. On the other hand, most of them seemed certain that anything commercial--read popular--should be disdained.

I can't speak for other people's reactions, but this certainly doesn't describe mine. Because it completely misses the point of what was said by the Times editors in that original article. They say they need to recalibrate the type of reviewing they do because they've handed out too many positive reviews to literary fiction that turns out to be awful. I say that doesn't reflect on the books but on the reviewers. So all this armwaving about "what constitutes literary fiction anyway?" merely serves to let the Times off the hook for its own incompetence.

Am I a literary snob? To the extent that I prefer books with well-crafted sentences that describe plausible actions undertaken by people with reasonably realistic emotional/intellectual frameworks, I suppose I am. I dislike badly written pop fiction in which protagonists make stupid choices over and over until they make one smart choice that wipes their slate clean...and I think even the best prose style in, say, mass-market romance can only do so much to hide the genre's structural weaknesses. I dislike stories that attempt to cover up poorly conceived characters with exotic locations, futuristic technologies, or grisly crimes. So, fine, I have standards, but I apply them as rigorously to "literary" fiction as I do to pop.

"Look at what happened to Oprah when she tried to bring good literature to a mass audience," Hammond continues. She's right to say that a certain segment of the "literati" never stopped having it in for Oprah, sure, but I seem to recall that it was never anything but a vocal minority, and that by the time Jonathan Franzen screwed up his book club appearance, most of us could recognize exactly how badly he'd shot himself in the foot. So who exactly is Hammond talking about when she says:

We can't complain that no one pays attention to serious fiction and then applaud fiction that is so inaccessible that only a handful of people can understand it. We can't complain that so-called serious fiction is not attracting readers, and then conclude that any fiction that does can't be serious. 

Who are these inaccessible writers the literati are praising in the major book review sections of America? She certainly isn't talking about the thoroughly accessible Jonathan Franzen. Then Heltzel comes back, raises some digressive tangent, and makes her way to this critical chestnut:

Precious or not, made-up stories take us forward or back in time and put us inside the souls of people with whom we have nothing in common. Reading fiction requires the ability to suspend disbelief, to dream, and that's a critical faculty that we all need to exercise.

As far as the first sentence is concerned, I think she's got it exactly wrong. Fiction doesn't "put us inside the souls" of anybody, for starters; but it does enable us to find common ground for identification with characters whose lives may or may not differ superficially from our own, but who possess the same motivations and ambitions, the same setbacks and frustrations, as we do in our own lives. Good fiction requires us to suspend very little disbelief, I believe, and that only in regard to outward matters of time and setting, because if we cannot believe in the characters, then there is simply no point to continuing to participate in the story. If an "airport book" can convince me that its protagonist is acting plausibly, I'm there, and if Jonathan Franzen or someone of that ilk stuck an unbelievable character into a novel, I'd be the first to chuck it across the room.


As Sarah said over at Chica's site, the nice thing about commenting is you can step out of your own blog voice and say things you might not otherwise say at "home" - well here goes: The Book Babes, finally, are a pair of middle brow morons who I wish would go away. They are the apotheosis of mediocrity, parading in the guise of cultural guardians. Fortunately, you've dispatched them so effectively that no further engagement seems necessary, but boy, if these aren't two old birds who desperately need to get laid, then I don't know who is ... Stop them before they type again!

Posted by: TEV at February 13, 2004 03:22 PM

What gets me about the Book Babes is that they not only fail to take an interesting stand on anything, but are completely out of touch with the book blog atmosphere. I emailed Margo (the one who suggested that nobody was trying to define "literary fiction") in the wake of the Keller imbroglio. There was, as we all know, plenty of thoughts and discussion, among 2 Blowhards, Mark, myself, and now (thankfully) here trying to define literary fiction and "middlebrow." And beyond that, there's the pre-Corrections Franzen himself in Harper's, Tom Wolfe's infamous call for Balzac-like realism a few years ago, and even B.R. Myers separating the wheat from the chaff.

The more I look at out-of-touch "book editors" like Bill Keller, the Book Babes, and Laura Miller, the more I worry about the future of books and book coverage. If the people commissioned by newspapers to make books their field of expertise can't recognize basic strengths and weaknesses, then what effect will this have on the next generation of readers (or the aspiring or part-time readers who crowd lecture halls)?

Posted by: Ed at February 13, 2004 04:12 PM

Dear Beatrice--
You take a swipe at my genre of choice, romance novels (I'm a writer.) But I'm betting that you have only a passing familiarity with this enormous category of pop fiction and probably couldn't name more than a handful of romance novels you've read. Isn't that a little like slamming every sit-com on TV because you didn't like Gilligan's Island? Pop fiction in general and romances in particular encompass a vast diversity in authors, books, and readers' tastes. Considering the numbers of ignored, neglected, and abused women who devour the romance genre's core values -- hope, home, family, self-respect, and building a lifelong partnership with a good man -- romances are quite worthy of a reviewer's serious analysis. Read a few. If you think Harlequins on the supermarket shelves represent the entire genre, you truly are in the dark about an impressive and culturally relevant form of pop literature.

Posted by: Deborah Smith at February 16, 2004 10:20 AM

Actually, I'm quite a fan of Michele Jaffe and Patricia Cabot (though Meg appears to have retired that identity), and also like some of what I saw in Hillary Fields' first few historical romances, so I'm more than willing to admit some good can come out of the genre. And my beef isn't with the "core values," nor with the genre's enormous marketing clout. (After all, to the extent people are buying books anymore, they're buying an awful lot of romance, even more if you throw in the 'chick lit.')

What I mean by "the genre's structural weaknesses" is primarily the engine that drives the majority of texts I've read in my admittedly limited experience: two people spend hundreds of pages making willfully boneheaded assumptions about each other, displaying a highly unattractive lack of perceptiveness in the process, somehow manage to have a sexual encounter, then continue to make boneheaded assumptions about each other until somehow they (or their best friends) manage to claw the scales off their eyes in the penultimate chapter.

I concede that the fact millions of American women are buying such tales is culturally significant; I just don't find such stories particularly attractive, unless there's lots of stage business to distract me. But I'll take suggestions on further reading...

Posted by: editor at February 16, 2004 11:54 AM
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