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February 12, 2004
Not Just Snobby, But Since We Read Books,
by Ron Hogan
Also Highly Effete. And High-Strung.
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 Amazon.com (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.
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