Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Literary Snobbery--Dealing With It--Elizabeth S. Craig

Literary snobbery has been a topic on a couple of blogs lately, including this one. This anonymous post by Jane Genre both cracked me up and made me a little sad. And there was an interesting article on Fuel Your Writing about ways to find out if you were a literary snob.

Book snobbery is evident in some readers. It’s evident in some writers, too.

I’ve seen it a little, but it hasn’t affected me very much. I’m quick to chalk up the fact that not everyone shares the same reading interests. Wouldn’t it be a boring world if we did?

Variety of books is important. If novels are all literary fiction, or all classic lit, it might prove a real turnoff for less-experienced readers. Commercial fiction has its place.

I recently wrote a post featuring the New York Times profile of James Patterson. One of the interesting things he said was that he was trying to make reading more accessible and take the common reader into account:

“…If you want to write for a lot of people, think about them a little bit. What do they like? What are their needs? A lot of people in this country go through their days numb. They need to be entertained. They need to feel something.”

It seems to me that genre fiction bears the brunt of the snobbery. In particular, romance, science fiction, chick lit, fantasy, and mysteries.

Handling Literary Snobbery as a Writer:

Acknowledge their point…to a point. But remind them that not every reader is a good candidate for the classics or literary fiction. Don’t we want to pull readers in by any means possible?

Ask if they’ve tried reading your genre before—hand them your card, make it a selling opportunity.

Point out that it takes all kinds of books to make complete library.

Ignore it or laugh it off.

Ask if they’ve read books in your genre with good crossover appeal. If you’re really trying to make a convert (maybe this is even a member of your family), you could recommend books in your genre that appeal to a wide audience. Maybe this person will read the book, enjoy it, and expand into other books in the genre.

Recommend a different subgenre of the one you write. So maybe the individual dislikes mysteries. But have they tried all the subgenres? Maybe they don’t like thrillers but would enjoy cozy mysteries. Maybe they don’t enjoy cozies, but would enjoy police procedurals or noir. At the least, you’ve given them food for thought. Or you could recommend titles in your genre that are particularly complex or unique—The Dune series for sci-fi doubters, And Then There Were None for people who pooh-pooh mysteries. And challenge them to read them.

Tweak your presentation. Yes, you can be a great candidate to talk to book clubs—even clubs that specialize in literary fiction. I’m the first to tell book clubs that I have a ‘machine washable’ book—one that they should find fun, mentally puzzling, and entertaining, but that isn’t a lit fic, ‘dry-clean-only’ book that needs to be analyzed or picked apart. Instead, at book club meetings I’ve attended where my book was featured, I’ve concentrated on speaking about the creative process and what goes into getting a book published.

I’ll never forget seven years ago when I volunteered at the elementary school library. A second grade boy was checking out a couple of picture books and I said, as I scanned them, “These are great books.”

A classmate of his, a little girl holding some chapter books, looked over and sneered, “Those are baby books.” And the little boy looked absolutely crushed and ashamed of the books he’d just excitedly picked out.

And I said to the girl in a remarkably calm voice (considering how completely furious I was), “These are two of my favorite books. I bought them myself for my family and we read them every week.” And didn’t she just shut that sassy mouth right up?

The important thing to me is that there are choices out there. Sometimes I want a bit of literary fiction. Sometimes I’ll pick up the classics. But sometimes nothing suits me better than a wonderfully-written genre novel. Reading is all about the escape from reality. It doesn’t matter how we get there.


Elizabeth Spann Craig’s:
Blog: Mystery Writing is Murder
Riley Adams Blogs at: Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen
Pretty is as Pretty Dies—August 2009—Midnight Ink
Delicious and Suspicious (as Riley Adams) July 2010— Penguin Books


Michele Emrath said...

Ok. You're right. And I am ready to admit it now: I have been guilty of literary snobbery. I may have even made a few snobby comments about James Patterson. I like to tell myself I just don't like bad writing (that's true, I don't), but there is also a part of me that was raised a snob in the real world and has moved it into the literary one. I suppose being an English Lit major had something to do with it.

But I don't snub genres. In fact, I am writing mystery/suspense! So I am taking a lesson from this post and I thank you for writing it so succinctly and nicely...Nicely to us snobs. :)

I love your suggestion of recommending different subgenres and taking "all kinds of books to make a complete library." Very true.

Great post, Elizabeth!
Writing Prompt Wednesdays today on my blog!

Ingrid King said...

Great post. I love your suggestions for dealing with literary snobs. I've never been guilty of being a snob to others, but in the past, I sometimes felt guilty for reading some of the "non-literary" genres (so would that be reverse literary snobism?). I wouldn't even admit to close friends that I sometimes liked reading romance!

I particulary like your suggestion to ask the literary snob whether they've even ever read your genre, and to hand them a card if the answer is no.

Glen said...

Oh man I love this post, Eliz. "And didn’t she just shut that sassy mouth right up?" I am so stealing that line for a character.

As you can imagine from reading my stuff, I abhor snobbery in all forms. I think I'm a snob toward snobs. The Anti-Snob, as it were. Anyway, I gotta go retweet this one about a dozen times.

(Whew, for a skinny little thang, you got feisty in this post.)

Dorte H said...

Hear, hear!

Fortunately most of my colleagues, even the most ´learned´ ones, respect crime fiction when it is well-written and with proper plots. So I have ever so slowly begun to let them know that I write crime fiction in my spare time, and they seem to think it is interesting.

Journaling Woman said...

I am not a literary snob. Whew. I think I give all writing should have its 15 minutes of notice. Personally, I think all genres have their purpose.

Great post.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Michele--If you're a book snob, you're hiding it REALLY well! And we mystery writers are glad to have you writing for our team! :)

I know where you're coming from with reading, though--I was an English major too. Lots of mandated time reading the classics, but I really enjoyed getting back into a good mystery for a break.

Ingrid--Oh, I know what you mean. I have a few friends who think I must always be reading something really complex. They're always asking me for recommendations. And *sometimes* I'm reading a really erudite piece of lit--but frequently I'm not. They know better than to give me a hard time about it. :)

Glen--Why thank you! :) And's hard to get my goat, but once it's gotten--look out! :) After all, I do write murder mysteries.

Dorte--I'm glad they're good about it. They should be proud of you! It would be annoying to work with people who don't respect your writing, so I'm glad they do.

Teresa--I think so, too! I try to read it all (although I keep going back to my mysteries.)

Alan Orloff said...

Good post, Elizabeth.

I laugh to myself when people start talking about literary books (heck, I can't even understand most so-called classic books). I'm proud to write mysteries and thrillers (and snow fiction, horror, and whatever else). People can call my writing whatever they want--as long as they read it (or not, I don't much care). Okay, mini-rant over.

Watery Tart said...

Am I a book snob? NO! (yes), no, no, erm... maybe a bit... but you SEE... I am ALSO an anti-snob... there are literary books that are so full of themselves that NOBODY can read them *cough*Falkner*cough*. I see it like this. Literary fiction is the documentary--well researched, carefully considered, under-funded, and under-appreciated. Genre fiction is the TV shows--varied, some great, some you really wonder how the hell they got on the air *cough*Meyer*cough*, and IDEALLY what I LIKE is MOVIES--main stream fiction with ELEMENTS of the documentary so I am caused to THINK, but that are digestible enough that I can get up and use the bathroom and not be lost when I come back.

And I guess while I totally respect that literary fiction writers are doing something on a higher plane, that doesn't mean that what OTHER writers are doing doesn't totally rock, because it DOES. I DO think some genres don't quite monitor their quality like they should (romance has some REALLY bad mixed in with decent books, and Fantasy is notoriously under edited)--but they get away with it because their readers are so voracious that they are just trying to keep up.

I love your suggestions for handling it, Elizabeth--excellent, usable tools.

Simon C. Larter said...

I used to be a literary snob (kinda--I have a closet love of cheesy fantasy and scifi). But when I started writing, I realized that putting words one after the other and crafting a story is just as much work no matter what genre you write in. My respect for all fiction increased greatly.

I'm still a bit of a snob, but now I express it in the books I choose to read, not in talking down to genre fiction lovers.

Ann Elle Altman said...

I think if we all loved the same books, what I want to write, no one would read... oh wait.

Well, I think it's important to remember who your audience is and accept that even if you don't like a specific genre, some out there do.
Great post.

Margot Kinberg said...

Elizabeth - One of the best points you make is that there are so many sub-genres and options out there. As Dorte put it so well, people are beginning to respect crime fiction as a genre, but even so, you're right. There are people who are literary snobs, and you've offered some terrific ways to deal with them.

JLC said...

Great post! As an English Lit major who didn't start writing with a hope of publication until I was old enough to know better, I particularly want to ask: where were you when I had to give my first talk about my first book? Well, you may have saved me from total humiliation as I prepare for the next one on the next book next week. I'm taking notes. Especially about needing all kinds of books to make a library. I don't really write genre--mostly because I can't!

Thank you for shaking up preconceptions of writers, and helping us to shake up potential readers!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I love your "machine washable" analogy. When someone tells me that they only read the classics or certain genres, I usually respond with, “You don’t know what you’re missing.” You’ve offered some other great ideas that I hope I can remember next time I need a come back for a literary snob.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

As a reader and writer of science fiction, I see it all the time. Sci-fi gets dismissed as second rate often.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

I am not a reader of romance, mystery, or genre fiction in general, but, I have read romances, mysteries, horror and science fiction and any other good story I can get my hands on. I tend to gravitate towards more literary works but I am flexible and open. It's the writer's voice that has to speak to me, I start with the first paragraph, if I like it I keep reading, simple as that.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

I am not a reader of romance, mystery, or genre fiction in general, but, I have read romances, mysteries, horror and science fiction and any other good story I can get my hands on. I tend to gravitate towards more literary works but I am flexible and open. It's the writer's voice that has to speak to me, I start with the first paragraph, if I like it I keep reading, simple as that.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Alan--And that's what tends to frustrate me most--people who put down a genre when they haven't read it themselves. They just lump it in with a huge group and they're not even knowledgeable about the group.

Hart--I don't think snobbery and your open personality go together! You're right about the editing...I've noticed some of that, too. I hadn't thought about the reason behind it, but I think you're absolutely right: has to do with the publishers trying to keep up with the readers' appetite.

And I'm with you on the writing obscure/artsy stuff just to be obscure. I can't badmouth Faulkner on this particular blog :), but I'll point the finger at James Joyce for sure.

Simon--Like you, I do remember saying, "Well, anybody could write this" before...which might be true--after a ton of work. :)

Ann--There's a book for just about every kind of personality out there, isn't there?

Margot--There really are a ton of sub-genres...something for everyone!

JLC--Thanks! :) I know you'll do great and I bet you did fine on your first talk, too. I think the key is not to be defensive--when I get defensive it never ends well.

Jane--"You don't know what you're missing" sounds good to me, too! And they don't. Sort of like people who say they don't like a particular food--but they've never tried it.

Alex--And the genre takes, I think, a LOT of work to're really getting into world creation with sci fi frequently. I think sometimes people don't realize how complex it can be.

Elizabeth--Only good stories need apply--that's the way I feel, too. And we can find them many different places.

Allie said...

The thing that always gets me about literary snobbery is that many of the words we hold as classics now were actually commercial fiction in their time. John Steinbeck was fiction of the people. Heck, even Shakespeare was a writer for the masses, if you think about it. There's nothing wrong with enjoying what you find entertaining. And maybe in there, years from now it will be held up as a classic, or at least as an accurate description of what people found entertaining at this point in time.

Anonymous said...

I really think everyone is entitled to their opinion but people who kock books before tehy even read them should be careful. Okay, if you don't like fantasy, odds are you won't like the one you are mocking but there is a small chance you might have. More importantly, just because you don't like the book does not make it any less valid for another reader.
I do like your suggestions for overcoming this. I think the best suggestion is to really just remember that not everybody likes everything.

Maryann Miller said...

Good points made here, Elizabeth - as well as in the comments. There is room in the library for all kinds of books and all kinds of readers.

One of the key statements you made was that "sometimes nothing suits you better than a wonderfully written genre book" That is true for me, too, but it has to be well written. I can't even read a book that is poorly crafted, even if the story is supposed to be a good romp.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Allie--What a great point! Shakespeare was mainly playing to the peasants who stood in the middle of the Globe, right? Well put!

Cassandra--I wonder sometimes if they know what they sound like. And if they only knew all the great books they were missing out on.

Maryann--It definitely has to be GOOD...on a variety of levels. The same goes for classical literature, actually. It's always well-crafted, but--does it drag? If it does, I'm going to have to put it away. I wish I had the kind of time to put up with slow pace, but...

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I'm snobby only when talking about my competition - LOL!
But so many hear the words YA and think it's just for teens. But it's not! My oldest confirmed fan is 89.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Diane--That's when you have to wonder if they've ever heard of a little YA series called "Harry Potter." :) Oh..and "Twilight!"

Galen Kindley--Author said...

I think your closing is most appropriate..."Reading is all about the escape from reality. It doesn’t matter how we get there." I do favor certain types of stories over others, Who doesn't? Variety is important...Nose in the air, no so much, and not necessary.

Best Wishes, Galen.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

After all, variety is the spice of life...

Kathy McIntosh said...

Great retorts! I would like to be that direct and will try some of your approaches.
I've been both a victim and an inadvertent perpetrator of literary snobbism and the occasional reverse snob. Proves we need to watch our words. Because you're right, we need a literary garden with variety or it would be dull.

Finnegan Begin Again said...

I don't think James Joyce was attempting to see how obscure he could be. After all, he wasn't "James Joyce, Difficult Member of the Western Literary Canon" while he was writing those books. I think he was trying to capture the inexpressible, and also to incorporate many styles (or genres, if you will) into his writing. So careful where you point the finger.

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