Thursday, September 27, 2012

I'm Helping to Harm Literature? Cool!

There is an article today The Guardian that is too good not to poke with a sharp stick.  It quotes the head judge of this year's Man Booker prize, one Peter Stothard, as saying "If the mass of unargued opinion chokes off literary critics...then literature will be the poorer for it."  He went on to say, "There is a great deal of opinion online, and it's probably reasonable opinion, but there is much less reasoned opinion."

Now, aside from the fact that the previous sentence doesn't make any sense when examined closely, Stothard's views smack of elitism.

As further evidence they do, here's another quote:

If we make the main criteria good page-turning stories – if we prioritise unargued opinion over criticism – then I think literature will be harmed.

He thinks literary criticism exists to tell us (that would presumably be the unwashed masses of genre readers, as opposed to readers of litfic) what is good and why it's good.  He says that.  I'm just too lazy to quote him again.

Excuse me, Mr. Stothard, but are you aware that "good" is a subjective term?  That what two educated, intelligent people regard as good can differ widely?  I don't need you, or anyone else for that matter, to tell me what is good.  There are critics and bloggers whose opinions I value and seek out because I understand their tastes and how those tastes compare with mine.  I have a pretty good idea if I'm going to like a book or story based on what they think of it.  And no, I don't have the same tastes and likes as they do.  Just the opposite in some cases.  But because I know their tastes, I can make an informed decision regarding whether I want to read (or watch or listen to) a particular work.

And I really don't understand why "good page-turning stories" aren't the main criteria.  Most people read for pleasure, at least as far as fiction is concerned.  (The reasons for reading nonfiction can be complex, so I'll restrict my comments to fiction.)  That means their primary goal is mostly likely to be enjoying  a good page-turning story.

The majority of adults, at least those who bother to read more than texts on their phones or the National Enquirer, do not have as their primary reason for reading to be improved, enlightened, made socially aware, or because it's good for them.  The people who read for those reasons are in school.  Come to think of it, people in school don't read for those reasons either.  They read because it's required.

We read to be entertained, Mr. Stothard.  We read because we want page-turning stories, as you so arrogantly put it.  Any improvement, enlightenment, or social awareness is secondary to that goal.

I blog because I want to share the page-turning stories I've found.  If blogging harms literature, or rather a narrow view of what literature is, as defined by an exclusive and elitist club, then fine.  I'm guilty as charged.

And completely unrepentant. 


  1. You nailed it Keith. I saw the article this morning and just shook my head. So elitist and so ignorant.

    1. Thanks, David. So many of the classics started out as popular novels. The lit-elite tend to forget that sometimes.

  2. Total agreement. I'll go further, and say that "serious literature" has increasingly become an utter fraud: essentially a club of pseudo-intellectuals who have substituted endless in-jokes and moral posturing for actual story quality. There's more meaning in a shelf full of Hugo and Nebula-winning science fiction or major fantasy than there is in a shelf full of all the major literary prizewinners since, say, 1975 or so.

    1. So much of what's published these days does seem to come from an echo chamber, doesn't it? Unfortunately I'm seeing signs of the same thing happening in the sf/fantasy/horror fields. I guess that's why I still love the stuff published half a century or more ago. The emphasis was on an entertaining story first and foremost.

  3. The thing that's at the heart of this kind of complaint, and which too few people mention, is that "good, page-turning stories can also be good literature. Those things are not mutually exclusive.

  4. I'm sort of torn by the Stothard's comments. Too much writing about books (online an in print) is just simple opinion. I'm constantly working hard to make sure I understand why I do/don't like something and am able to explain why (occasionally with success I hope). While I do look for opinion pieces from people whose tastes I know parallel mine so I'm aware of new things, I also want deeper reviews and criticisms of books as well.

    That being said, he does seem more intent on ensuring the continued existence of lit-crit as the walled-off preserved of an anointed and often incestuous elite. Unfortunately their choices of literature are more often not complex but complicated, not exciting or intriguing but dull and opaque. I know I'm overgeneralizing but it's how I feel and how he sounds.

    I'm in total agreement with you regarding reading and entertainment. Even when I read Dickens or Bulgakov I wanted to be entertained. It may be a different type of entertainment than REH or CJ Cherryh but it's still entertaiment. If I just want to learn something I'll read non-fiction.

    1. There are some people who think that literature has to be difficult. This is not a position I hold. True, some writing does require more effort, but good writing is understandable and clear. Note that by "clear" I don't necessarily mean simple or simplistic.

      You're absolutely right about fiction being entertaining. If it doesn't do that, then there's not much purpose in reading it. I'll take a good nonfiction book/journal/article over a dull piece of fiction any day. Good writing is good writing, no matter what type it is, and that's writing that engages the reader and makes him/her want to keep reading. This is just as true of nonfiction as it is of fiction.