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Is Class-blind Literacy Responsible for Shitty Books?

from Flickr user rachelkramerbussel.com

I shared an article on Facebook.  It was called “My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes by Dwight Allen” from the L.A. Review of Books about how Stephen King doesn’t write literature.  I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about SK, but nothing by SK, except for On Writing.

The article inspired a lot of impassioned comments.  Some of the commenters felt anger and annoyance.  All directed at the guy who wrote the article.  And I am really confused about how people could get so angry with Dwight Allen.  He actually read SK’s books, a good number of them, and with thoughtful consideration to SK’s body of work, which I am mostly unwilling to do.

In the piece, he said, “Yes, I have read these books, and they are mostly without literary merit, but SK is the most famous-and-rich writer alive, and that’s really fine with me.  But I become annoyed when he is awarded prestigious literary prizes, like the one for his contribution to American Letters in 2003, just because he’s a nice, liberal guy. Also, why do we choose to read this when there are so many better things to read.”  That’s pure paraphrase.  The article was wonderfully written, full of money vocab and openly a little snobby and pretentious.  Go on, click the link.

But I get it. Because I think what’s going on here is that there’s a chasm between my sense of literary merit and that of the unwashed masses. We writers are a little bit uppity about our relationship with craft, and we have every right to be.

I mean, it’s simply not fair that people who write utterly un-extraordinary sentences, and sometimes people who write horrible books that are full of tropes, redundant phrases, flat characters, and totally predictable turns of plot get to do so and make money from it, while many more people who honor the craft are labeled snobs and relegated to academia or the reviewer’s circle.

Other commenters said, “But you’re wrong!  SK does write literature!”  He does not.  It’s not a value judgement, it’s a fact.  SK writes books that a lot of people like.  That does not, as we know, literature make.

And that brings me round to the review of 50 Shades of Grey by EL James that I read (and shared on facebook) yesterday by PhD candidate Alison Balakskovits in The Missouri Review, a literary journal.  And after my inital twinge of “OMG, why the hell are they talking about that turd in a literary journal or even on its blog,” I read the article.  I was deeply amused.

And the Facebook comments on that review were mostly “Yeah!” and “I’ll never read that shit!”  And I’m glad my friends feel that way.  But the only difference between EL James’s contemporaries and SK’s is that SK got started when there were still gatekeepers, and when books meant something more than money to publishers.

Though it’s a stretch to slide SK and EL James in the same file, it is a much grander stretch to file SK and say, Joan Didion together.

I’ve been wondering a lot and for some time about this disparity between the popularity of books that are strict genre fiction and books that are literary.  I’ve written a bunch of blog posts about it, including one for Jane Friedman’s blog that has a lot of terrific comments and also impassioned views.

And I was thinking before that maybe the problem is the labels we put on books: that genre labels are unhelpful.

And I still think they are, perhaps, part of the problem; though I recognize the need for some finer classification than just Fiction and Nonfiction, because the shades of variation of each are greater than fifty to be sure.

And I was thinking that if we could just get more smart books and writing in front of more people, change the perception of “literary” that inspires fear and angst in the hearts of previously-tortured high school English students, that’d be terrific. People would read them and see, and smart books could enjoy at least equal market share.  And I still think that’s true, too.  I think a lot of the reason that high school kids hate literature is that they’re not yet mature enough to understand it.

I think maybe those people who teach classics in well-done, well-written comics are onto something.

But it occurred to me in this morning’s wee small hours, as I sort of talked myself through what I know of the history of literacy (which is admittedly little) that reading used to be a thing that rich people did. Poor people didn’t read.  They didn’t know how, and they didn’t have time.

Rich people were tutored by classically-trained teachers, learned to read Latin long after it was a dead language, learned not only reading, writing, math, and science, but usually to play a musical instrument, which is shown to be beneficial to a person’s intellect.

But it seems to me that the advent of books for mass-consumption in the US coincides nicely with the latest stages of the industrial revolution, with a kind of upward slope after WWII when attending school became compulsory for all US children of a particular age.

So now, 60-70 years in, we’re in a place where not only can everyone read, our educations are so diluted that we don’t even know what good reading is.  We’re so ignorant on that topic that people actually read and enjoy! BS like 50 Shades of Grey.  And worse, anybody thinks she can write a book!

I mean, I’ve read tons of books, and my canonical, classical reading repertoire is shit.  And mine is loads better than a lot of people. I can at least say that I’ve read one or more works from all the major literary periods.

Not at all to vilify teachers and education, I’m beginning to think that the misfortune of literature is owing to the logistical problems with literacy and education for everybody and funding of it.  Of course, I’m not proposing that we return to the class-determined education model.  Certainly, I would be a laundress (though I do love doing laundry), but I’m suggesting that perhaps we ought to re-evaluate how we do book teachin’ at the primary and secondary levels.

Do you have any ideas?

10 comments on “Is Class-blind Literacy Responsible for Shitty Books?

  1. Name me some literary genre books, and I will read them! Specifically – sci-fi, fantasy and horror. These are the things and stories that are interesting to me. Plain stories of normal people doing normal things don’t do it for me, no matter how well written.

    I did read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and I think that’s literary? I don’t know. I enjoyed it. I am glad that 50 Shades emerged and spawned the term “mommyporn” though, because it angers it’s readers and that just makes me happy.

    • Hey Brooke!

      I have one I’ll lend you. There are some really interesting futuristic/sci-fi sorts of stories that are literary. I read parts of a collection of zombie short stories, and the ones of those I read counted as literary.

      That’s the thing that puzzles me so deeply: there is *good writing* that’s about topics and situations that are typically considered to be genre. So why isn’t it all well-written? I’m not saying that SK’s books are not competently written, they totally are. They’re just not literature.

      Yes, Cormack McCarthy is totally literary. I haven’t read anything by him, maybe a short story in an anthology, but he’s on my list.

      Thanks for engaging, B. :-)

      -A

    • This. I’ve tried to get into literary fiction and just can’t. I’ll listen to the occasional short story literary podcast while I’m cooking, but even those get tedious after awhile. I may appreciate the exquisite wording of how the writer describes each and every bit of produce at the farmer’s market, but throughout I’m waiting for something to actually happen. I find myself wishing for the melons to rise up and pummel the protagonist in some sort of gory payback for all of those years under the Gallagher regime.

      I loved Stephen King as a teen because I wanted to be Carrie White. I wanted to wreak my vengeance upon all those who tormented me. I wasn’t looking to it for literary excellence: I wanted escapism and fantasy.

      I stopped reading Stephen King when he became powerful enough in the industry to no longer be edited, or worse, when his old books were re-released in unedited versions.

      That’s the line for me: I want rousing tales of fantastic delights, but I want them well-written and well-edited. They don’t need to be literary; they just need to work.

      50 Shades – which I have not read but have read/heard excepts from – is fan-fiction with the serial numbers filed off. It’s unoriginal. It’s lame. It’s laughable. It’s capitalizing on a burgeoning market of acceptable porn for suburban woman. I applaud that burgeoning market, but I want to read better quality sexy stuff.

      Even then, I don’t think I want to read literary sex. Maybe I’ve just read the wrong literary stuff, but my first reaction to “literary sex” is to imagine very dusty, dry, monotonic, boring sex that’s more focused on oh-so-deep interpretations of the lighting and the nature of the sheets than the act itself. Too much pseudo-depth can douse the flames.

      • Thanks for taking the time to comment. I like Bust’s one-handed reads. And most of the literary sex i have read is not as you describe. It is tightly written, often subversive, and very physical.

        And i don’t think this was your reading, but i do not and never have meant to suggest that SK is bad. I do not think so. I just don’t think he writes literature. And i am not personally interested. But i know loads of clever, lovely humans who think he rules, and that’s a-okay with me.

        I love your point about edited prose. I agree.

        Thanks for being here. I dig your style.

  2. This post is FANTASTIC! I stand in awe. I can’t add anything. (Except, maybe, I do think there’s something to be learned from reading Stephen King.)

  3. Here’s my theory – the last few generations have been raised on various forms of popular entertainment, from Vaudeville to movies, radio, television and comic books. Like you pointed out, with the exception of the genre fiction, most reading was considered ‘highbrow’ and less a form of entertainment and more as something a person did to expand their intellect. In short, most of us have grown up on a steady diet of junk food for entertainment and that has sadly expanded into the world of literature over the past 40+ years. It’s what we’ve come to settle on for ‘quality.’ So your average person who thinks Titanic is a great movie is also going to think the same of books like 50 Shades or a Stephen King novel. Which is fine with – as long as it’s understood that they aren’t anything other than mediocre.

    BTW, I’m enjoying your links – I think I’ve learned as much from them about writing as I have from our residency.

  4. Wonderful, April. Because of your post, I tried to locate a quote that I believe is from Oscar Wilde (ultimately, I could not find it). It goes something like this: “It’s easy to write a potboiler.” And I’ve long taken comfort in that. Writers who have been at the art and craft of writing for a very long time know that every sentence counts. Every word counts. Less is often more. We may take years before we publish something because it has to be a certain way.

  5. April, it’s not all well written, because not all writers can write well. That’s my theory. Plus, us genre people love our genres so much that we read it all, the good and the not so good.

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