Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Let's Do Away With Literary Snobbery by Wendy Tokunaga


Karin Gillespie, fine writer and founder of Girlfriends Book Club (the original Girlfriends Cyber Circuit) wrote an excellent piece for The New York Times (!) called A Master’s in Chick Lit (you can read it here.) It describes very well the literary snobbism she encountered in her MFA program and how she came to realize how important it is to “embrace the gifts that enticed us into being writers in the first place,” no matter what the style.

I was lucky. I never felt much snobbery from my MFA program (I graduated in 2008), and felt that the teachers mostly encouraged us to write well, no matter what we were writing about. As one of the comments on Karin’s article stated, there should be no war between “literary” writers versus “genre” writers, as literary is simply just another genre.

I wasn’t so lucky when it came to planning bookstore appearances when my debut novel, Midori by Moonlight, came out. While I was lucky to snag appearances at the huge Union Square Borders in downtown San Francisco and the well-known indie bookstore Book Passage in Marin County, I also wanted very much to appear at my town’s largest independent bookstore, which had supported a number of local authors. But when I showed up with book in hand, naively assuming that I’d receive an enthusiastic reply from the owner, he took one look at the cover and said, “We don’t usually showcase these types of books.” He hadn’t read the book, but he seemed to know it wasn’t worthy of his time or space. Needless to say, I didn’t end up appearing there, but luckily found a new store in town that didn’t feel the same way.

In the novel writing classes I teach I always try to expose students to all different types of good writing. Along with excerpts from National Book Award winners, I also feature chapters from “commercial” best sellers. The first chapter of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a textbook example of how to write an effective beginning of a novel no matter what your style, but there are always students who balk and say they don’t read “those types of books.” Once they read that chapter, though, they are full of praise and I challenge them to write something as good for their novel’s Chapter One.

Literary snobbism is mainly based on insecurity. When Norman Mailer and his wife Norris were
about to leave for a trip, she was packing a novel by fantasy writer Mary Renault to read on the plane. Mailer told her to leave the book at home: “I can’t have people seeing you reading things like that!” It’s all about image and perception; many people feel the need to be “intellectual” and “well-read.” And if they do indulge in novels that don’t meet these “standards,” these books are referred to merely as “guilty pleasures.”

It’s time to put a stop to literary snobbery. I’m not telling readers that they can’t have their own tastes and no one is saying that you have to read and like everything. But enough with the criticism and the noses held up in the air. Writers care and work hard on their novels, no matter if they’re Jonathan Franzen or J.K. Rowling. We can learn from and enjoy all different styles of writing and no one should have to think that reading a particular book on the subway will make them either “look bad” or “look smart.”

Find me at:
Twitter: @Wendy_Tokunaga


19 comments:

  1. 100 million copies of the four Twilight books have been sold worldwide, and I'm still getting condescending looks of pity when I tell some of my writer and reader friends that I enjoyed the series. I think they expect an apology...




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    1. There has to be *something* about a series that's resonated with so many people. You can' just discount it!

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  2. I always say....Who cares what you are reading, as along as you are reading. And another thing....can we stop being snobby about the whole "in print " vs. Ereader books?

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    1. How true and good point--at least you're reading! And you make a further good point about print books vs. e-readers. If you're using an e-reader at least no one has to know what the heck you're reading.

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  3. Karin GillespieMay 1, 2014 at 8:01 AM

    Well said and thanks for the sweet plug. And I bet I know what book store you're talking about because I went in there asking for "Where;d You Go Bernadette" (blurbed by Franzen no less) and the clerk was a real jerk about it.

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    1. Congrats again, Karin! That bookstore I mentioned went out of business long ago.

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  4. Great article, Wendy! I love the photo of Marilyn reading James Joyce, too. Makes the same point. I'm sure there are plenty who'd have assumed she could have read nothing more mentally taxing than a fashion mag.

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    1. Thanks, Patricia! Poor Marilyn, though—always having to prove how "smart" she was because people couldn't shake that "dumb blonde" image.

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  5. I like reading some (not all) lit-fic. I like reading some (not all) popular genre fic. What matters is that a novel contain an interesting story featuring characters I can relate to. If it makes me laugh, if it makes me cry, if it makes me think--that's all I ask for. The rest is just packaging...and snobbery.

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  6. No matter how many categories people try to shoehorn books into, there are really only two that matter: books I enjoy and books I do not. Great post, Wendy.

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    1. Thank you, Lauren. I think you're absolutely spot on: books we enjoy and books we do not.

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  7. Well said, Lauren! Terrific post, Wendy! I think you were the icing on Karin's cake!!

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  8. Thanks for the post, Wendy. I cut out Karin's article from the NYT, because, I have to admit, I felt a little of that snobbery in the Stanford Certificate program. Maybe not so much from the teachers, but from some of the other students. I am cheering her, and the rest of us who don't aspire to write literary books, on!

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    1. Great to see you here, Diane. Yes, it's true that it can be more of a problem with fellow students than with teachers.

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  9. There will even be more respective guides for the students to try all those measures which are even said to be important and these will almost create better understanding.

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