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Forget Literary Fiction. Is Reading Anything Elitist?

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There’s a sharp divide between readers of genre fiction and readers of literary fiction. That is, if we believe some recent articles floating around the blogosphere.

The divide reveals an element of distrust from both sides. For genre fiction writers, there’s a sense that literary fiction writers look down on them. For literary fiction writers, there’s a sense that genre fiction writers aren’t doing enough to push the limits of their artistry.

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Two weeks ago, Salon critic Laura Miller published the article, “Is the literary world elitist?” In her article, Miller says no, the literary world isn’t elitist. Rather, elitism — which shows up in some places — is a sign of intellectual insecurity. Miller also argues that elitism is a false perception some genre writers and readers have of literary writers and readers. She calls this misperception “intellectual insecurity” and defines it this way:

You can find it among fans of easy-to-read commercial fiction who insist (on very little evidence) that the higher-brow stuff is uniformly fraudulent and dull, and you can find it among those mandarin bibliophiles who dismiss whole genres (on equally thin evidence) out of hand.

Miller’s argument is that elitism is a symptom of ignorance on both sides. Some genre fiction writers assume literary fiction is dull and inaccessible, while some literary fiction writers dismiss genres based on little to no knowledge of the genre.

After I read Laura Miller’s article, I debated this issue on Twitter with several writers and readers of this site. The main points discussed revealed a lot about how we read. What gets lumped in as elitist is often a matter of taste and preference.

Dismissal Does Not Equal Elitism

Many readers do not mean to dismiss literary works wholesale, but it happens because we have too many options for reading material and we have to make choices on what or how we read. For example, I read a mix of stuff — as my Goodreads page shows — including literary fiction and so-called genre fiction, as well as popular and academic nonfiction. What I’m drawn to, however, is strong writing and original ideas more than I am drawn to strong characters or unique plot lines.

I think a lot of writers grow tired of this argument. Many so-called literary fiction writers write in genre forms, and many genre fiction writers get lumped in with literary fiction. Yet the argument continues on social media, in graduate seminars, and in pop culture.

What’s most important to writers and readers is that the work accomplishes what it sets out to do. Writers aspire to connect with readers on whatever level the work deserves.

At the same time, words have power. People use language to position themselves in an argument or to limit the terms of a discussion. In the Salon.com piece, Miller argues that the vitriolic response from genre writers to literary writers is an insecurity over literary writers and critics who use big words that limit the terms of the conversation. People who dismiss ideas outright without giving them their due are missing the point. She writes:

A teacher, a parent, a romantic partner, a friend, a roommate, even a co-worker has made them feel ashamed over a book or genre of books they enjoy or admire. They were told to put away the comics or teased for de-stressing with a romance novel on coffee break. Or, conversely, they might dream of being included in some tony, brainy (and possibly entirely imaginary) community of letters while at the same time worrying that they won’t make the grade. There are those whose fantasies of leading a “literary” life largely involve having their own superior discrimination and erudition admired by other superior minds. The result of all this baggage is a preposterous, resentful pecking order in which readers get way too much pleasure out of pissing on other readers’ preferences and/or jumping, on the slightest pretext, to the conclusion that their own are being ridiculed.

I agree with Miller here. Yet I feel funny about calling someone’s aversions to a type of literature an insecurity that comes from fear. If someone feels they have been shut out of a conversation because of the tone taken from a literary writer, or because they aren’t knowledgeable about a subject matter, why should we argue that they are missing the point? Their past experiences dictate how they will approach the argument. We need to empathize with readers and find out why some dismiss a type of literature: is it because they don’t have a lot of experience with literary fiction? Or for those who dismiss genre fiction: could it be a lack of experience with the level of artistry in genre writing? (I’d argue it’s more difficult to write a good genre fiction novel than to write an OK literary fiction novel.)

Either way, this is an argument with no end. I don’t intend to end the conversation here, and I don’t think I’ve come close to expressing my full thoughts on the subject. It’s important to discuss, though. The question to leave you with today is this: why do we feel so insecure about what we read? I know I do at sometimes, and like you, I just want to enjoy what I read.

About Kevin Eagan

Kevin Eagan (@criticalmargins) is a freelance editor, writer, and teacher who lives in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. In addition to writing about book technology and teaching college students how to write, Kevin works as an associate editor for punctum books. Previously, he was the books editor for Blogcritics. You can also follow him on Google+ or check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.

  • http://attcritic.blogspot.com/ Uncle Bell

    Let’s start with the core of the problem. Literary fiction IS a genre. But the term itself implies that it is somehow “above” genre. The presumption is that literary fiction indicates a higher level of writing or sophisticated subject maker, but what makes something literary fiction, rather than sci-fi or thriller or romance is simply the story elements. A story about a college professor cheating on his wife automatically becomes literary fiction in the same way that a story about the crew of a spaceship automatically becomes sci-fi. But the term says nothing about the quality of the writing or the ambitions of the writer, while still implying greater artistic value.

    • http://criticalmargins.com/ Kevin Eagan

      Thanks for the comment! I’m not sure I like using terms like “genre” or literary in the first place, which is why I tried to convey them with skepticism in this post. Genres are categories based on marketing terminology and ways to delineate styles of writing for book sales purposes. I’m more inclined to talk about the reader’s reading experiences and what a person chooses to read. For me, that often means so-called literary fiction, but I read a lot of mystery/thrillers and sci-fic as well…and so many writers write within these various genres and are popular because of their writing style not because of their ability to conform to a convention. I hope that makes sense. I do see your point, too.