Judgements of the Literati

This observation is not particularly new. It’s not particularly novel, if you’ll pardon the literary pun. But it seems to be getting more and more common, and, in a rather self-reflexive fashion (bear with me, you’ll see what I mean) the more popular it gets, the more it annoys me.

I am talking, of course, about how quick the “literati” are to condemn popular fiction to the scrap heap of mediocrity. JK Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer (in spades), Steig Larsson… it seems almost inevitable that once a book reaches a certain commercial level, it is written off as rubbish. Is it as simple as jealousy? Or are the enormously popular books in question really as offensively awful as people seem to think?

Allow me to bail out here. I am not here to critique the books (though I have at least read all of them, in their entirety, unlike some. I am sure to some of you that will actually count against me – how could I possibly have read all of them? Don’t I have a brain of my own? Do I look to Richard and Judy before I select a new book?) I am merely pondering the fact that there appears to be some inversely proportional relationship between commercial success and literary merit.

Media in all its guises seems quick to tell us that the everyman is deeply stupid. Yet the stupid everyman seems to dominate our screen time. Everyone seems equally up in arms about it – so who ARE these faceless people who think Meyer is a literary mastermind, who think not a word of Larsson’s trilogy should have been edited out post-mortem?

Truth is, there aren’t too many of them. Because it seems to me that most people just don’t care all that much. Not saying they don’t care about the books, the characters, the worlds created – I just mean that the majority of people are more bothered by the story than by the literary merits of the author. They don’t really cared that the books and films they love are flawed. Who of us isn’t?

We are all entitled to our own opinions, of course, and there will doubtless be comments left at the end of this saying “Yes but she CAN’T WRITE”

Oh, but you see, she can.

There is an expression I had to come to terms with, studying English Language and Literature: “Language IS usage”.   Therefore, whilst it pains me enormously to see apostrophes misused all over the place, infer and imply slowly merging their meaning, and an absolute inability to understand the difference between to / too and  there / their / they’re, it seems I am outnumbered. Even the wonderful Stephen Fry seems a happy advocate of linguistic evolution. I may not like it, but it happens. Otherwise we’d all be speaking Anglo-Saxon and frankly, it’s a bit rubbish, as languages go.

Well, by a similar token, books are readers. The gargantuan popularity of series like Twilight and Potter tells us one thing. People love a good story. Of course, there is some argument as to whether these books ARE good stories, but to the people who read them, buy them, love them, obsess over them, they are. Yes, both play into the hands of modern media, with fresh-faced teens reeling in the tween and teen market; yes, Larsson’s books were probably only made quite so popular because he died straight after handing them in – but there is obviously something about all of them that appeals. And my point, which is not necessarily related to any of the specific books I mention above but is a much more general point, is this: Just because something is popular, it isn’t automatically rubbish.

A comment on Twitter the other day got me thinking. It said (and forgive me, I can’t remember who tweeted it) “What’s worse: having read the whole of the Twilight saga or the whole Millennium trilogy?” Well I’ve read both and am not especially ashamed of it. When Dragon Tattoo came out it was hailed as a bloody masterpiece – it’s only because it’s become popular that people are now hiding behind the good, old-fashioned barricade of insult to put it back in its place. Yes of course it should have been edited more and yes of course much of it’s absurd – but no more so than most, and it does make you turn the pages (the later books less so…)

There seem to be thousands of self-declared critics out there who are afraid to like something that other people have professed to liking. Who think that a book hitting the number 1 spot and being made into a film means it must be derided as widely and hyperbolically as possible. No, Meyer is not Shakespeare, yes, her characters might be 2-dimensional and predictable, and yes, maybe she did totally chicken out of a more hard-hitting ending, leaving everyone happy-ever-after and no moral lessons rammed home (the ending really was pretty unforgiveable). But does miserable automatically equal good? To the people who love these books, it’s not the language they fall in love with, it’s the characters, the story, the ideal, the escape.  What’s wrong with a happy ending once in a while?

I must confess that I find many books that are so-called literary masterpieces pretty damn dull. I find some of them amazing. Some writers shush me into an awed silence and humbled inadequacy. Others buoy my own writerly ego. There are many I am jealous of, many I resent, many I feel are genuinely not very good. But just as every book (hopefully) is unique, so is every person, and so there will never be identical opinions about them. What makes one book great, another mediocre? It certainly doesn’t seem to be the sales figures. Or even the criticism. Reputation can carry an author a long way, once-established, and allow them to get away with things first-timers would be crucified for. I have read 600 page books that appear to be about nothing, and others where protagonists are simply subjected to 400 pages of unutterable misery. The older I get, the less patient I get – what is wrong with a bit of escapism, a bit of fun, a bit of life other than the real one? Not for nothing is The Princess Bride one of my favourite films. (And no, I don’t write fantasy, before you ask).

But the thing is – us writers, we need to look at ourselves pretty closely. Anyone can be a critic; but not many of us are at the top of the bestseller list. We can all belittle the work of others – it’s harder to prove that we’re really any better. I am coming to terms with the fact that I am not likely to write anything that’s going to win a Nobel prize – but I’m starting to hope that maybe I can tell a decent story, that a few people will fall in love with. And at the risk of sounding like a total Robert McKee convert – isn’t that what it’s meant to be about?


~ by DelightingintheDetail on June 20, 2010.

2 Responses to “Judgements of the Literati”

  1. Actually, I get really cross too when people say ‘Meyer can’t write’. I’ve read all four books, and to be honest, Bella got on my nerves A LOT, and I didn’t like Breaking Dawn because of the whole vampire baby thing. I did think Meyer cheated a little in her happy ending, there. I would have liked to have seen more conflict in Bella in turning into a vampire. As a writer, you do have to remember if you create a realm/world, you can’t then go and break the rules within it – which I felt Meyer did 😦 But saying that, the first three books did have me hooked (even if Bella annoyed the hell out of me!).

    I did remind myself that these books were written for Teenagers, (yet Harry Potter was written for kids, and I love those books and can’t fault them really!) but I have a couple of friends that loved these books. (I think as potential writers, we tend to be more critical of reading books now anyway).

    However, I’ve seen the same written on Goodreads reviews about Charlaine Harris (who I am reading at the moment) on her Sookie Stackhouse adventures which have now been turned into the TV series Trueblood. And that annoys me too!

    I can’t put these books down! Okay, they’re not going to change the world or anything. I’m not learning anything deep and meaningful, but I AM escaping (and believe me, lately I’ve needed to escape). And for that, they are brilliant (well, at least my cup of tea – I like a good vampire story and these are certainly NOT written for Teens :D).

    I suppose we all need to see some sort of critique, however, like movies, I don’t take much notice of what the experts say… you do have to go check it out for yourself. We all have different tastes.

    (And yay, I’m caught up with your blog!)

  2. I read all the Harry Potter books eagerly. I don’t think they are great but I think they are good. I think her writing and in general her depth of characterization improved as she went along.
    I just finished all three Stieg Larsson books, and was very engrossed in them Lisbeth Salender is an amazing character. Again, these aren’t great books, but they are very good.

    I also read the prolific popular writers of a few centuries ago, Trollope and Dickens, for instance. For the most part they aren’t great either, but very good, and they certainly have weak moments.
    There is nothing wrong with a good story and an enjoyable read.
    And Shakespeare wrote plays that people would come see acted, which would make money for the theatre company, not to meet some elite criteria.

    My current pet peeve is the distinction between affect and effect.

    Susan Peterson

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