Beware Literary Snobbery: Why We Should Read Bestsellers

Nice article by James W. Hall in the Wall Street Journal.

http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/04/08/beware-literary-snobbery-...

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One thing that Hall only touches on, never says outright, is that some best sellers are horribly written while others are good literature. Does that make me a snob? (Does reading the Wall Street Journal make Jude a snob?)

But good literature and horribly written are quite subjective criteria, Eric. I happen to think Stephen King is a great writer, for example, while others might call what he produces worthless drivel. So who's to say what's good and what isn't? I know what's good to me (currently reading I Am Legend, and I think it's very good indeed), but others might not share my tastes.

On the other hand, I suppose those of us who write books can't help reading books by others with a critical eye, which sort of puts us in a snob category all our own. But I'm trying to be less judgmental than I used to be, trying to turn off the writer switch sometimes and just get lost in the story.

That's one of the downsides of writing so much. You lose the ability to enjoy anything.

On the other hand, you get a deeper appreciation of really good writing.

We probably all look for different things when we sit down to read a novel. As I've gotten older I've become much less interested in getting lost in a story and much more interested in the insights into the characters that the author has. I always wonder, why did someone decide to spend a year (most writers) on these characters in these situations?

I like Stephen King, too, and I can ignore the ending to something like Under the Dome because the characters up until that point were interesting and pretty well developed and reacted to the situation in believable but sometimes surprising ways.

 

 

 

Well Jude in my thinking the novel is craft as well as art, and at the least most critics and expert practitioners can agree on what constitutes good versus poor technique. I enjoy Dan Brown, have read all but his most recent novel, but I enjoy him despite poor technique, particularly in the areas of character and description. His ability to devise a compelling premise, his ability to generate suspense, and his narrative pacing are first rate. The rest is second or third rate, and I don't think anyone who is a serious critic or novelist is going to disagree with me. It's objective assessment if you accept the craft canon, if you will, and I do.

There are some novels where I just can't get past the lousy prose. One page and I'm out of there. Yet fifty million other people might think it's a "good" book. So who am I to argue? What purpose would it serve for me to tell them that they're thoroughly enjoying what is, IMO, pigshit? If they're enjoying it, then it's good to them.

Stephen King has been known to call himself "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries." Just because more people eat at McDonald's than at Nobu doesn't mean we have to pretend McDonald's is better food. The leading chefs sure don't and so too customers with a palate.

There are some novels where I just can't get past the lousy prose. One page and I'm out of there.

What makes the prose lousy? That I suspect is objectively identifiable.

Yes, though you might not get unanymity except on grammar and spelling.

 

But there are other aspects of a novel that can be evaluated separately and objectively.

I don't think Dan Brown is a bad writer, he is a great marketer.  I do think he relies on tricky things.  I do think there are more compelling writers in the mystery/thriller genre, like Ken Bruen, Mankill Henning, and Dennis Lahane.  Gee, that gives away my taste in books, doesn't it.  

I will say that writers like Stephen King and Dan Brown have been an important part of building a market that we writers benefit from

:)  I could critique all of them.  Ken Bruen (at least with the Jack Taylor novels) would fare best.  Those were and are impressive.

I do read for pleasure, and best-sellers that give me any are few and far between. 

That doesn't mean I lock myself in an ivory tower and read nothing but David Wallace Foster, James Joyce, and--to lighten things up--Faulkner. There are a lot of authors who write well-crafted, engrossing who have not connected with a large enough readership to become best sellers. (Several of these writers are regular contributors to this web site.) I'd describe my reading habits as being in the upper half of middlebrow, with little taste for writers who are either too esoteric, nor those who write for too common a denominator. 

I don;t consider this to be snobbery. I think of it as not having as much time to read as I'd like, and life's too short to read books i don't enjoy.

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