Beware Literary Snobbery: Why We Should Read Bestsellers

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

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Yeah, it's fine. My kids (well, one of them) does like the book and it is for kids so it is successful it what it sets out to do. I guess I felt that if this is one of the fifty books you've read or one of the five or so with this kind of setting and theme of self-sacrifice (which it is for my son) then it stands up pretty well. If you're old like me and you've read a few hundred books with this kind of setting and theme it falls a little further down the rankings. Of course, that's not a fault of the book, it is for young, lesser experienced readers and for them it's fine.

I rewatched the movie Stand By Me on the weekend and felt it holds up pretty well as a story about leaving childhood and moving on to the next stage in life. I also once thought cherry Pez was the greatest food in the world ;).


I will say that it's rather nice that books occasionally emphasize personal integrity and unselfishness.  In this modern world, you tend to forget they exist.  And yes, we must teach our young to be better people than we were.

If you're old like me and you've read a few hundred books with this kind of setting and theme it falls a little further down the rankings. Of course, that's not a fault of the book, it is for young, lesser experienced readers and for them it's fine.

A dystopian future where kids are forced to slaughter each other seems to me a fairly remarkably weighty and intense storyline, no matter the reader's experience level. I mean, these aren't wizard students chasing each other around on flying broomsticks. These kids have to fight to the death. They have to kill or be killed.

As a reader, the book just worked for me on multiple levels. As a writer, it's practically a blueprint on how to construct a thriller using a single POV.

There was a Japanese novel published in 1999 called Battle Royale with an identical premise, so THG is not unique in that regard. But Battle Royale is multiple POV, and the violence is even more graphic (gratuitously so at times, IMO), so a different reading experience. 


I agree.  We should pay more attention to "literary" books.  But are literary books just another genre?

Well, sure literary books are just another genre but the things that make it a genre are what I'm interested in. The way a mystery novel has a crime and science fiction has some aspect of science (I know there's a lot of debate in sci fi about this) and a western is a western, I think that the conventions of the literary genre are, as IJ said, an attention to character and through character to theme. If you had to rank things then plot would likely be lower on the list than theme for literary books than for genre books (generalizing, of course).


I reread the article this thread is based on.  The general point is: read what you want to read and that genre books or pop books may have more to offer than the snobs think.


In fact, I find a lot of "literary" books boring.  Many (and I didn't say all) are like watching reruns of "The Waltons".  Often they focus on pain, the pain of being a Japanese in an American prison camp or loosing your love to some exotic aliment.  The historicals of recent history are often smeared over with political bias, and extoll the virtues of living in some third world hell hole and how that's better than America.  

I believe writing a competent mystery is the most difficult, because mysteries are structured in a defined way, plot and character are important, not just to know them but to understand their actions.  But most of all mystery readers are quite knowledgeable.  They will get you on every mistake.  I love it.

I've read a number of mysteries by literary writers, most notably Benjamin Black, that aren't real mystery.  They are a literary novel with a mystery as an element.  I've read two of his books because the book store had a tag on them as Great, Baffo, and Terrific.  I found them both boring with endings that were unsatisfying.

Compare them to any of the novels of Jim Thompson or read "The Friends of Eddie Coyle".  These are much better both as entertainment and as insight into people you may not ever meet.   Or just reread anything by James Elroy or John LeCarre.

In the end, it depends on what your purpose is in reading.  All are good.  I'm trying to write, so reading the more challenging of my genre (but not exclusively) serves my purpose, which is to improve.

Well, those are all my favourites. Although Jim Thompson and James Ellroy are pretty close to only seeing the bad about America, I guess they don't prefer third world hell holes ;). I love The Friends of Eddie Coyle and it really follows the Hemingway line a lot more than any genre conventions (I realize the bank robberies get solved but not in a very mystery novel way and it's hardly the focus of the book).

I think we agree here. The writers you mentioned are all much more in the literary genre than in any other genre. That's why I think this argument is usually stated in the reverse - it's not that we should beware of literary snobbism, it's that we should beware of reverse-snobbism that keeps us from reading literature. Sure, we have to look to find the ones we like because 80% of everything isn't for us (I prefer to look at it that way than to say that 80% of everything is crap).



One book I love, and I think it's a genuine mystery as well as genuine literary fiction, is Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem.

Late to the party, as always ... being in the UK has its downsides.

Yes, Motherless Brooklyn is great and it's largely great because of the focus on the character of the narrator, not just the solving of the mystery. Is this what makes Lethem a 'proper' writer, not a genre writer?

Personally I get fed up when so-called serious writers slum it and write genre fiction - Benjamin Black and Martin Amis are good examples in crime, perhaps Margaret Attwood and Doris Lessing in SF - as though a passing acquaintance with the tropes of the genre is enough to give them entrance into the game. Dammit, I want them to pay their dues! ;-)

People have talked here about the reading 'arcs' they followed - from high-lit to genre, or the other way around. Seems to me I've gone right around the circle. I started as a kid getting into big books that were SF - Dune was a big influence - then found serious matter in Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Hemingway; even to the point where I taught American Lit. to college students. Then at about age 30 I began to get bored with the big, serious stuff and went back to genre, finding crime writing that was fun and satisfying - thank you, The Great Elmore Leonard!

Now I get as much pleasure from James Lee Burke as I ever did from Faulkner, and as much fun from Tim Dorsey and Carl Hiassen as I did from Carson McCullers. (Kurt Vonnegut still stands alone, though - but I guess you can classify him as a genre writer anyway).

I lost 1500 American Lit. novels in a flood last year and it was devastating - 30 years of collecting turned into wet rags. But you know, a year on and I haven't missed them. There are new books by John Sandford and George Pelecanos to look forward to soon. That will do me, for a while.

Incidentally, I arrived at this post having just written a blog about how one reads books differently when you're a writer - some coincidence. Scuse the shameless plug but you writers might find something to argue with here.

Agree totally on paying their dues.  It's not at all easy to write crime novels. They don't follow a pattern like romances do.  And Black isn't very good at it, though he has a lovely turn with language.

And just to add something about what sells books, word of mouth or publicity ... I think Stieg Larsson's trilogy is a test case here. I got sick to death of seeing people on the subway and trains reading these books ... I'd read the first one and thought it was written by someone who'd never read a crime novel in their life. And then it went on to be read, it seemed to me, by millions of people who'd never read one before either; so they thought it was great. I knew a kid at school who didn't read. And then he read a book. A single book. And lo and behold, it was the best book ever written ... I think there's something of that in the way people went to Larsson in their droves.

So yes, word of mouth definitely sells. But publicity and reviews sell to those who are actively looking for the good stuff, imo.


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