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Friday, January 30, 2009

Literary Snobbery (Part Two): To Participate or To Consume

To hinge off yesterday's post, I'd like to talk about a few more of the arguments presented here. Last time I talked about this idea of "artistic expression" and how, generally speaking, it's a load of crap to assume that one form of literature is artistic and the other isn't. This time it has more to do with the issue of the supposed differences between "literature" and "pulps," a distinction that Roby made.

Roby begins this topic with this bit of nonsense:
...there is a very large difference between participating in a dialogue through the written word and consuming a product designed to make you feel good. They are, really, fundamentally, completely different things that share superficial similarities. It’s all just reading, right? Wrong. When you read literature, you are a participant; when you read pulps, you are a consumer. An example is probably in order.
No, not really. There used to be this difference before the invention of the printing press, but the way literature is consumed and produced these days has little to do with the delusional fantasy of being in "dialogue" with the written word. All literature, with the exception of that which is not put into book format and shipped out for us to buy in the store, is a consumable commodity. Literary fiction doesn't get an out simply because it has flowery prose. We consume literary fiction in much the same way as pulp fiction: by reading it. There is no difference except in how we read it. This nonsense about being a participant in reading literature and a consumer in reading pulps is absurd. Since publishers produce based on profit, there is a necessity for all published work, including literary fiction, to be a commodity and, thus, consumable. A publisher doesn't intentionally put out drivel; the publisher, producing any form of literature, is in this to make a profit; that's their purpose. You may be a participant and a consumer, but you don't get to pick and choose unless you get all your books for free and the person that gave it to you didn't pay for it, and so on and so on. Since we pay in some fashion for books, we are consumers of them.

And basing this critique on how one feels after having read a work of fiction is somewhat contradictory. The work he considers to be pulp do not always produce this "feel good" emotion. Literature produces all sorts of emotional connections. Plus, if you consider that human beings are not all the same, our emotional reactions are poor indicators of literary quality precisely because there would be little to no consensus on the matter. Someone might feel quite good reading a literary novel about apartheid, or someone might feel like crap--and, likewise, someone may take joy in reading something literary, or may find it dull and meaningless. What is shared, however, is the joy in the reading experience, which isn't the exclusive domain of pulp fiction, but the domain of all literature.

But the absurdity doesn't stop there. Roby has to give a good example of where fantasy has failed, pulling out George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones from its dusty perch:
When you read George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, you have a very different reading experience. Within the first page or so, you are assaulted with strange words and concepts, none of which are really explained...This is thrust at you without context, but if you are the sort of reader Martin expects you to be — adolescent, introspective, considering yourself to be a little smarter than most of your peers, and versed in medieval and fantasy tropes — you will figure out “for yourself” that the culture the character comes from marks time by the melting down of candles. And you can give yourself a little pat on the back for proving to yourself that you really are a smart fellow.
So, essentially Roby doesn't like GRRM primarily because the work, being a fantasy work and thus the domain of an imagined, non-existent world that you shouldn't know much of anything about in the first place, attempts to make itself authentic in its presentation by having the characters count time by candlewidths and the like; and Roby perceives this as a deliberate attempt on Martin's part to make the reader feel proud of him or herself at having figured it out (but Roby is offended because, I guess, he sees this as patronizing).

Well hold on a second. What did Roby expect? Did he think he would dig into this book about a place that doesn't exist and find familiar references? This is equivalent of someone from the U.S. reading a book from a country he just found out existed and then expecting it to reference American pop culture (and then being disappointed when it, in fact, stays true to its cultural roots). When you read work set in a place you've never been and know very little about, there is always a lack of context, even if it is literary fiction. I certainly know little about Nigeria, and if I were to read a fiction novel written by someone from there who remained culturally true, I certainly wouldn't be upset that I had to figure out some of the references on my own. And I wouldn't see it as a patronizing moment on the part of the author that I had figured it out.

To add, I suspect that Roby is not that well read in the fantasy genre, which explains his dislike for GRRM. One should really attempt to understand the roots of the genre if one is going to take it so seriously.

And to top it all off, there is this from Roby (speaking about fiction like GRRM's A Game of Thrones):
If that wasn’t enough of an insult on its own, this sort of bad pulp works by coopting the tropes of actual literature that preceded it...
It may come as a surprise here, but I'm actually going to defend fantasy on this front. When Roby refers to literature here, he's talking about the works of fantasy that developed the fantasy genre into what it is today (Tolkien, Lewis, etc.). It seems like a long shot on his part to be able to make the claim that those works are literature, but works that followed after them, and thus borrowed from them, are not.

Literature in its entirety is not a wholly original endeavor. To claim otherwise would be to ignore hundreds, if not thousands of years of written history. We borrow, steal, adapt, and change things we discover as writers all the time. I'm constantly adjusting my prose styling to try things, and in doing so I take what I have learned from other writers and attempt to make it my own. Likewise, all writers borrow elements of plot, character, setting, etc. from others. This is the way it goes. If that never happened, we would have no written literature at all. In short, literature is a hodgepodge of the same elements borrowed and manipulated to serve the author's purposes (whatever they may be).

Having said all this (over this post and the last), I should make a point to clarify that I am not suggesting that all literature is the same as far as quality is concerned. In fact, if you asked me, I would tell you that there are, in fact, lesser forms of literature, ones which fail to be anything but quick reads that don't make you think, etc. But, I don't believe in separating them just because I don't like them. The separation between good and bad literature is a subject I don't think any body of individuals can make, and, for the most part, I don't think an individual should be able to impose his or her personal preferences in literature as a gold standard. The problem with determining quality is that most of us don't agree. What one person may deem of literary merit, another may not. Should we value less the opinions of those who happen to like the New York Times Bestsellers most? Or the opinions of those who like literary fiction (say, Nadine Gordimer fans)? Where exactly can we draw the line?

I don't think there is a line. The academia wants to have a line, but generally they ignore entire segments of literature that are unable to hold up to their stylistic standards. We've seen this with science fiction, how it was pushed back into the masses of "unimportant trash," but now is finding itself in school curriculum far more often. Most science fiction has to be read differently than a Nadine Gordimer novel, which complicates matters even more. Are we training our children to be readers who can shift between different styles?

Alright, so that's enough from me. If I don't shut up now, then I may go on forever. As always, comments are welcome and, in fact, encouraged. Let me know what you think, even if you disagree!

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  1. Anonymous3:15 PM

    He ... used GRRM as an example of 'pulp' fantasy? Wow. He's retarded. And I do mean that literally. Although that's unfair to retarded people, as they probably have their minds more open than this clown.

    See, if he truly wanted to pick on the genre he could easily have picked on the thousands of sword and sorcery novels that really don't try to be anything new, and are generally written purely for entertainment. He could have picked a 'quest' novel. He could have picked any number of novels. But no, he picks on ASIOAF, which actualy bears more resemblance to historical fiction than anything else, and y'know references actual historical happenings. So now he's saying our own history is pulp entertainment and of no value. Smart guy!

  2. True, he could have, but I would have still disagreed with him on every front, because I don't believe in his narrow approach to literature.

    I don't know if I agree about the historical fiction bit, though.

  3. Anonymous7:24 PM

    You haven't read the freakin' thing so YOU DON'T GET TO PASS JUDGEMENT.

    Thank you.

  4. It's a fantasy book, hence why I have a problem calling it historical fiction.

  5. Anonymous5:28 AM

    "bears more resemblance to historical fiction than anything else"--I did not say it WAS historical fiction.

    So stop being a retard. Read the damn books before you argue with me about what genre it's closest to.