“Difficult” books, snobbery, and poptimism

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176 Responses

  1. Avatar zic says:

    Saul, you grew up with the NYT as your home-town newspaper, and I think you’ve got this notion that the only art worth while is the art reviewed there at NYT review standards. Or something like that.

    I’m an artist. And I don’t give a shit about that, I just want to make my art and share it, however I can. Art doesn’t happen in isolation, it’s a conversation. And it happens all over the place, it’s a big part of what people do, even people who don’t think of themselves as artists.

    This weekend, I gave myself a project — a tumbl a day to share with people here. I thought I’d share a window into how I’m making art lately. Each tumbl reflects the photography I’ve done that day, and I’ve been listing them on the Weekend thread.

    I’ll make a link to each one, and explain it in four follow-on comments; one for Friday, when I began, Saturday, Sunday, and the final tumbl for today. I don’t really care what anyone else thinks about this — is it art, is it high art, is it good. It’s my creative process, I’m learning. I’m setting up reasonable projects and following through with them.

    Most, if not all, of these photographs are taken in my neighborhood, where I walk all the time. The vast majority are on my street. Now that I’ve finished my day-in-photography Labor-of-Love weekend, art is, after all, a labor of love, I’m planning a new project. My community is re-writing our comprehensive plan. Paths are very important to our economy, we rely on ski trails, hiking trails, snowmobile trails, canoe trails, and the places where the trail ends and you walk paths through neighborhood. I hope to put together a visual survey to use planning paths through my neighborhood, including my back yard. So it’s my art, but still utilitarian.

    And I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’ve just got very different ideas about art, it roots in creativity, not criticism. That comes after, and is an art of its own; a part of the conversation.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to zic says:

      Friday, I just selected images representing of “what I turned my camera upon that day. I take a lot of pictures, do a lot of burst shooting, and I don’t typically edit. You can see the camera held at bad angles, places I didn’t pay as much attention to my focal plain as I should have, but all in all, they’re a nice set of images from what I saw on Friday. I ignored the tumbl, using the theme default.

      Burt liked the grasshopper, but thought grandeur required of the wide-angle shots. I appreciate the criticism, thank you Burt.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to zic says:

      Saturday, I mucked the name up. I’m significantly challenged that way. But the name just lacks a zed after the three for days of sept for those so inclined to know my clerical error.

      Like Friday, these images are a collected representation of what I shot during the day. There’s some b&w; it’s an odd experience because the camera display renders in black and white.. I’m used to seeing color, and not encountering the lack of color until I hit the darkroom. I’m particularly proud of the portraits of my neighbors, Vivien and Tag. The b&w shooting did help me prepare for the twilight shots to follow. These require me to hold still, very still. I typically have a tremor, but when I’m focused on doing this, it’s been quiet. That’s amazing to me.

      I was inspired enough to set up a banner that represented the days work; a red ‘z’ on a barn door on my street, but no avatar.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to zic says:

      On Sunday, I did a project. My house is between two schools. The one in my back yard is vacant and decaying; The Ethel Bisbee School. There’s a path the people use through my yard down to the school, once the town’s grammar school, then adult ed and the food pantry/district exchange, next the super’s office, and now cold storage.

      It’s smack in the center of the village, this side of the Main St., a central location for pathways, and an excellent location for a park. So I documented it’s current state of decay.

      Tumblr wise, I thought of this as a way to tumble-tell a story. I’ll keep adding to the Ethel Bisbee tumbl, but the notion was set, and the subject greeted me when I woke up and walked out my door early this morning.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to zic says:

      This morning, Labor Day Morning, I woke up and went out at 7:30, to be greated by the sun rising through the trees behind the houses across the street, a neighborhood being blessed by sunrays melting the dew, a Labor Day Blessing.

      For the people in the neighborhood, this is funny. The yellow house really does have new children about to move in, children who don’t live there yet; the old tenants moved out yesterday. Generations really have lived in the brown house. The sidewalk honestly ends at the left edge of the last image, much to my dismay.

      This tumble is hedge witchery, creative. Not a religion so much as bearing witness and holding in the heart with care. It’s my art, I make it for myself, but I love to share. I’m elated to get paid for it, too.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to zic says:

      And Saul, forgive me if I’ve thread jacked; I wouldn’t mind having someone comment-rescue the four tumblrs OTC; I was going to ask Tod. They just seemed appropriate to the topic.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to zic says:

        I’m trying to get at the process here; art is a process, it’s gaining the skills to master how to create art that seem vital to me. You’ve got to do a lot of off-Broadway shows before your ready for Broadway. Most artists never dream that big, except in their wildest fantasies. But I’m a huge believer that to create art, you have to do it. You have to write a lot of crap before you write a Moby Dick, art at that level only happens because the artist put in the effort, even if they don’t get paid for it.

        So yeah, wealth greases the wheels. But the choice to live frugally is more common, I think, and to accept the appreciation of your neighbors for what you’ve got to offer. If you don’t make art, you’re not an artist. A set designer for community theater is still a set designer. A gig at the local pub’s still a chance to work on a few original compositions with an audience. A blog’s a way to showcase digital photos. I take a lot of photos to get the few I show you; I ain’t never going back to film, I can’t afford it.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to zic says:

        Hey, how about giving everyone else a chance?Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to zic says:

      @zic

      Your comments are fine. My comments were more directed at the people who argue that the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books should spend more time discussing and respecting genre fiction.

      This is largely the Jennifer Weiner argument. Now she has two arguments, one that is interesting and valid and the other that is largely self-serving.

      The interesting and valid argument is that the the New York Times does cover men too much and have too many male (especially white male) reviewers. However, you can increase the number of books by women and other minorities reviewed and still firmly review literary fiction.

      The less intriguing and more self-serving argument is that the New York Times Book Review should spend less time reviewing literary fiction and more time reviewing Jennifer Weiner books. I think she said instead of reviewing academic biographies of Woodrow Wilson. Though you can substitute in A.S. Byatt, Alice Munro short story collections, etc.

      Now this raises the question of why is it better to review Jennifer Weiner novels in the New York Review of Books and NY Times Book Review over an academic history of Liberalism. The poptimist argument is that people read Jennifer Weiner books and in this argument there is an idea that commercial success=artistic and intellectual merit.

      The Rebecca Mead pushback against this is valid in my mind against this respect. Commercial success is not necessarily artistic or intellectual merit.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        They do review genre books, so long as they don’t look like genre books. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (SF), The Final Solution by Michael Chabon (Sherlock Holmes fanfic), No Country for Old Men (crime novel), etc. And they’ll write about Hammett and Chandler, both genre mystery writers, because they were posthumously admitted to the club. There are few writers of short stories as skilled as Avram Davidson, but he wrote for the SF pulps and has only been dead 20 years instead of 50, so the hell with him.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        That is another valid point. They do let male writers like Stephen King cross the boundary of literary respectability and genre writing more easily than women and that is wrong.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @saul-degraw I put this (perhaps wrongly) in the greater context of theater and art you’ve been discussing, hence my replies on the importance of creative process. I seek out reviews from sources that review the genre of books I prefer to read; the NYT don’t even hit my radar. But what that any reviewer or organization has a wide assortment from which to choose things to review relies on a mass of people writing material; steps on the road to chops for writing books that will be reviewed.Report

  2. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Me think that you protest too much Saul. Why should the social approval of yahoos be so important to you?Report

    • Avatar aaron david in reply to LeeEsq says:

      @leeesq why are people with different tastes yahoo’s?Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to aaron david says:

        I am not entirely willing to give up the idea that some forms of art and entertainment are superior to others even if its an unpopular one in this day and age. A world where the works of Stephanie Meyer and Virginia Wolf are considered equally good because different strokes for different folks seems wrong and pointless. Why strive for excellence if a hack is equally good if people like him or her?Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to aaron david says:

        The world is pointless, and writing deep thoughts about it may obscure, but can’t change, that fact. All we can really do is try to enjoy the ride and keep the world from becoming too cruel. If Ulysses helps with that, that’s cool.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to aaron david says:

        How existential, James Hanley. The world may or may not be pointless but even if it is pointless we should hold that people that write beautifully and with real mastery of whatever language they are writing in are objectively better authors than those with lesser skills. When you read Zola’s Belly of Paris you can almost see, smell, and taste the food in the markets. Its also so vividly alive. With other authors, not so much.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to aaron david says:

        They’re not allowed to work at home.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to aaron david says:

        @leeesq

        “A world where the works of Stephanie Meyer and Virginia Wolf are considered equally good because different strokes for different folks seems wrong and pointless. Why strive for excellence if a hack is equally good if people like him or her?”

        this matters if you are a practitioner. striving for excellence is definitely a thing amongst practitioners, obviously.

        for readers, what is the excellence being striven for? an excellent experience? excellent learning? excellent social standing?

        because otherwise you’re striving to rank taste and that simply isn’t going to work anymore. to be recognized as a moral authority – and the argument is certainly approaching a moral one, in that the pursuit of good literature leads to better lives and instructions on how to live one, etc etc and so forth – one has to be recognized as an authority. we’re in a cultural non serviam moment as far as the arts go (less so elsewhere) so good luck browbeating someone into your point of view.

        i don’t do the whole genre fiction thing myself but so what? my wife has forgotten more about literature than i could possibly remember and loves harry potter,Report

  3. Avatar dhex says:

    i read books for work for pleasure as well. just finished “it’s complicated” – http://www.danah.org/itscomplicated/

    the default assumption should be people pursue their own ends; everything else is gossip.Report

  4. Avatar Kolohe says:

    If it makes you feel any better, I find your blog posts difficult due to your aversion to hyperlinks and commas. 🙂Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    More seriously, it all depends on what your definition of fun is. Lots of people simply can’t seem to grasp that what is pleasurable to one person might be deeply boring to another.Report

  6. Avatar Chris says:

    I honestly don’t know what it is about Harry Potter that caught the zeitgeist. I read them when I was in my 20s and found them to be decent enough but not as amazing as the rest of the world. J.K. Rowlings writing began to bug me after a while especially the repeated and not very funny joke about how Wizards could never get a hang of dressing like non-Wizards. The Nazi-WWII analogies were a bit heavy handed and it is a bit odd to me to see adults declare themselves to be House Ravenclaw or whatever. Perhaps literary and genre readers are looking for something different from their books?

    There ya go, particularly if you compare this with the paragraph that came right before it.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Chris says:

      I can’t seem to find the exact quote right now, but so I’ll paraphrase, and punt on who said it:

      “A genre novel is the same thing as a literary novel, except people read it.”Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to dragonfrog says:

        @dragonfrog

        Explain Philip Roth, John Updike, Donna Tartt, etc.

        There is also the argument that everything is genre and trope.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to dragonfrog says:

        Saul,
        Of course everything is trope — they’re like structure, the bones of a story. Art comes when you weave the bird from the hollow bones.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to dragonfrog says:

        That was meant mostly in jest – of course there are literary authors with big enough readerships to make a living, even quite a good living for a few. But still – it’s only funny because we recognize the kernel of truth in it.

        From e.g. http://www.thegeekgirlproject.com/2012/06/06/the-basic-facts/

        “In 2010, romance fiction made about $1.358 billion in sales. The same year, Science Fiction and Fantasy made about $559 million, mystery made about $682 million, literary fiction about $455 million, and Inspirational fiction [ed: whatever that is – Khalil Gibran and so forth?] made about $759 million.”Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to dragonfrog says:

        What I take away from those numbers is that if you want to write a deep, insightful character study that says something about this time and this place, you should be sure to include steamy love scenes and put Fabio on the cover.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to dragonfrog says:

        Not everything is genre. Two quotes (for which I do know the source this time) highlight a bit of what I mean:

        “The only kind of ghetto arrogance I can summon up from being a science fiction writer is, I can do [fishing] plot. I can feel my links to Dashiell Hammett. If I meet some guy who subsists on teaching writing in colleges, and if there’s any kind of hostility, I think, I can do plot. I’ve still got wheels on my tractor. The great thing is when you’re doing the other stuff and you whip the plot into gear, then you know you’re driving something really weird.”
        – William Gibson

        “I mean, look at all the eastern writers who’ve written great western literature. Kazuo Ishiguro. You’d never guess that The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go were written by a Japanese guy. But I can’t think of anyone who’s ever done the reverse – any westerner who’s written great eastern literature. Well, maybe if we count Lawrence Durrell – does the Alexandria Quartet count as eastern literature?”
        “There is a very simple test,” said Vikram. “Is it about bored, tired people having sex?”
        “Yes,” said the convert, surprised.
        “Then it’s western.”
        – G. Willow Wilson, from Alif the UnseenReport

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to dragonfrog says:

        Ah, here we go, the correct quote from the top:

        “As far as I can tell, a young adult novel is a regular novel that people actually read.”
        – Stephen Colbert, interviewing John GreenReport

  7. Avatar Michael M. says:

    Perhaps it’s a hangover from having worked in the publishing business, but I am generally more interested in why people are reading what they’re reading than in what they’re reading. I’m more likely to give something a try if I understand a person’s enthusiasm for a book. Some people are really good at communicating that and others aren’t. It matters less to me whether the book is considered “serious” or “light” than whether the person making the recommendation can explain what they find engaging about it.

    This is the dynamic that makes “popular” books popular. The adage in the publishing is that there is nothing more powerful for book sales than word-of-mouth. This is true whether the book is cultural or political or military history, or genre fiction. Nonfiction doorstops like Citizens or The Power Broker thrive not just because the NYTBR says they’re good, but because readers talk to one another. Mead’s characterization seems to ignore this. Donnelly, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to grasp what role the book review pages play in the art and culture and economics of books. Neither of them, based on your summary of their arguments, seem to get what’s important.

    I realize you’re not talking strictly about how to sell books, but you do seem perturbed by people’s reactions to what you are reading. Have you considered that those reactions might be to the way you describe what you’re reading as much as it is to the actual book or subject matter? And when someone tells you what they’re reading, do your eyes glaze over if you hear the words “Harry” and “Potter” or do you approach the conversation with genuine interest in learning what they are looking for from their books?

    It seems to me the best way to get away from the snobbery/reverse snobbery dynamic is to accept that people get pleasure from reading and show some genuine interest in discovering what you can about the nature of that pleasure. In my experience, people respond in kind and are much more receptive to being interested in hearing about material they might never pick up on their own. If you really aren’t interested, then don’t try to fake it. But don’t complain when people glaze over at hearing about your own reading material.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Michael M. says:

      @michael-m

      Good points. I admit that part of me does rebel against the spirit of the age and that spirit seems to be that we should all geek out and everything should be talked about in the way of a hyper-enthusiastic but sweet and sincere 10 year old. Everyone has to be a geek something. A beer geek, an indie rock geeks, a history geek, a science geek, a math geek, a theatre geek, a french new wave geek, a goth rock geek, a hip hop geek, a sneaker geek, etc.

      Almost every interest and hobby is acceptable as long as it is geekified and expressed about in geeky terms.

      I think this is part of what A.O. Scott called “the cultural devaluation of maturity.”

      http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/22/books/review/the-great-ya-debate-of-2014.html?_r=0&module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Sunday%20Book%20Review&action=keypress&region=FixedLeft&pgtype=article

      Now part of this is probably me being a fuddy-duddy but I don’t like how Buzzfeed and memes have changed cultural journalism and how the internet seems to be a perpetual nostalgia machine. I see lists tossed around all the time about “Top 35 signs you were a 12 years old with a Sega Genesis in 1992” over “Top 35 signs being an adult in 2014 is really rocking.”

      I admit that there are times I can probably be off putting or sound cold instead of warm with what I am reading but I don’t see why sounding warm needs to equal sounding like a 4th grader who just ate a ton of sugar and then drowned with down with an espresso. I read what I read because the prose is beautiful and the authors create worlds. There is more world building in the opening paragraph of the Age of Innocence than in the whole of Tolkien. I read the non-fiction I read because learning amuses me and to really learn you need to read in depth and often multiple books on the same subject from different viewpoints. There is nothing wrong with preferring the adult world of using terms like intellectual and with cited and footnoted sources over “I fucking love science.”Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @saul-degraw

        Now part of this is probably me being a fuddy-duddy but I don’t like how Buzzfeed and memes have changed cultural journalism and how the internet seems to be a perpetual nostalgia machine. I see lists tossed around all the time about “Top 35 signs you were a 12 years old with a Sega Genesis in 1992? over “Top 35 signs being an adult in 2014 is really rocking.”

        This may be selection bias on your part. Sure, that stuff exists, but there are more detailed examinations of pop culture out there, they’re just less visible.Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        But it shows a really shitty understanding of the actual body of work in question to suppose that everything not written by Herman Melville is immature.

        Do you, for example, have experience with fantasy that’s not Tolkien or Rowling? Because I can see how you could make the mistake if those are your only two examples, given that Tolkien’s works are immature stumblings into a genre that didn’t exist until he invented it, while Harry Potter is literally a book written for ten year old children.

        Have you, for example, read Susanna Clarke? Or Neil Gaiman? Or Lev Grossman or Terry Pratchett or China Mieville or George R. R. Martin or any number of other modern fantasy authors who write works for adults?Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Saul,
        If you’re actually looking for competent worldbuilding, you should read about Kulthea. That world bothered to think about economics (and the tides), and culture in a way that Tolkien really didn’t.Report

      • Avatar veronica d in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I think this is part of what A.O. Scott called “the cultural devaluation of maturity.”

        Oh fuck that noise.

        Look, @leeesq , there is a reason you come across as a snob. It’s cuz you are a snob, and it isn’t attractive.

        For myself, this happened: one day, after wading through one too many crap lit novels, I decided to be honest about what I like, which is a mixture of different things, but surely not all highbrow or all lowbrow (if those words mean anything at all).

        Anyway, snobs are boring and enthusiasm is a wonderful thing.

        Don’t feel it? Fine, then don’t. But stop being a jerk about it.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        There is more world building in the opening paragraph of the Age of Innocence than in the whole of Tolkien.

        I was going to refute this nonsense by defining “worldbuilding” and describing what Tolkien did (absorb and rework the world of the ancient Teutonic and Scandinavian myths, reimagine it as theistic, because he was a devout Catholic, and use it as a backdrop for stories that make heavy use of traditional archetypes while introducing new, more modern ones, like the middle-class decency of the hobbits). but far simpler is to quote this paragon which is superior to Tolkien’s entire life work:

        On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was
        singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.
        Report

      • Avatar veronica d in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Heh.

        That said, Age of Innocence is a pretty great book.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I only saw the movie (which was great). I did enjoy reading The House of Mirth a lot.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Saul’s ability to undermine every point he makes about literature by enacting precisely what he criticizes in his (often exaggerated) literary opponents is genuinely impressive.

        As I said elsewhere in these comments, he writes that doesn’t understand why people read Harry Potter, wondering whether they just want something different out of what they read, in a paragraph that follows him criticizing readers of things other than “literary fiction” for thinking that he reads difficult books for reasons that differ from their own reasons for reading what they do.

        I’m not a huge Tolkien fan, but man, the sure way to undermine every point Saul makes is for him to then belittle Tolkien and his fans by suggesting that a book he likes is vastly superior while demonstrating that he has no real knowledge of Tolkien anyway (presumably because he knows, a priori, that Tolkien is vastly inferior to the books he likes).Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Mike,
        “On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was
        singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.”

        OMFG. Seriously?? That’s… not even good writing. Particularly not for an opening graf.

        I’ll take other people’s word for it, that it does get better.

        But in no way shape or form is that worldbuilding.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @mike-schilling

        It is more than that.

        You forgot the rest of the opening:

        “Though there was already talk of the erection, in the remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendor with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out “new people” who New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.”

        There. This is world building in a paragraph. You learn everything you need to know about the world Archer Newland inhabits from this paragraph. It is a world and group of people who are on the precipice of dying out and fighting with all life for what they hold dear. You know of their ideals, their prejudices, their morbid fascinations, their aesthetics, etc from a simple paragraph.

        And this is much better than anything Tolkien did in three novels and much better writing than that called Tolkien wooden Victorian was ever able to pull off.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I’m not sure you know what you are tolkien about.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        You said “first paragraph”. See http://gutenberg.readingroo.ms/5/4/541/541-h/541-h.htm

        And what you quoted (the second paragraph) isn’t world-building, That was the world Edith Wharton was born into. She’s telling us about it, not inventing it.

        By the way, does

        Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out “new people”

        seem familiar?Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Eh, it’s definitely world-building in the literary sense (though it builds an incredibly small world, which is sort of the point!), but Saul’s deliberately blurring the distinction between the literary sense of world-building and what Tolkien does, which is, you know, actually build a fictional world. His point is as undermined by this confusion as it is by the fact that the whole point of Wharton’s first (really second) paragraph is to describe the smallness of the world in which the novel will take place.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Saul,
        Is she attempting to be deliberately obtuse and hard? If so, it’s very well done.

        It seems every time you quote an author, I appreciate Hemmingway more (not much of a bar, that. Hated Old Man and the Sea — horrid book for teens).Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @saul-degraw
        There. This is world building in a paragraph. You learn everything you need to know about the world Archer Newland inhabits from this paragraph.

        No. That is not what world building is. World building is *inventing* a setting, not *describing* a setting.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worldbuilding

        Describing a setting is just called ‘writing’.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        It is a world and group of people who are on the precipice of dying out and fighting with all life for what they hold dear. You know of their ideals, their prejudices, their morbid fascinations, their aesthetics, etc from a simple paragraph.

        Hmmm. I’m not nearly as much a high culture/theater/opera guy as you are Saul, but I can certainly see why that description of that world might seem so evocative, resonant and powerful to you.

        When you open your eyes, can you almost still see it; like it’s real, all around you? 😉Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @chris
        As I said elsewhere in these comments, he writes that doesn’t understand why people read Harry Potter, wondering whether they just want something different out of what they read, in a paragraph that follows him criticizing readers of things other than “literary fiction” for thinking that he reads difficult books for reasons that differ from their own reasons for reading what they do.

        This.

        And on top of that, he seems to dislike *enthusiasm* for things. And creators interacting with their audience. And people who only *pretend* to like the books he likes to seem smart. (I guess he would rather they read only genre literature so he knows they’re dumb?)

        But what he really dislikes, most of all, is accusations of snobbery. Probably because he is the walking, talking incarnation of snobbery.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        His description of the author talking about her sick kid on Facebook with her fans, who are asking her for updates, is my favorite part. “She’s a genre writer. She can’t be genuine.”Report

      • @saul-degraw

        Well you don’t have to go to the extreme of geeking-out, but just saying “the prose is beautiful” or the author’s “create worlds” isn’t giving people much. All fiction authors create worlds, whether that involves their take on the world they (and maybe we) inhabit, or whether that involves actual world-building (which is different).

        For example, there are three writers I can think of whose novels and stories I love because their prose floors me — Kazuo Ishiguro, Muriel Spark and Shirley Jackson. I find the way they construct sentences and paragraphs to be uniquely stunning and I’ve read most of what I can get my hands on by these three simply because I relish the experience of reading their prose. Some of their books, I think, are great books, great works of literature; some, not so much. But I enjoyed reading all of them. If someone told me they like to read books with beautiful prose and they hadn’t read these authors, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend An Artist of the Floating World, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means, and The Haunting of Hill House. And, while I wouldn’t necessarily expect their prose to grab someone as much as it grabs me, I’d want to know whether they liked the books and the writing, and I’d want to know from them what writers’ prose stands out for them.

        Of those three, two are mostly considered writers of literary fiction and one is not, or was not. Jackson was mostly considered a writer of popular genre fiction, even though many of her stories were originally published in The New Yorker. When she’s praised, it’s usually by other popular genre writers like Neil Gaiman, who has won awards named after her. Joyce Carol Oates, who kind of straddles the literary/genre divide, edited the Library of America volume on Jackson.

        But none of this matters if a reader is being genuine when they say they like books with beautiful prose. I don’t care if Ishiguro is the kind of writer whose new novel might get the cover of the NYTBR and Jackson was not the kind of writer who would have. Word-for-word, sentence-for-sentence, paragraph-for-paragraph, Jackson’s prose stands up to (and usually exceeds) anyone else I’ve read, and while I might not recommend starting with The Road Through the Wall, I would enthusiastically recommend Haunting, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or her stories to anyone who likes Henry James or Edith Wharton (especially The Turn of the Screw and Wharton’s ghost stories).

        So that’s why I think the whole “Is it serious?,” “Is it difficult?,” “Can difficult be fun?” stuff is distracting and beside the point, as is the question of what constitutes literary fiction and what distinguishes it from genre fiction. Those things are marketing — they are driven and reinforced by how writers see themselves and other writers, how readers respond to writers and how publishers try to get books to whatever audience might be out there for them. When you start talking about the much longer process of canonization, you also have to throw in academia. The point, for me, is what do you respond to and why.Report

  8. Avatar ScarletNumbers says:

    I think there is a difference between reading a difficult work of fiction and a difficult work of non-fiction.

    If you tell someone that you are reading a new, thick, political biography, I don’t think too many eyes roll. Maybe because it just shows that you have an interest in that person. Also, just because something is difficult doesn’t make it unenjoyable per se.

    Fiction, on the other hand, is supposed to be enjoyable first. So if you are reading something that is difficult on its face, it isn’t going to be enjoyable to most. Especially if it is something they were forced to pretend to read in English class. Furthermore, most “classic” works of English are going to be in a form of English that is tougher to read than modern English.

    Personally, I don’t read fiction at all, not even Harry Potter. In high school I don’t think I read one assigned book from English class. In college I AP’ed out of Literature.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to ScarletNumbers says:

      Which doesn’t say a lot for value of the AP test.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 in reply to ScarletNumbers says:

      Most interesting class I had in college was an Lit credit class on Sci Fi. The class revolved around roughly nine books, charting the progress of sci-fi. Class discussion was a huge part of the grade. I can’t recall the entire book list, but I do recall Frankenstein, Childhood’s End, Neuromancer, Lathe of Heaven, Left Hand of Armageddon, War of the Worlds…

      Fascinating class, but really only for lit majors (or those, like myself, who needed one more lit credit and enjoyed sci-fi).

      *shrug*. In the end, today’s classics were generally the disdained pulp of a few decades before. Shakespeare wrote bawdy humor for the masses, Dicken’s and Hugo wrote serials in papers (again, for the masses. Hugo, in fact, really suffered due to apparently being paid by the word. An editor would have done wonders).

      A century from now, talking about ‘major writers of the 20th and 21st century” will probably focus on Stephen King. (50 Shades of Grey will be remembered, if at all, for being a surprising break in America’s puritan face. We hide a lot of our erotica behind the label ‘Romance’, but 50 Shades went mainstream as, well, pure smut. And not terribly well written smut. I feel for the kink community on that one…)Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Morat20 says:

        Left Hand of Darkness? Good book, but two LeGuins out of nine seems excessive.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to Morat20 says:

        I hope John Kennedy Toole makes the listReport

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Morat20 says:

        Mike,
        they’ll be pulling most of their work from the “literary” phase of scifi, so it makes sense.
        (Gibson is a really dense, hard read. Fun? Yeah, but… HARD).Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Morat20 says:

        Mike,

        I believe Kim’s explanation is correct. It’s been a very long time (coming up on 20 years), so I can’t recall the professor’s reasoning, although that was the only author duplicated.

        He was trying to capture a pretty large span of significant works Frankenstein as sort of a historical starter piece, and Neuromancer as the start of cyber-punk and a revival of grittier, near-future sci-fi (whereas Childhood’s End and Lathe of Heaven were very much Golden Age works).

        The Professor admitted there were many books he’d have love to have added, but didn’t — Dune came up, and he basically felt that properly exploring Dune (both the book and it’s context in sci-fi) would eat up too much of the class, and Childhood’s End basically stood in for decades of Asimov’s work.

        Ah yes! I forgot, Solaris made the list too.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Morat20 says:

        Morat20,
        Yeah, he was totally correct on Dune. Man, that book is awesome, but deserves a course in of itself.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Morat20 says:

        They’re certainly good books, and he could have thrown in The Dispossessed as well. But I personally would have gone for more variety, perhaps some Samuel R. Delany or Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Morat20 says:

        I’m still forgetting a few books, but darned if I can figure out which ones. 🙂

        These days, I’d toss in something hard sci-fi — Baxter or Reynolds, maybe.

        A short-story collection, even if I had to assemble it myself. Grab some Philip K. Dick, Heinlein — I don’t think you can cover Golden Age or 60s or 70s sci-fi without digging into the short form.

        But then, the class was a broad overview about how stuff changed, and how it stayed the same. It’s all about grappling with technological change — whether directly, or how it’s shapes society. We are the tools we use.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Morat20 says:

        morat20,
        I’d do the whole thing in short stories, probably (maybe toss in a novella or two). Get better breadth that way. Is there anyone who hasn’t written competent short stories, who is worth including for longer form?Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Morat20 says:

        Sci-fi in particular has a love of the short form, but that’s only the last 60 or so years. I’m not sure how much you’d find prior. Still, an anthology wouldn’t have gone amiss.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Morat20 says:

        Oh, and something by Iain Banks. Geez, could that guy write.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Morat20 says:

        @mike-schilling

        On Banks, I think you should replace that ‘anything by’ to ‘everything by.’

        I’d recommend Dick, re-reading now, his work takes on some major prophet status.

        C.J. Cherryh, she’s the godmother of SciFi.

        C.S. Freidman, who’s books are incredibly well crafted. Her early work, Enemy Mine still stands out as one of the finest novels I’ve ever read.

        China Melville, I’ve only read Perdido St. Station, but there’s a pile growing by the bedside for winter.

        Neil Gaimon. Anything, comic, picture book, young-adult novel, novel. Stardust is the most romantic book I’ve ever read. Neverwhere takes the two-cities meme of Charles deLint and blows it to epic darkness. American Gods and Anansi Boys are essential reading.

        Some deLint would be good, too, though is comfy world grows to comfortable, no matter the horror he visits upon the much-beloved inhabitants.

        David Brin’s Uplift Trilogy.

        Samuel Delaney

        Hal Clement

        Stanislaw Lem

        Tad Williams; his River of Fire series (5 books) has an ending problem, similar to the problems with Lost, but is still worth the read for it’s envisioning of how vr can be the real world for some people.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Morat20 says:

        @zic

        You’ve just turned a one-quarter course into a graduate degree program 🙂Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Morat20 says:

        That’s what I was thinking. 🙂

        Honestly, short stories would be best for a wide perspective, at least covering Golden Age to present. There’s plenty of collections out there (it’d be nice, in this digital world with Amazon pushing long-tail strategies, if you could assemble your OWN short-story anthologies. I know Amazon has wish lists and recommended lists and favorites lists, be nice if they had a short story specific one that, after being assembled, allowed people to just download them all into a custom anthology — but I suppose a lot of the rights are tied up)

        Iain Banks is a good writer, although if I was going to recommend his stuff for a Lit class it probably wouldn’t be any of his sci-fi stuff (although Use of Weapons story structure is quite interesting). I’d go with The Wasp Factory or The Bridge.Report

  9. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Two anecdotes.

    Back in the days of Usenet, I used to hang out on a group that discussed science fiction. The actual consensus there (maybe not held by a majority of the posters, but certainly by a majority of the most prominent ones) was that literature was a scam foisted on the populace by academics. When people read for enjoyment, they read SF (or whatever their favorite genre was), and if a literary book became a best-seller, it was because people bought it to impress other people but probably never finished it. Joyce especially, possibly because Heinlein once tossed off a diatribe against stream-of-consciousness. (Which he used in some of his later books. RAH was many things, and consistent wasn’t one of them. [1])

    There’s a story by C. M. Kornbluth (another master of the short story whom you’ve probably never heard of) where the “enlightenment” offered by a phony cult is called “the ineluctable modality of the visible”. When the cop investigating the cult learns this, he grins and tells the cult’s leader that he admires his sense of humor. So, the story assumes that a cop would get that reference, and Kornbluth (who never explains it) assumes that the readers of an SF magazine would.

    1.A few SF writers invented the Pre-Joycean Fellowship [2] which “exists to poke fun at the excesses of contemporary literature while simultaneously mining it for everything of value.”

    2. And yes, that is a play on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.Report

    • Avatar aaron david in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      @mike-schilling
      I always get the feeling that people read many of the “classics” because they are told that they are great books, and reading them will make them better people. Very few are reading them for enjoyment. My first wife would go back and forth between the big Russians (Nabokov, Dostoyevsky) and the very worst teen romances. I could never get a good answer from her on why, other then she felt she had to.

      Me, I will read anything that looks interesting, from classics to crime to SF to hypermoderns. The only caveat is that if it is not well writen, it’s going in the trade pile. Ulysses and Lady Chatterly’s Lover are still on the shelf out of respect for the authors short works, as both of those are crap.

      P.S. Kornbluth is no Sturgeon!Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to aaron david says:

        I try to go back and forth between difficult books and easier (though good) ones, because difficult books can wear you out. It’s not necessarily a one-to-one thing. Sometimes I’ll go a while without easy, others I’ll read Thomas Mann and read 6 or 7 easy books.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to aaron david says:

        Sturgeon is pretty amazing. Zelazny too. And the early stories of John Varley.

        But Ulysses is a great book. As are many of the classics.Report

      • I used to be the “I read that book/author because I probably have to” kind of guy. I also used to do it at least partially to signal that I’m the type of person who reads such things. I used to be kind of a snob about it. As a result, I read certain classics, like King Lear or Hamlet, without really understanding them, and I didn’t understand them because I just wanted to say that I’d read them. Other things I read and understood and enjoyed.

        I hope I’m less of a snob now.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to aaron david says:

        Russians are great if you want to appreciate Russian history. Somehow, the gestalt of the Russian people comes across really well in their writing.

        I inherited a well-read library, and am slowly going through it. Pop fiction, pop nonfiction, “nobel prizewinners”, and schoolbooks.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to aaron david says:

        I’m currently reading Crime and Punishment because I feel like it’s something I ought to have read, but I wouldn’t say I’m exactly enjoying it.

        I’m also in the middle of The Origin of Species, which I genuinely do enjoy reading – it’s fascinating how much stuff Darwin got right, even about inheritance, while knowing nothing at all about genetics – but still have to take it in small doses. I need to read other, easier (which does not mean “lower-quality”) works in order to let my brain relax somewhat.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      @mike-schilling

      I’ve met many people who sincerely believe in the first anecdote/attitude still and I rebel against it. Not necessarily that Joyce is immune from critique, he is not. I am honestly surprised at how people initially got the dirty bits in Ulysses when the book first came out.*

      That being said not all literary fiction is Joyce or Pynchon or some other linguistically difficult author who mainly plays with language.

      #2 it is a reference to the section in Ulysses where Deadelus is thinking about George Berekely’s subjective idealism and whether material things or not.**

      I don’t understand why Joyce earns a special rage among the populists who go against Joyce as being someone that is only read to “seem intelligent.” It brings me back to the whole idea of C.P. Snows Two Cultures and C.S. Lewis discussing the literary v. no literary reader.

      I love what Joyce was able to do to language.

      “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…”

      This is very inventive language.

      *IIRC the prosecutors argued that all the literary language and allusions in Joyce were merely pretexts to writing smut.

      **You alma mater’s town is namesaked for George Berkeley.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I’d never thought of Joyce as “literary fiction.”

        And people in California can’t even pronounce “Berkeley” right.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        This reminds me of the Donald Sutherland character in Animal House commenting that Milton’s jokes were terrible.

        Of course even Shakespeare dropped a reference to the “c-word” in Hamlet…

        Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
        Ophelia: No, my lord.
        Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
        Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
        Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?
        — Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Milton’s jokes were terrible.

        He meant Berle.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I’d never thought of Joyce as “literary fiction.”

        What else , then?Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        As literature, modernist literature if I were applying a modifier. “Literary fiction” is a genre that post-dates Joyce by a few decades, and would I suspect have been despised by Joyce, as it was by many of the authors whose work was initially placed within it.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        That’s not a distinction I was aware of. I’m used to hearing “literary fiction” used as the opposite of “genre fiction”.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Yeah, I think that’s how “literary fiction” came about, as a genre: trying to sell books that were connected only by the fact that they didn’t fit into an existing genre. It’s a distinction that only makes sense in a world of heavily balkanized literature, which would have been alien to authors and readers for most of the history of the novel. That’s not to say they wouldn’t have recognized a distinction between high and low art, let’s say: pulp, dime novels, etc., have been around for a long time, but that’s different from separating books, in large part regardless of their merit, into genres based on content.

        In short, capitalism sucks.Report

    • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      @mike-schilling
      The actual consensus there (maybe not held by a majority of the posters, but certainly by a majority of the most prominent ones) was that literature was a scam foisted on the populace by academics.

      I used to think that, but I later started applying ‘Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.’ to the problem.

      Literature is not any sort of deliberate scam, it is merely self-perpetuating nonsense. Different people like different sorts of books. The people who like ‘literature’ are the people who grow up to pontificate about ‘literature’, claiming it is the most important thing and everything else is a pale reflection of it. It’s completely circular.

      There are several ‘objective’ ways to measure if fiction is good or bad. You can talk about characterization, or plot, or themes. It’s not *completely* objective, of course, but plot holes are plot holes. Two dimensional characters are two dimensional characters. Themes are consistent or at least present, or not. You can point these things out when criticizing things.

      The most telling thing is, I think, that none of the people who ramble on about ‘great literature’ use *any* of this objective-ish measures to explain why certain books are bad, or good. Nor do they use subjective measures, aka, how well the book is selling.

      It’s because what they’re actually judging is ‘Is this in the genre of literature?’, not ‘Is this a good book?’.

      It’s sorta like judging every TV show by ‘How science-fictiony is this show?’.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to DavidTC says:

        That’s a very strange conclusion, compared to the much simpler one that a group of people with similar ideas of what makes a book worthwhile are listing their consensus favorites. Their are many books that agreed to be bad literature e.g. Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees, or Faulkner’s A Fable.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to DavidTC says:

        The one thing “great” lit has going for it is people have been reading and loving it often for many decades. I have no idea if people will be reading Harry Potter in 90 years. But people are finding beauty and meaning and wonder is stories from long long ago. That speaks to something is worthwhile and special there. If people stop loving certain stories or music or poems then they fade away. Maybe those words will be kept by a few and found and treasured again. We’ll see. But it is foolish to dismiss the power some stories have because they aren’t popular now or out of fashion.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to DavidTC says:

        greg,
        and the one thing modern literature has going for it, is the sheer diversity of writers. So many more people are writing.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to DavidTC says:

        That’s a very strange conclusion, compared to the much simpler one that a group of people with similar ideas of what makes a book worthwhile are listing their consensus favorites.

        Uh, that *is* what I just concluded. Additionally, people *with* those ideas become literary critics and professors and create another cycle of self-defining the specific genre they like as ‘the best genre’.

        Of course, at this point, we’re on the boundary of trying to define what a ‘genre’ is, and that’s pretty hard when it’s not based on topic. Wikipedia says literary fiction is ‘more concerned with themes than plot’, but, uh, that also describes the Twilight series, so I don’t really understand how that can be a useful definition.

        Their are many books that agreed to be bad literature e.g. Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees, or Faulkner’s A Fable.

        Yes, sometimes something clearly fits in the genre but still sucks.

        They still probably think it’s better than a Tom Clancy book.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to DavidTC says:

        David,
        Family of Blood is better than most Tom Clancy books. And they savaged that putting it onscreen.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to DavidTC says:

        Better than a Tom Clancy book is a low bar. Though not as low as better than a Dan Brown book.Report

    • Avatar dhex in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      the de-snob snob approach to culture – e.g. people only like it to impress other people – is fairly common too. and dumb.

      tl;dr – people are touchy as hell.Report

  10. Avatar DavidTC says:

    J.K. Rowlings writing began to bug me after a while especially the repeated and not very funny joke about how Wizards could never get a hang of dressing like non-Wizards.

    I swear, complaints about Harry Potter often seem completely surreal to me. Like, instead of reading the actual series, someone read an entirely different book series that happened to be labeled that.

    There’s a few paragraphs Goblet of Fire that could be considered to contain ‘the repeated and not very funny joke about how Wizards could never get a hang of dressing like non-Wizards’. By which I mean ‘We get one joke about a very confused wizard that thinks any clothing sold in Muggle stores can be worn by anyone, everywhere, along with a description of some other wizards failing somewhat less, but still failing’.

    That’s…it. That’s all there is. In the whole series. Oh, I could be wrong, there might be another scene like that, maybe even two others, but if there’s more than three the entire series I’ll eat my hat.

    It’s actually pretty easy to determine this, as 90% of the books take place in wizard areas where no one is trying to dress like Muggles, and another 5% is taking place at Harry’s home, where the only Wizard is Harry and he dresses just fine. There’s only a few points where it even makes any *sense* for wizards to be depicted as trying to dress like Muggles.

    I love Murakami and Anthony Powell but I am not looking to attend Anthony Powell or Murakami conventions.

    http://www.anthonypowell.org/home.php?page=G0307

    Now, maybe *you* aren’t wanting to go to that convention, but clearly other Anthony Powell fans were.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to DavidTC says:

      Point and touche.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to DavidTC says:

      @davidtc

      Arguably even that joke serves a purpose, it shows just how isolated the wizarding world is from the muggle one, no matter how close these two worlds are to each other. Although, like most of Harry Potter I like the way Yudkowsky uses the setting’s ideas better than the way Rowling herself does.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to James K says:

        @james-k
        Arguably even that joke serves a purpose, it shows just how isolated the wizarding world is from the muggle one, no matter how close these two worlds are to each other.

        I’ve argued that Harry Potter is secretly high fantasy, not contemporary fantasy, for exactly that reason. Put the magical world in another dimension that Harry commutes to, and you’d have to change like 10 chapters in the entire series.

        The biggest impact the contemporary modern world makes on the series is for villain motivation, and it allows us to relate to the viewpoint character. But the series isn’t really set in our world, even if it *technically* is.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to DavidTC says:

      Conventions are all about the sex and possibility of sex.
      Kinda like halloween parties.Report

  11. Avatar Jaybird says:

    There are some stories that get under your skin and stay with you forever. There is some deep truth contained in there that gets stuck in your head like a song and you go back and replay it in your head again and again and again.

    A moment of great insight (like, the scene in Lear where he starts yelling and stops himself mid-rant to say “that way madness lies, let me shun that, no more of that”) or something as simple as a conversation out of time that you yourself may have had the other day (like the scene in The First Circle where the engineer tells the general the truth). Maybe it’s a particular phrase that is just so perfect that you’re mad at the author for writing it (pretty much anything by Vonnegut).

    One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of artsy books is that they aren’t difficult at all. The First Circle? Dude, that was a page turner. Anything by Vonnegut? Hell, Shakespeare will have you leaning forward in anticipation of what is going to happen next.

    It’s the silly little things that are read once then forgotten that “snobs” tend to mock, the way that a judge for the Michelin guide would mock fair food.

    For what it’s worth, I agree that one cannot (well… let’s say “shouldn’t”) live on fair food alone… but there ain’t nothin’ wrong with the occasional corn dog.

    As for the “difficult” works (Joyce, Pynchon, Obama), many of them are much beloved because, yes, once you get in there you find the jewels that stick with you for the rest of your life (Schilling’s read Ulysses… I betcha a week doesn’t go by that a scene pops into his head).

    Hell, I’ve told the story before about how, when I read Moby Dick in high school, I thought it was an overwrought story that was not punctuated by as much as interrupted by silly technical manuals… then, one day when walking down the street, I started thinking about the scene where he saw the whales out in concentric circles and *WHAM* I understood what Melville was shooting for and it hit me that Moby Dick was a Great Work.

    Many, perhaps even most, of these books are worth reading because they are capable of rewiring your brain even years later. But they won’t be able to do that if you don’t read them.Report

    • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to Jaybird says:

      “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” puts Moby-Dick to shame.

      I think more people know Starbuck from the coffee shop than the book.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

      Not Ulysses so much. But the scene where Huck Finn says “All right then, I’ll go to hell”. Or the one from The Sword in the Stone where Arthur cries inconsolably because now that he’s king his childhood is over. Or the arc of Thomas Sutpen’s life, as he pursues his goal of becoming a plantation aristocrat with no thought that people even exist except as helps or hindrances to his plan. Or a boot stamping on a human face – forever. Yes. All the time.Report

      • Avatar aaron david in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        This is why we read, and read that which we find our way to. Some book no matter how great will never speak to us (Ulysses for me) and sometimes the smallest book will provide great insight from a simple throw away line.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        A book I return to again and again is A River Runs Through It. It’s short, the story is very linear, and the writing is not challenging. But the book is deep, and its insights on human nature are shown through the actions of its characters, rather than being explained lengthily by the author, which means the reader has to do some of the work. (There’s little worse, in my opinion, than the artist who feels the need to stop and explain their meaning in such pedantic detail that it’s an insult to the viewer/reader.)Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        @james-hanley

        I love A River Runs Through It.

        To be fair, I think that a lot of language in books does get overly complicated and one of the things that usually makes fantasy a glazing bore to me is the mock-formality of the language and trying to aim for the pseudo-Shakespearean. There is always a very stiff quality to SF and Fantasy writing.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Saul,
        You mean like “brotherfucker”?
        I know, I’m being unfair by quoting books you haven’t read.
        But that’s what you get when you use “always”.

        Lovecraft is stiff and long and moody. GRRM is anything but (and he’s enough of a journalist/linguist to choose words that actually work for cusses. Heard someone complaining about an author using “Storm you!” as a curse. That’s just dumb).Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

      Jay,
      “One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of artsy books is that they aren’t difficult at all. The First Circle? Dude, that was a page turner. Anything by Vonnegut? Hell, Shakespeare will have you leaning forward in anticipation of what is going to happen next.”

      those strike me as the books that Saul ought to be pitching to the next ten people he’s talking to. Hell, I’m interested.Report

  12. Avatar Murali says:

    The reason for thinking that people read difficult fiction just for bragging rights? Its because, the alleged reasons for thinking “difficult fiction” is better just do not stand up to sceptical scrutiny. There is no particular reason to think that Dostoevsky has better insight into the “human condition” than Joe the plumber. He at best may just have a better facility with words. It is not even clear if there is such a thing as “the human condition” to have an insight about.

    The fun-ness is also in doubt precisely because of the difficulty. Exerting effort is prima facie unpleasant. There seems to be a significant amount of sunk cost fallacy going on in order to convince ourselves that it is worth reading non-genre fictionReport

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Murali says:

      I don’t agree with any of this. An author who can create a character that seems real, rather than just a collection of words on the page (say, Raskolnikov) has ipso facto displayed insight into the human character. If he can make us empathize with that character, even more so.

      But art and literature aside, there’s this: Exerting effort is prima facie unpleasant. I can’t picture that you believe this. When you’re writing one of your carefully thought-through pieces, are you actually disliking the entire process?Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        One really, really needs to read some golden age scifi short stories before one can appreciate how Very Good it is to have decent characterization. Seriously, some of those stories are SO Bad at characterization it grinds my teeth.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        @mike-schilling
        That I write anything at all is only because I desire the end product more than I hate the effort that it takes to create the product. I have, probably, one of the worst writing styles of the regular contributors here. My prose is dense and my sentence structures are awkward at best, not to mention my run on sentences. A lot of the time, I fail to provide the context of my arguments and am often the only person for whom my argument sounds coherent. So, yes, writing is often painful for me. In fact, when my juices are flowing, I write more precisely because I’ve finally gotten something crystallised and it is relatively easier and thus on net more enjoyable to write it down. A lot of the difficult things that I do are unpleasant despite their difficulty. The only exception that I can think of is when I am doing philosophy or playing a game and there is a sense in which I have a sense of achievement in solving a difficult philosophical problem or finishing a game on a high difficulty. But otherwise, the inverse relationship between difficulty and fun seems to hold for almost everything else I do.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        For me, it’s the opposite. If I’m working on something difficult (not impossible, mind you, the frustrations can’t be too long-lived). I enjoy the process of solving it as well as the final feeling of accomplishment. I honestly thought that was true of everyone who’s achieved as much as you have. It’s really interesting to learn otherwise.

        Anyway I appreciate your taking the time to respond.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Murali,
        if you need someone to proof for that sort of stuff, just ask. I may not be decent at writing, but copy editing’s a lot easy with a second set of eyes.Report

  13. Avatar James K says:

    I agree to an extent Saul. Yes, people shouldn’t feel that difficult and fun are at odds with each other (ironically I think this is something the gaming community is better at, there’s a long tradition of people finding games fun because they are hard). My difficult books tend to be non-fiction (such as The Wealth of Nations) because my curiosity is why drives me to read them, but I agree with the principle.

    Where I part ways with you is in the way you characterise genre fiction. You take the best of literary fiction and compare it to Harry Potter, which is popular but not exactly a technical masterpiece – after all the later books are Young Adult and the early ones are really children’s books.

    Genre fiction can be challenging, but in a somewhat different way to literary fiction. Take A Song of Ice and Fire, which is at the high end of genre fiction quality, but is still really popular (after all, they’ve made basically the most popular TV series in the world out of it). The plot depends on a vast and messy network of characters and the relationships between them. The breadth of characters is one of the running jokes about Game of Thrones, but they’ve actually simplified things a fair bit relative to the books. And the books don’t hold your hands about it at all, you are expected to keep up on your own. That’s one way genre fiction can be difficult in a worthwhile way.

    One aspect of fantasy and science fiction that I really enjoy is world building – this is why I’ve read Iain M Banks’s science fiction, but none of his literary fiction. His world-building is what I liked about his work, I’m not sure what I would get from his other stuff. Similarly, Brandon Sanderson is a deft world-builder and he matches that with a mastery of organic exposition – he reveals his detailed and yet self-consistent worlds (worlds often very different to what we are familiar with) in an efficient and careful way that avoids the need for large info dumps. There are ways that genre fiction can be enlightening and challenging, ways that are not represented well in literary fiction. But since these techniques don’t feature much in literary fiction they are not considered artistically important while clever wordplay, something that can seem to me more like shoving a thesaurus in your reader’s face than a sincere attempt at communication, gets more attention than I feel it deserves.

    I guess my point is that there is plenty of junk food in genre fiction, but comparing the finest dining in literary fiction with the junk food of genre fiction is not a fair comparison. You should be comparing Joyce and Beckett and Woolf with Tolkien and Asimov and Le Guin or, if you want to compare to modern popular works, to Pratchett and Martin and Sanderson.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to James K says:

      @james-k

      What is ironic is that I know gamers who also fall against the Mead essay and do the “when I read, I read for fun” thing.

      To be fair, I stopped gaming once the stuff started getting too hard and complex and time-consuming. I don’t mind dedicating 50 hours to a novel. I do mind dedicating that much time to a game.Report

  14. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    The poptism argument seems to be similar to what Elijah Wald was writing in about in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock N’Roll. One of Wald’s numerous arguments was that critics play a large part in what we remember as being important and shaping popular taste even though what they like wasn’t necessarily that popular at the time. Most people look down at Connie Francis and traditional pop these days with a few exceptions but traditional pop starts in the Great American Song Book school were big for decades. Wald argues that its important for critics to try to understand why certain musicians are popular with audiences even if they do not respect them. The culmination of Wald’s arguments is that rock critics preferences for what best can be described as art rock, rock better enjoyed as listening music rather than dance music, had the disastrous effect of re-segregating pop music after rock in its original version ended musical segregation.Report

  15. As for the main point of the OP–that difficult reading can be fun reading–I agree!

    As to the point that has bubbled up in the thread about some literature being better than others, I say probably, but I’d like to keep the following in mind:

    The best works have faults (Saul admits as much in a comment above about Joyce) and the most poorly done–and there are so many ways to be poorly done–can have jewels or be good or insightful in some ways. Saul suggested that “Age of Innocence” creates more of a world than the whole of Tolkien. Maybe he’s right, because while he’s read the whole of Tolkien, I haven’t read “Age of Innocence.” My interpretation of Tolkien–and I haven’t read the whole of it, just the Hobbit, the LOTR trilogy, and “Leaf by Niggle”–isn’t so much that his world is unique or even fully a world, although I am personally impressed with how he can create world and how the characters can act consistently within the rules of that world. For me, Tolkien is an exploration of evil and suffering and the way people choose to do evil and to suffer, and conversely, choose to do good and to abjure suffering.Report

  16. Avatar Kim says:

    Okay, I can understand if you’re not a linguistics geek not understanding Tolkien’s worldbuilding. But, Saul, you kinda strike me as a man of the world. A person with passion not just for prose, but for economics, history, culture.
    I would like to strongly suggest that you partake of some excellent worldbuilding, because it really sounds like you don’t have any idea what worldbuilding is.

    How does the economics of an early Modern society change when you add the presence of organized, somewhat sentient monsters?Report

  17. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Re: difficulty

    There are people out there who dig on working out. Some people like to throw iron around, some people do the bike thing (my facebook is full of people sharing their bike ride maps), some people like our very own Kuznicki go running.

    Now, this is incomprehensible to me. If I were asked to throw some iron, or go bike riding, or go for a waddle, I suppose I could hammer out a half hour or so in order to spend time with someone whose company I enjoyed that I might do something that they like with them instead of always making them do something that I liked with me…

    But, good god, exercise? Excruciating.

    But if you ask the people who do that sort of thing how they feel about it? They explain stuff like endorphins and how good they feel and all that crap and you get the idea that they are somehow wired differently so that this thing that is so very difficult for me is something that they can just do and do it easily.

    I imagine that there are people out there who, when they try to read something like Pynchon or Joyce or Faulkner try to get through a sentence and then say “THIS IS THE LONGEST SENTENCE IN RECORDED HISTORY”. Others, crazy people mostly, say stuff like “man, that book was amazing… I’m still chewing on it… I’ll have to read it again in five years…”Report

  18. Avatar Pinky says:

    I think there are two subjects under discussion here, whether there are better and worse genres, and whether there are better and worse authors / books.

    I’ve never understood why some literary genres are referred to as “genre” and some as “literary”. I mean, really never understood. They’re making a distinction that doesn’t make sense to me. Does a good, well-written novel change its properties if the last few pages reveal the name of the murderer? This goes back to the “best in show” premise: how can you say that this poodle is a better poodle than that greyhound is a good greyhound?

    As to whether particular works or authors are better than one another, that seems obviously true to me.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pinky says:

      And to think that in some countries these dogs are eaten.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Pinky says:

      Pulp is mainly plot based — you want to know what happens next.
      Literary is mainly character based — you want to know what the characters feel next, how they react, how they change and grow.

      Outward focused versus inward focused.

      Neither better than the other, just very very different.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Kim says:

        It’s easy to *say* that’s the difference…but it isn’t.

        I bet no one here can explain how Twilight isn’t more character-based than plot-based. Now, Twilight’s characterization is *incredibly crappy*, but that would, logically, just make it *really bad* literary fiction.

        I think what you’re trying to say is that literary fiction sometimes *has no plot at all*, at least not any recognizable long-term one. It’s just a bunch of unrelated stuff that happens to a character, and how that character changes. (And it’s written that way *on purpose*, instead of accidentally bad plotting.)

        But that’s only rarely true. Yes, books like that are usually literary fiction, but they’re maybe 10% of the total.

        Wikipedia, meanwhile, tries to claim the difference is that literary fiction is *theme-based*…which is just nonsense. Books can’t be ‘theme-based’. Themes are created by plot and/or characterizations. Plots happen, characters exist, themes are simply how we view those things.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Pinky says:

      Trying to distinguish between literary fiction and genre fiction is rather difficult because nobody is able to satisfyingly define literarly fiction. It includes a wide range of different stories including family sagas, love stories, overtly political works, satire, etc. The the difference I see it as this. Genre fiction generally falls under a certain category that comes with a myriad of associated troopes and conventions attached. An author of a genre work can take the tropes and conventions of the genre at face value or not but they have to be there even if they are being savagely riped to shreds. The reader must recognize what trope or convention is being used, destroyed, or twisted.

      Literary fiction is any sort of novel that doesn’t have a set group of tropes or conventions attached to them. The reader isn’t able to pick up a literary novel and know what to expect with great precision.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Betcha I could take any damn scifi fan on this board, throw them any Sword and Soul book, and have them not recognize half the tropes.

        Do we really want to say that literary carries with it no branding at all?

        I thought literary carries with it the Great Books branding that Wofford and Buchanan conversed about…Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Literary fiction is any sort of novel that doesn’t have a set group of tropes or conventions attached to them.

        Exactly, like that Jane Austen novel about the coal-miners.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Literary fiction is any sort of novel that doesn’t have a set group of tropes or conventions attached to them.

        What I think you’re trying to say there is that literary fiction *doesn’t have a genre*. Because genres, after all, are merely a set of tropes. (Genres sometimes *pretend* to be settings, but they aren’t.)Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Alternately: Literary fiction is any sort of novel whose author is reasonably likely not to be aware of the set group of tropes or conventions attached to it, because they are surrounded by a set of cultural norms that can make them invisible.

        To your final sentence – tell me you knew with great precision what to expect when you picked up The Handmaid’s Tale. Totally genre fiction though.Report

      • Avatar Pinky in reply to LeeEsq says:

        It sounds like the definitions of literary versus genre lie in our expectations of the contents of the book, rather than in the content itself. That seems like inside baseball. It can have meaning within the industry, and can help the person who’s looking for a book, but it seems like a very limiting framework. Then again, the point of the publishing industry and the reviewing industry is to limit, to help the reader narrow down his nearly infinite choices.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I think Pinky has it exactly right. Genres, including “literary”, are marketing categories.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @dragonfrog
        Literary fiction is any sort of novel whose author is reasonably likely not to be aware of the set group of tropes or conventions attached to it, because they are surrounded by a set of cultural norms that can make them invisible.

        (I find it odd how people keep saying ‘conventions or tropes’. A trope is a writing convention or device. ‘conventions or tropes’ is redundant.)

        Anyway, no. What you just said was basically the opposite of what LeeEsq said. And wrong.

        Someone who cannot see sci-fi tropes, who does not understand and recognize them because they are surrounded by them, will still write sci-fi book if they attempt to write sci-fi books. They might not be very good ones, but they will *certainly* be sci-fi books. (Not that this person could reasonably exist…what writer only knows sci-fi, and doesn’t understand the differences between it and a murder mystery? However, this exists at a higher level…people who only read western literature will only end up writing western literature, because that’s how books are ‘supposed’ to work in their mind.)

        Someone who *has not read* sci-fi before, and doesn’t know the tropes, but attempts to write ‘a book based in the future with robots’, will not write a sci-fi book, or at least they’ll write one that people will argue isn’t a sci-fi book. And it will probably suck, because they’ll be trying to do what *everyone else has already been doing*, and think it amazing and novel, and when they do hit upon a reasonable storytelling trope it will be something everyone already knows, so they’ll inevitably over-explain it.

        Both of these are different from writers *knowing* the tropes and avoiding them on purpose.

        And none of that has anything to with what I think LeeEsq was trying to say, and what I halfway agree with: Literary fiction is often defined as such by the *lack* of any sort of genre tropes.(1)

        Which is, of course, why it’s often so difficult to read.

        OTOH, Lord of the Rings is now considered literary fiction, and, uh…it’s got some genre tropes in it. As does Brave New World, etc, etc…

        1) As in, tropes that clearly make it a genre. All works of fiction have stuff that can be called a ‘trope’.

        @kim
        Betcha I could take any damn scifi fan on this board, throw them any Sword and Soul book, and have them not recognize half the tropes.

        Uh, yeah, because those are a subgenre of heroic fantasy. Which have different tropes than sci-fi.

        Not quite sure what your point was there.Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Pinky says:

      “Genre” novels are the ones where things happen.

      Heck, by modern standards most of Shakespeare is “genre”. You’ve got historical fiction (Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Anthony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida, the history plays), romantic comedy, and some fantasy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest).Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott in reply to KatherineMW says:

        Hell, Shakespeare was Genre by the standards of his own time. The snobby critics of the 1590s were fans of Christopher Marlowe and the rest of the University Wits, and thought Shakespeare was an upstart crow.Report

  19. Avatar zic says:

    Seems like a lot of ‘great books’ are great because literary teachers read, studied, and teach them. That they may or may not be perceived as great by individual readers is probably dependent on the reader. I read Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, and while I finished it, I didn’t think it all that it was cracked up to be. I re-read it a few years ago, and felt it very dated. There’s just something not-very-interesting about a upper-middle class white boy’s coming-of-age angst, particularly when it’s completely oblivious to the privilege it takes for granted. I’d pan the book, now; even if it was, in it’s time, a breakthrough in character development.

    But that’s sort of a separate issue from book reviews, and here, we get into the problems of reviewers well-enough versed in the genre to critique it within the context of the genre. Young-adult fiction may cross over to high fantasy, sci-fi may cross over to political commentary. But the reviewer needs to be immersed in the genre. Someone reviewing the Harry Potter books would need to understand the fiction published for third through seventh graders to review it properly. In that genre, it’s an amazing accomplishment — books several hundred pages with hundreds of characters and complex ethical problems that are actually read by children are not exactly common. Reviewing it as adult fiction, compared with other fantasy (C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, etc.) will fail to grasp Rawling’s accomplishment.

    So there are great books, so decided because teachers keep teaching them, people keep reading them; they withstand the test of time. And there are books that, in the canon of the field, meet or exceed standards of greatness as judged by people versed in the genre.

    But then there are the books that are simply great fun for certain people. Vampire stories. Drug-running stories. Murder mysteries. Space operas. Romance novels. Comic books. Should these genres have their own critics? They probably do, though not necessarily in the pages of the NYT. I’ve found a lot of new sci-fi and cookbooks that I love from customer reviews and lists on Amazon and Powells. If you love a genre, you find the people adept at critiquing the genre.

    But I think it helps to not confuse academic vs. critical vs. pop/pulp here; even though all apply to the conversation about the books we read. And I welcome the choices from so many books by so many writers; none would write a great book without the chance to write for an audience to hone their writing chops.

    I also sort of wonder at much of the conventional wisdom I hear about books and their authors. I had someone comment-respond once that Salmon Rushdie is dry and dusty. Really? Rushdie’s writing bubbles like a fine champaign; the commenter obviously never read a word that Rushdie wrote and only knew of him through the lens of fatwa. So there’s also a fourth wobbly leg of the library table — bandying about of books and their authors by people who didn’t bother to read said works.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to zic says:

      Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex is totally awesome and you have to see it. It has loads of references to Salinger (who is a good guy, a friend of mine knew him… about as well as anyone, I suppose).

      Rowling isn’t a terribly good writer. But she had a FANTASTIC publicist (an author in her own right).Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to zic says:

      I felt exactly the same way about Catcher. But it was a huge bestseller when it came out, and made Salinger both rich and famous. It obviously spoke to people.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to zic says:

      Here’s what made Catcher In The Rye great: it had an unreliable narrator.
      Here’s what makes Catcher In The Rye awful: whenever I find myself discussing the book, it’s with people who don’t know that it had an unreliable narrator. (And I don’t mean you, Zic. I know you’re all over this.)

      If Catcher resulted in more people walking down the street and then saying “HOLY CRAP, HOLDEN CAULFIELD WAS A GODDAMN PHONY WHO WAS THE ARCHITECT OF HIS OWN UNHAPPINESS FOR THE ENTIRE GODDAMNED BOOK!”, then I’d say that we totally need to include it in more curriculae.

      As it is… yeah. There are so many more books that would be better forced down students’ throats.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to zic says:

      @zic

      I am not sure I completely agree. Why does every review need to be written by an expert in the field? If something is to have merit, it should be able to stand up to reviewers who are not in the field. I admit that I am in an extreme minority on my general disinterest in Harry Potter and active dislike of Tolkien. They are clearly very well loved by many people.

      As for Salinger, I think the Glass family saga is much better than Catcher in the Rye. Also the Nine Stories.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I am not sure I completely agree. Why does every review need to be written by an expert in the field?

        It doesn’t. But asking the new-country critic to review a brand-new electronic-music release may not produce a review of the work, it produces a new-country response to the work, unless the new-country critic also listens to a lot of electronic music. Withtout that, the critique will not be rooted in canon of work that rises to the top.

        I wouldn’t dare write a theater critique, I don’t know theater. But I’m pretty sure I could review sci-fi, knitting technique, cookbook, or jazz album because, while not an expert, I have deep knowledge in those fields.

        So again, we’re missing the apples and oranges; a review, as you use the word, is an opinion piece, it is not critical assessment, which requires grounding. Where the line between the two lies is, I admit, fuzzy. But good criticism (the kind that is really useful to fans and to growing artists) requires more then just an emotional response to the material and more then just pointing out some obvious flaws, it requires some knowledge of the form in question to even understand if the work is innovative or cliche.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Did you read the Laughing Man short?

        I think that one can write an entire awesome thing that only has merit for those “in the know”. I’m certain comedians have done it — and at the UCB, you’re playing to the audience.

        However, I think for something to be great, it needs to at least have some vestige of curb appeal (something that Wharton story lacks, though I’d give it at least a page or three before being truly annoyed).Report

  20. Avatar Kim says:

    I’m pretty sure Saul has anything that I’d recommend as a “do not watch” a priori. Which reminds me, I have another review to toss at Jaybird.Report

  21. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    The funny thing is most of the people I’ve known who devoured those difficult books were quite happy reading easy books too just because they tended to be the most curious about everything. It was usually the people I’ve met who read nothing but the easy books who would act dickish about how “pretentious” it is to read difficult books.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Rufus F. says:

      This! I too was going to say something about how the best readers I know read everything, difficult, easy, across genres, fiction, non-fiction, whatever.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Rufus F. says:

      +1.
      A part of me wonders how much ‘difficult’ books are poorly written. There’s some literary books that I’ve loved (“Cry The Beloved Country”) but, a lot of them are really, really awful reads. In need of editing, or just needlessly complicated. [at least the Taltos books are doing it intentionally!]Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to zic says:

      No doubt they’ll get their letter from the Joyce estate shortly.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Rufus F. says:

        the grandson is the woooooooorst. so many joyce scholars are waiting for him to kick it.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

        I met a guy in Buffalo who takes care of the Joyce collection there (the largest in the world) because I made a research-based excuse to read Joyce’s notebooks. This guy has the coolest job ever because he basically takes care of these notebooks and personal effects and shepherds them to events around the world. And gets paid. He was a very friendly young man and clearly loved his job. Anyway, I asked him about dealing with the grandson and he sort of diplomatically said “It… can be a challenge.”Report

  22. Avatar Shelley says:

    It’s fun to read a book that’s timeless. It’s not fun to read pap.Report

  23. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    It’s like how everyone hates Jim Davis because he freely admits that he’s doing it for the money, whereas Bill Watterson is so committed to the purity of his art that he doesn’t even make it anymore.Report

  24. Avatar Chris says:

    So I just stopped at Half Price Books and bought Immortality, Foe, and The Looking Glass War. I’m pretty sure the first two would be classified as “literary fiction,” and the third as genre fiction. I must be a confused soul, or only 2/3 sophisticated.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Chris says:

      The Looking-Glass War is pretty minor LeCarre, but of course I’ve read it twice, while I’ve never even thought about reading The Naive and Sentimental Lover. Which says something about genre boundaries.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Yeah, I gathered it wasn’t one of his major works because no one I’d talked to about LeCarre had mentioned it. But the book store had two LeCarre: Russia House and this one. I’ve already got Russia House.

        I’ve really been enjoying spy novels, and of the one’s I’ve read, other than the pre-WWII classics (I just read The Riddle of the Sands), LeCarre’s really are the most well written.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Chris says:

      I think LeCarre is the proof that in the hands of a skillful writer, genre doesn’t matter. Literarature will out.

      I read a Zane Gray novel once. Every sentence was its own paragraph, and it was so simplistic as to be clearly intended for the meanest intelligence. But in the cowboy fiction genre, Alan LeMay’s The Searchers and Charles Portis’s True Grit stand out as something more than genre fiction. There’s no experimentation with language or form, but there’s depth.

      For me, there’s something special in making a lot out of little, of telling a meaningful story with deep and compelling characters without adornment, without use of obvious technique. I like the same thing in music. Often I’d rather listen to something spare, rather than something with a lot going on. But that’s a personal aesthetic choice.Report

  25. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    One more thought on this. At different times, both James H. and Morat described Burn Notice as a guilty pleasure. I know exactly what they mean, because it’s one of mine too. In fact, when it comes to TV, books, music, movies, etc. I suspect all of us have guilty pleasures. But if we didn’t have some notion of quality that goes beyond “this entertains me”, there would be no such thing,Report

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