Thursday, January 31, 2013

On Book Snobbery

"Oh, I thought you said you liked to read."
You'll be shocked to know I follow a lot of book people on twitter. Writers, bloggers, critics, publishers, bookstores, etc. (Disclaimer: I don't follow every book person or read every book article. There is a chance that what I am discussing is not actually representative of the state of the book world, but just, for whatever reason, has appeared as a pattern in the media I happen to read.) Every now and again the idea of book snobbery pops up in my feed, most recently in response to some responses to the announcement of a forthcoming Dan Brown novel. As a bookseller, at an indie bookstore, in Cambridge, MA, who reads big difficult books, reviews poetry for lit websites, and writes fiction and poetry on the experimental side, it's not too surprising that I have ideas (and a bit of sensitivity) about the idea of “book snobs.” What is frustrating to me about “book snobs,” is that too often, the positive, necessary, and truthful ideas of intellectual populism, end up as, at best, arguments against the very idea of evaluating the quality of literature, and, at worst, justifications for lazy reading. There is a difference between passively dismissing a genre, author, or work and arguing from evidence that a specific work or a specific author isn't very good or observing that genres fall into particular patterns. The first is snobbery, the second is criticism. I'll go a bit further with this, in list form.

It Is Not Snobbish To...

"Oh, sorry, I only read small presses.
Argue that some books are better than others.

Defend the works you love, even when they are difficult and critique the works you don't even when others love them.

Explore the implications, repercussions, and sources of individual and social reading patterns.

Fight for diversity in reading, not just in terms of the identity of the author/character, (though definitely for that) but for the full range of human expression as well.

Enjoy books that are stylistically difficult and tell people that you do and why you do.

Ask for better books; when done right critique raises all boats.

But wait, there's more.

Other Thoughts on Snobbery:

"Sorry, couldn't hear you over my ennui."
There are good ways and bad ways to argue about quality and bad arguments do not de-legitimize the act of arguing.

Since you don't know the content of another person's life, you cannot judge them based on a few book purchases, a few comments on the Internet, or a few blog posts.

What we choose for entertainment is beyond debate, but we can ask whether, as a society, we choose to be entertained far too much. (We do!)

There is no difference between me telling everyone they should read Ulysses and you telling everyone they should read The Da Vinci Code. I love Ulysses. You love The Da Vinci Code. We both have the right to share the books we love, whether those books are literature or entertainment, difficult or easy, well-crafted or poorly written.

If your taste is permitted to enjoy books with shitty sentences (it is) then my taste is permitted to hate books with shitty sentences. (Honestly, I try. I like entertainment writing in all genres, but I mean, I'm paying these people to write, so shouldn't they know how sentences work?)

If we only read easy books, our intellects and imaginations will be unfit to meet the challenges of modern life, exactly like how you can't run a marathon without exercise.

These ideas work for any form of human expression, books just happen to be the form of human expression most important to me.

There's a charming witticism that I think, in a strange way, ties a lot of my arguments in this post together, but you have to think a little past conventional wisdom to see it. The witticism goes like this: “Opinions are like assholes, everyone's got 'em and they all stink.” I don't know if they say this anywhere else in the world,but to me, it's always expressed fatalism in the face of the limits of human knowledge crossed with good old fashioned American individualism. But here's the thing about assholes, yours, mine, and everyone else's: YOU WOULD DIE WITHOUT ONE! Or would you prefer a colostomy bag? Opinions are part of having an identity in a society. However they are formed and supported, they are a vital aspect of being a person with a brain. Intellectual populism seems to devolve into this weird paradox where an argument is made against the very idea of having and expressing an opinion about the quality of a book, usually in the comments field of an online article and quite often expressed while expressing an opinion about the quality of a book. Intellectual populism is about respecting all opinions, separating judgment of the person from judgment of the opinion, and not pre-evaluating a work based on its genre, author, suggested reading level, or anything else. It is not attacking difficult works of literature just for being difficult and those who defend them just for defending them and it does not mean that all opinions (and books) are of equal quality.

Ultimately, people like what they like and that's fine, but we shouldn't let that be an excuse for personal stagnation. “It's all just a matter of taste,” might ultimately be true, but it's not permission to give up, it's not permission to just accept whatever media is churned out of content factories, and it is not permission to dismiss out of hand critics and criticism. Because if there is no such thing as a “good” book, what is the point of reading at all?

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