Recently, while attached to a thousand different wires while being watched via infra-red camera, I read an old edition of Time Magazine. In it was an article about Jonathan Franzen author of The Corrections, and he was talking about his then upcoming book Freedom.
But Franzen isn’t who I want to talk about, it was the writer conducting the interview who I want to talk about because he said something in there that insults not only me, but Jonathan Franzen, and every writer around the world today. I don’t care if you write dick jokes for Cracked.com or are the head speech writer for President Obama, if you take pride in the written word, if you love writing in any way, then this guy has insulted you. I speak of one Mr. Lev Grossman (an appropriate last name as you’ll come to see).
His contention is this: The Novel is dying. Oh yeah, he capitalized Novel, and it wasn’t just a typo. Now to understand what he’s saying you must understand the very special kind of arrogance he’s bringing to the table. I’m sure for most of us the world novel brings up any number of books, romance novels, crime novels, and so on. We think of novels as a fictional book of at least a couple hundred pages that features characters, a story, and a theme.
Grossman’s Novel, on the other hand, is something ephemeral and untouchable. A veritable Talisman of all that is worthy of the printed word, everything else is mere pulp, not worth the trees that were sacrificed to print it. What exactly makes a Novel different from a novel, is something only he can tell you, but he names Mailer, Tolstoy, Dickens, and Hemingway among the authors of Novels. Now these are gods among men, I admit, great writers one and all. All of them have advanced the world of writing considerably, and yet if they were here right now I bet not one of them would claim that thier books are somehow better than any other novel. I bet they would also disagree that novels are somehow dying.
“[…]In the court of public opinion all writers are considered elitist pricks until proven otherwise[…]” – Grossman, L Time Magazine, August 2010
The above quote was Grossman talking about Franzen’s unfortunate incident with the press which resulted in Oprah uninviting him from an appearance on her show. Look up the incident if you’re interested, but the important thing here is that this demonstrates what Grossman assumes people’s attitude toward writers are. Now, obviously I’ve never published a damn thing in my life, so maybe when I do people will jeer at me in the streets, but in my experience people love to talk with writers.
I’ve been to many writer’s conventions and speakings, and even people that aren’t writers will often go just so they can hear they’re favorite authors speak about writing. The one thing that almost everyone says is “Oh I wish I could write like you” or something to that effect. People adore writers…well most writers. Unfortunately there’s always that one prick who shows up, and when someone asks “what do you write?” he responds:
“Oh, I don’t write Genre fiction. I write literature.” And then he walks away with his nose pointed so far in the air that passing seagulls could shit right into his eyes. Yeah, congratulations, you just met a egotistical prick…or as Grossman put it, an elitist. The kind of guy who thinks the word Genre is some kind of dirty word.
Now obviously there are books that can only be described as literature, there’s just no other way to put it. I mean I wouldn’t know what to label Catcher in the Rye, would you? But when someone asks you what you write, you say “Oh, I’m working on a story about a teenager who takes care of his younger sister, but explores the themes of teenage angst and coming of age.” Hell, the jacket of a bookcover gives you a synopsis for a reason, so people know what the heck the book is about. But an elitist would rather have the book cover say “This is Literature” and if people don’t want to read it than they’re clearly not worthy.
So why am I telling you all this?
Because the fact that Grossman thinks that the court of public opinion holds authors as snobs unless proven otherwise, tells me one thing. Grossman is probably an elitist prick.
He was probably one of those guys, and since people treat him like an elitist prick (since, you know, he is one) he assumes all writers are treated like that. Of course we all get the occasional asshole that just likes to make other people feel bad, the hecklers who’ve nothing better to do. There are people out there that hate purely for the sake of it. But I don’t see any kind of universal hatred of writers out there. I don’t see people burning edifices of J.K. Rowling or the late David Foster Wallace.
I covered Elitism a bit in my lambasting of Falling Skies but let’s go over this again. Political pundits like to drag out Elitism like it’s on their word of the century calendar. Most of the time when they say Elitist, they mean college educated. This isn’t a political blog, so I won’t go into any specifics, but in my opinion being college educated doesn’t make you elitist. Being college educated and then treating the diploma like some kind of twisted badge of honor, makes you an elitist. I don’t mean hanging your diploma on the wall, of course, that’s just fair dues (or if you’re a doctor, the law). I mean being in a casual conversation about the weather and suddenly breaking out with “You know the first meteorologist was XXX”. Then, when your fellow conversationalists mention they didn’t, in fact, know this completely irrelevant fact then berate them for being so obviously stupid.
It’s just an ego-boosting dick move. They feel insecure and seek to make others feel just as insecure.
So what does all this have to do with writing? Well I’ll tell you.
A good friend of mine, my best friend actually, were chatting a while back. We’re both avid readers so we often talk about what books we’ve read, and if they were any good. Now, if you’ve been reading my blog at all, you already know I’m a huge Mark Twain fan. I also enjoy other classical stuff, Dickens, Tolstoy, etc. So I often mention I read stuff like that, and she’s turned me on to a lot of great books like the Pendragon series, Artemis Fowl and others. So, anyway, we were chatting and this is what she said:
“I want to read smart books.”
I felt a pang of anger then, not toward her of course, but toward the elitism that somehow managed to create this fiction that certain books are smart and others aren’t. After telling her not to think of these books as smart, I gave her a couple of books to read. One of which is John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, a short little tale about a horse.
“That book was terrible!” Was her response. That’s why she’s such a great person, a lot of people would have said “wellll it just wasn’t my cup of tea” or some other non-committal response because it’s a smart book and they don’t want people to want to think they’re stupid because they didn’t like the book. Luckily my friend is both refreshingly honest and confident in herself. She didn’t like the book and she let me know why, and I completely understand her reasoning. I’ve recommended some other books to her, I’m sure she’ll eventually find one she likes.
But others aren’t as confident as my friend. Some people will have just as much trouble reading a smart book, but then after finding they didn’t like it. And after that, they’ll assume they’re probably just too stupid to read books like that and give up.
As strange as it may sound, I used to hate reading. Really. I couldn’t stand it. In fact I think I learned to read a lot later than the rest of my classmates. Why exactly? I don’t remember. Maybe it was too hard, or maybe (probably), I just didn’t like what the teacher’s were forcing us to read. Luckily for me, I had an excellent librarian (and still a good friend nearly 16 years later). I loved animals and I loved adventures like the ones in King Arthur movies. That librarian found me a book that would change everything.
Martin the Warrior is a high-adventure novel (yes, novel, the thing rings it at over 400 pages) featuring a cast of mice, shrews, moles, badgers, rats, ferrets and foxes. I seem to recall some teachers being concerned that me, a kid who couldn’t even get through a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, would be able to handle an epic book like Martin the Warrior which had no pictures at all. I remember it took me months to read that book, but by the time I did I was a better reader than most of my classmates.
So why did I tell that wonderfully inspirational story? Because it illustrates a point and that point is that you can’t force people to read something and hope they gain appreciate for it. That librarian could have continued forcing me to read whatever crap the teachers were trying to get me to read, and who knows I may have ended up a half-literate simpleton holding a misspelled homeless sign. He also could have forced me to read Martin the Warrior by telling me it was a smart book that would enrich my life, but then if I’d ended up not liking it I would have resigned myself to the fact I was stupid. Instead, he simply told me about the book, and let me check it out for a few days. In time that book led me the The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, and those in turn led me to Les Miserable and so on down a long path of books.
Let people choose to read what they want, and eventually they’ll find something they enjoy. Whether that leads to Harry Potter or War and Peace doesn’t matter. Maybe my friend will never enjoy any of the old books that I enjoy, and maybe I’ll never get around to understanding why people like Twilight but that’s fine. The written word is one of the first, and best, achievements of human civilization. From pictographs on a cave wall, the stone tablets of Babylon, the Gutenberg Bible, all the way up the Kindle E-Reader. The “Novel” is not going to die, and this Elitism does nothing more than aggravate those of us who enjoy reading both Harry Potter and Huckleberry Finn, and puts off people from reading older works of literature.
Reading is simply part of who we are, and it will continue to enrich our lives until the day we finally become telepathic and beam books into peoples heads.
And Still Counting…