Tuesday, January 13, 2004

An Antidote to Book Snobery



Friedrich, one of the 2Blowhards has posted an interesting essay on the subject of Book People and their inherent snobery. He begins by comparing Book folk to Movie folk, saying, and I think rightly, that Movie people take the good with the bad and love it all. His primary example of the rollicking Movie Person is Quentin Tarantino. Now weather or not you like his films, you have to admit, Mr. Tarantino loves him some movies. All movies. From subtitled French Art House fair to Classics, to Hollywood trash, to grainy Hong Kong bloodbaths, it's all good in it's own way, damn the art vs. money debate. And I think Friedrich has a point. I'll let him explain it:

I find the gestalt of the book world oppressive; it gives me a pain and it makes me grumpy. And I'm often left wondering: how can books people say of themselves that they love books when they look down their noses at 90% of the books that are published? They disdain not just Stephen King but also self-help books, visual books, and trash biographies; they relish intense discussions about what measures up as a "real book" and what doesn't. (My staggeringly original response to this tiresome issue: They're all books, for god's sake.) IMHO, what books people love isn't books; what they love is their own standards, and their fantasies about what literature should be.

Movie people are usually hearty souls who don't mind a robust disagreement; books people cleave to what's been pronounced worthy. Tell a respectable publishing-world person that you like a Jackie Collins novel (and I liked the one I've read very much), insist that you see real merits in the book, and watch your interlocutor recoil in chagrin. She feels pity, pain and horror for your benighted soul. Tell a film world person, on the other hand, that you adored the movie version of "The Other Side of Midnight" (and I did), and he's likely to crack up and start telling you about all the gaudy trash that he loves too.

Now, he admits that this is a bit of a generalization and maybe so, but it gives you a snapshot of the dichotomy between the two worlds. Now, I for one don't know any true Book Snobs. Personally, I think the Book Snob is a rare creature, found only in academia and perhaps New York, where the publishing elite mingle incestuously. Though I recognize the tendency in my own tastes to know what he's talking about.

It's no secret that I don't like Stephen King's writing. And Mr. King is considered, well, the King of Middle of the road fiction. And even I admit, he can tell a story. But this is my problem: he's so thoroughly middle of the road. Friedrich hits on this point as well, that most people who love Movies, books, and food, love the visceral thrill of watching, imagining and eating, and what we really like is anything with flavor and color and texture. What we hate is the bland, steak-and-potatoes-every-night diet, the marketed-to-death Blockbuster that weíve all seen a hundred times, justwith different actors and diffeent settings. We cinematic and literary hedonists love anything that isnít boring and bland. And Stephen Kingís writing, for me at least is bland. It has no poetry, his stories do not wrestle with any Big Ideas. They're just good yarns.

Now, This doesn't mean I don't enjoy a good bit of trash writing every now and again. There's nothing finer than plowing headlong through an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. I love the Warlord of Mars Books for their adventure, barely stifled sexuality and old fangled, pre-space age notions of science and science fictionality. Sure, Burroughs was a racist and a little too enamored with the eugenics movement but he wrote some finely plotted stories and at least tried to grab that old brass ring, and show a glimpse of the Big Picture of It All. But if we can judge by the Literary Darlings of the month (and I'm not saying we should but indulge me a moment) we are to believe that Burroughs, King, all those romance novels and everything in between from pot boiler sci-fi, to noir crime dramas are just so much stuff; not really anything to be read and certainly nothing we shuld seriously considder the writerly merrits of, oh no, certainly not, unless it's from the end of an upturned nose.

I, and Friedrich, disagree with this literary Conventional Wisdom. But, as Friedrich asks, "What might a more earthy, worldly, and pleasure-centric view of reading and writing be like? I've seen very few signs of such a thing so far."

Heís got a point there, too. Luckily though, he offers a potential solution:

How might a more roughhousing conversation about books and writing get started? I'm not sure, but I do have a hunch. One of the many things about the books world that that took me by surprise was that it hasn't gone through a guilty-pleasures phase. Remember what a kick it was when movie people started admitting that the lousy movies they loved gave them as much pleasure as they got from their art-movie faves? Books people, bizarrely enough, almost never allow themselves such indulgences.

His suggestion, and mine, is to be proud of your guilty reading pleasures. Carry them around with you. Sit on the train, reading Harry Potter, or, if you must, Jackie Collins or Stephen King. They may not be my tastes, but they certainly are someone's and with a well placed mass market, who knows who'll you'll meet and strike up a conversation with?

As for me, I'll be the guy at the front of the bus, his nose buried in a tattered copy of Tarzan.

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