Last month, The Bitter Quill printed a quote from Writer's Digest that is, in my opinion, the embodiment of literary elitism. This month let me start by introducing you to the flip side:
Over at Writer's Weekly, one reader opined in an Internet forum that, "Literary would, in my opinion, be a higher caliber of writing... but usually not preferred by your average reader. Most people like a fast, easy, entertaining read while the minority prefer literary works that use words and phrases to imply meaning to the reader without stating the author's meaning in clear, easy-to-interpret terms. There are only a few literary authors I like to read... When an author gets too literary and I find myself interpreting more than reading, I get bored really fast. Sometimes I joke that literary authors just have bigger thesauruses."
So I have to ask; just who is "your average reader?" Does an "average" reader need a dictionary to get through her copy of Classics 101? Does he read for enrichment, or grab the shortest most monosyllabic book he can find to kill time? Does she prefer art and culture, a la The Smithsonian and National Geographic, or romance and gossip a la People and Cosmopolitan? (Yikes, does this mean I have to hide my issues of Entertainment Weekly 'and Us under this week's copies of Discover and Scientific American to escape humiliation?)
And can somebody please tell me what an "average" reader does for a living? Because if I didn't know better, I'd think only cultural studies professors and art historians read Chaucer, while waitresses and housewives in Ames, Iowa, read, well, you know what I'm saying (Yeah, but Ames sucks. —Ed.)
Most of us probably get, even if in that way deep down, I'm-in-denial way, that literature isn't only about pretty images or beautiful words.
That it isn't just a measure of comfort for highbrow society and the socially or educationally advantaged. Just as we get that commercial fiction isn't only about raw entertainment and quick fixes, or written and dumbed down for the as of yet to be determined "average" masses.
We know that there are commercial writers who write excellent stories about social change, class, morality and the complex minds of "everyday" people, even by certain "literary" standards. No doubt, commercial writers come up with some pretty creative and exciting methods to explore themes sometimes overlooked in more disenfranchised writing. And they manage to do it without getting bogged down by "meaningful" but tired scenarios, and dysfunctional stereotypes.
We also know that there are literary writers so divorced from everyday life and its concerns; their stylistic odes to the common man and humanity ring pompous and untruthful. We've all encountered literature with a capital L. Those over-inflated books written the way some pay reverence with a big G to the heavens.
And yet, in every stereotype lays a kernel of truth, patiently waiting to pop into existence. Literature has given me the most beautiful, profound and spot-on perspectives about life and living. And I've pulled the worst gack, as in drek, imaginable from bookstore best-seller shelves.
Regardless, literature and commercial fiction share more in common than best-seller lists and bookstore posture imply. Yet for various reasons, editors, publishers and readers alike continue to pigeonhole writing.
Writers fan the flames too. Ever hear a writer say she'd rather be esteemed than rich, literary than mainstream? Or that he'd gladly give up esteem for lots and lots of money? And haven't we all thought about cashing in under a nom de plume — as if profit necessarily precludes worth, and so we need a new moniker to stay in good graces.
Why are we so rueful in admitting we'd have as much fun penning a romance or mystery, as we would a book about familial relationships and the fate of humanity? And why is there such a division between money and esteem. The popular consensus among many writers and publishers, is that commercial fiction makes bucks, while literary fiction make an editor look good.
Funny how we assume the two can't be one and the same. Strange how our supposed preferences seem to fluctuate with the circles we frequent, and the piece d'jour we happen to be writing. Sad that we have such ingrained stereotypes about what respectable means.
I guess I'm my own perfect example. I want to make a living writing, not squander in distinction. So I'll tell you, I'm not banking on winning a Pulitzer Prize any time soon, and I don't really want one (but in light of what I've written, I might be I fibbing).
My mother is another. She once told me I'm likely to make money writing, hinting that my writing is marketable, or in mother speak (at least mine), not literary. I didn't know whether to feel insulted or proud. So I long ago decided on neither. She sees what she sees, and whatever the case, it is what it is.
Like former U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, once famously said while trying to define pornography, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material, but I know it when I see it."
I do have preferences, though I like a little bit of just about everything. Every genre has losers. But it's pretty subjective.
So I have no answers, only questions. And in a world already divided by so many labels, categories and distinctions, some warranted some useless and arbitrary, they seem to be well worth asking
Read the previous part to this series.
Jennifer Edelson is a former practicing Minnesota attorney, now regular IN columnst, freelance writer and legal writing professor. Her writing has appeared on all the finest refrigerators in the Twin Cities. Jennifer can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org