Resuming popular v. literary debate, in brief

Oh, stuff and rot. Got much busier than I'd anticipated and look how much I've left hanging, just over the past week or so. It's not like I have a life outside the blog or anything. Still, I feel such shame. Worse, looking back over recent posts I see the distinct lack of self-editing and feel the urge to scream, "I can write better than this, really!" Not that anyone else would particularly care but I do, and it upsets me knowing I let all these posts slide without even the pretence of editing.

Anyway. Water under the bridge, a readership off doing things normal people do in summer and belated editing: three of my best friends.


The Great Literary vs. Popular Debate

There was the discussion of POPULAR books a week or so ago, as well as genre vs. literary fiction. Turns out I wasn't able to complete one dratted book for that librarian gathering but I don't think all was for nought. At the meeting, a short – but civil – mini discussion broke out:

What's "literary" fiction and does it say anything about a person who reads solely genre novels, specifically (in this case) gentle reads, with nothing upsetting, no nasty characters or situations? Or does it say anything at all?

Things like this do matter to librarians. Quite a lot, because the vast majority of the reading public – our patronage – read popular books. Not always genre per se but popular.We're in the business of connecting readers and books. It's kind of like a bookstore, only you don't actually have to pay for materials you bring home. Innovative, I'd say. Should catch on like wildfire, eh?

Pause, while my masters degree gently weeps.

So, what makes a book popular? The bestseller lists, mostly. Buzz from TV, online news sources, occasionally NEWSPAPERS. Remember those? Made from real paper, typed with ink, got your fingers a bit messy? And they went great with coffee.

That baying noise you hear? That's my masters degree sobbing.

Popular authors develop a loyal following, so when they publish something new people clamor to get it, which is why libraries buy so many copies of these books – so our patrons don't have to wait as long. It's also why there's less money left over to buy literary fiction and other materials. But let's leave that for a future post, lest my bachelors AND masters degrees throw themselves into the shredder.

Savvy popular authors publish series novels, hooking readers by creating identifiable characters with quirks, endearing or otherwise memorable personality traits. Maybe they set their novels in a particular place, or otherwise feature some sort of uniformity unique to that particular series.

Those are the popular authors. But what of the others, those writing rich, luxurious prose we English majors want to roll in like All-Star Wrestlers in baby oil? Now, there you have your division and it's a clear one. From here the topic gets heavy and I get very, very opinionated, so I'll put that off for a later time, naturally.

While it is a part of my job to connect all readers with books they enjoy reading, personally I do not believe it's better to read just anything than nothing at all. A diet of solely crap reading does litle to improve the mind. A diet of quality literature, on the other hand, builds new neural pathways expanding the mind, adding to overall intellect. And it's a whole hell of a lot more enjoyable.

I know, I hear people saying they read for escape from real life, that or read the crap to take a break from more literate reading. Like a diet for your body, so is a diet for your mind. The occasional chocolate ice cream or cake or whatever is your weakness is a mere blip. In the long-term it means nothing, as long as your general diet is good. And, in this case, good means quality writing.

But the whole point of the former post I'm reprising was I'm not familiar enough with the popular books library patrons read. I want to remedy that, while not wasting my time on worrying about it all. The top in each genre is my goal. That's the best quality writing from the genres making up 90%, the less palatable the remaining 10 %. It is my compromise, on behalf of my profession.

Now, speaking of my profession, I must fly to a morning meeting. I feel better having caught up at least this much, on a subject left hanging. But I'm off to brave the 100F heat, poor me! Time to put on my librarian hat and skeedaddle.



8 thoughts on “Resuming popular v. literary debate, in brief

  1. Now I’m really confused. Does “genre” automatically mean non-“literary”? There were some fine writers under the genre lists in that post. I see what is meant (I *think*) about “gentle reads”; after all, I indulge in the latest installment of Alexander McCall Smith’s “Isabel Dalhousie” and “44 Scotland Street” series every summer, but at the same time, neither series is what I’d consider completely free of unpleasant characters and nasty situations. (Do you really need those for a “literary” book, anyway?) I think these books are well-written, but also almost completely forgettable. (I can never remember which was the last one I read, which makes purchasing the next one a challenge.) Sometimes you want that in a book, but, I agree, not all the time.
    Right now, I’m reading (well, listening to, actually) Wolf Hall which has plenty of nasty people and situations. Okay, it’s popular, but it won the Booker, didn’t it? Is it literary or genre? It’s definitely a historical novel.
    My tiny brain hurts…


  2. Alexander McCall Smith falls into the middlebrow category, one I addressed in another post. He’s definitely a cut above a lot of mysteries, in his quality of writing. Will he have longevity? Maybe.
    Middlebrow is the middle class to upper middle class of writing. It’s well-written and intelligent and much of it will stick around until the next big thing comes along (i.e., writers such as Elizabeth Taylor went missing for decades until someone finally reprinted her).
    I’m trying to think of a work of literary fiction that doesn’t stretch into what I think may be more rightly called reality than depressive/dark sorts of areas. Can’t really recall any at present but I have far to go before I sleep on this debate and not enough time to go back and connect all the dots I left hanging between the two posts.
    The major point is: there is a literary hierarchy from low to middlebrow to high. Literature/classics are those books which stand the test of time, treat universal themes and could be applied to any time period. They’ll still be as relevant in fifty years as they are today.
    Middlebrow I mentioned above. It’s intelligent, normal life sort of fiction.
    The crap is, well, crap. It will be forgotten as soon as the next bestseller bumps it off the list. It’s dross: a waste of the paper it’s printed on. And it makes me angry crap gets published, bumping out better writers who could bring up the standard of reading.
    What I need is a better list than I had to work with. It’s a good one but by no means comprehensive. The classics are well-covered, as far as lists go, and – to be sure – subjective. But there seems to be a core group that pop up on most every list.
    All literature is subject to debate and what’s quality to one will be ripped apart by another. I think there are certain contemporary writers who’ll make the eventual 21st century canon and a lot of them can already be identified: Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood, etc. And I’d like to eventually work up a list I predict will last long after I’m turned to dust.
    All relative, all subjective and perhaps genre wasn’t the precise word to use. I’ll be on this again very soon…


  3. P.S.: The Guardian list contains the best of the crop of genre writing, mixed in with general literary fiction. Does the best of literary fiction defy genre? If it maintains the rules: universality, standing the test of time, maintaining relevance. It has to pass the same tests to qualify.


  4. I believe that “quality writing” and “genre fiction” are not mutually exclusive, and that some “literary fiction” can also fit nicely in “genres” – – I think you are saying these things too, but I’m not sure!
    Confused? Probably!


  5. Persephone, I think the reason Wolf Hall won the Booker was it’s set in an era people are fascinated with – I know I am – and it’s so filled with history it can’t be dated because it’s already dated, dealing with Henry VIII and the Tudor period.
    Plus, Mantel is a damn good writer – solidly upperbrow/literary.
    I tried reading it once and failed, because I kept confusing characters. But I have a review copy of the second in the series so bought the first, as well. I’ll get back to it but I have to give it undivided attention, and take notes!


  6. Dina, I’m writing with a lot of education – university and study on my own – but all opinion about books is partially relative. So if you read something and think it’s fine writing, it’s fine writing. It may not be critically so, in the professional sense, but all that matters is it is to you.
    If you read something you think is just fantastic – or even utter crap – drop me a line. I’m curious to know what you enjoy reading. I’m curious to know what everyone enjoys reading, too! It’s one of my things… I know, I should be more open about my interests.


  7. Margot, I’ll revisit the topic, no worries! I was writing with one foot out the door, almost literally, and shouldn’t have hit “send” until I had a chance to re-read it later.
    And, since I was thinking of olives all day yesterday (especially the ones filled with jalapeno peppers or garlic)and also NZ I dreamed I was an exchange student from your gorgeous country! I was staying with my own family – as in husband and kids, not family I grew up with – and complaining about how awful the US was and how I wanted to go back to NZ. It was hilarious! We were at an amusement park and the bottom kept dropping out from under us, requiring us to climb hundreds of stairs and walk in a cave-like environment. But I realized this morning why my dream was set there since I was thinking about it all day.
    The extent of my knowledge of NZ is ‘The Man from Snowy River’ and the scenery in Peter Jackson’s LOTR series. And, oh, so gorgeous. But I was trying to affect a NZ accent in the dream and it came out sounding English! Is it similar to Australian accents, in reality? That’s how I imagine it, which may be totally wrong.


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