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Old 10-20-2004, 06:49 AM   #1
Lalwendė
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Popularist or Literati?

I thought this topic might be of interest to 'Downers. Let's hope that nobody has posted this one before.

The latest winner of the Booker Prize has been announced, Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. This is not intended to be a discussion about this particular novel, but following on from comments I have read today, about whether readers are polarised as 'popularists' or 'literati'. As we are all Tolkien fans some may class us in the 'popularist' grouping, simply due to the incredible fame and readership of Tolkien's work. I have posted a link here to the BBC's Talking Point page where I noticed that rather polarised views have been posted about the merits and otherwise of the prize, including what I would class as misguided comments about fantasy fiction.

Some comments I picked up on include the anti-popularists:

Quote:
Rowling writes kids' books, and Pratchett writes books squarely aimed at computer studies students. Maybe that's why they're not included?
Quote:
Anyone who thinks that light-hearted fantasy pulp that does nothing to hold a mirror up to human life, should probably steer clear of the Booker and accept that some people still regard the novel as an art form
And the anti-literati:

Quote:
they are ridiculously clever, but they are also stuffy, pretentious and only suitable for the more extremist black-polo-neck-wearing faux-cognoscenti of the publishing world. Real people read real books by real authors, not the pretentious, high-brow muck that is written probably with the Booker prize in mind!
I personally would not consider myself at either end of the scale and I am shocked by such opinions. I count as favourites not only Tolkien but other so-called "light-hearted fantasy pulp", such as Gormenghast and His Dark Materials, and also count several Booker Prize winning books amongst my all time favourites, e.g. A.S. Byatt's Possession, Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea and Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

My point is, are readers really 'polarised' to any extent? I would be interested to hear what other 'Downers have to say about this, whether you consider yourself, as a Tolkien fan, in one group or the other, or if, like me, you can't comprehend why readers would so willingly exclude themselves from potentially amazing books? Should Tolkien really be included in the area of 'literary' fiction?

P.S. - if it's on the wrong board then I do apologise. I chose 'books' as it's neither a mirthful nor a straightforward topic.
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Old 10-20-2004, 07:29 AM   #2
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A Venerable Old Question...

...and a good one. There is some good, and occasionally excellent, discussion of the topic here. The "Are There Any Valid Criticisms' thread so linked raised a number of the same points you make.

It will be interesting to see how this thread develops, but for now I'll restrain myself to a couple of points. Firstly, not to become too immersed in labels. Competitions and booksellers adore labels because they allow them to easily categorise, rate and better sell books. Before accepting or positing a label on a book, it's important to take a step back and think about your own, genuine, reaction to it.

Yet, and thoroughly against the grain of what I have just said , there are easily identifiable 'genre' novels in the world. The lower rungs of these have similar plots, often shallow or predictable characterisation and often sell pretty well. There are higher grades of quality within each genre, but they often follow a path oft-travelled.

There are also excellent, unclassifiable novels that stretch boundaries and refuse to sit within a 'label' as such. We need not concern ourselves with these now. Certain of these are singled out for awards and praise but more often they are being shifted to one side in favour of a nefarious new breed...

And additionally, as you have astutely pointed out, and rather sadly, there are books written (I used to refute this notion, but it's too commonplace now), the only purpose of which is to impress the reader (or rather, fellow authors and judges) with the writer's technique and controlled talent. These books have often had the passion of writing neatly excised. Newpaper and magazine critics, like myself, often enough, sporadically decry them, always review them, and occasionally read them.

It is not to my belief that Tolkien falls into anything other than the middle of these three categories. Although LotR has identifiable sources and age-old themes, it ties them together in a manner unique and rather wonderful. The latter-day apists of Tolkien I personally place in the genre category, and these are also of variable quality (the two you mention being near the top imho, incidentally).

Blithely provocative,

Rim

PS Enjoy the link to Kalessin's rant above. Worth a good read.
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Old 10-20-2004, 07:47 AM   #3
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Hmm. . .an interesting and a provocative thread indeed.

I, like Rimbaud, continually rail against the desire to categorise and pigeonhole books into different categories of "popular" versus "good" -- there are lots of very popular books that are very good, and lots of very good books that are not very popular. In my line of work I frequently run into the complaint that academics study books that nobody else likes -- that they are academically 'popular' but that 'regular people' don't like them, and that universities should include more 'popular' books on the reading lists.

This really makes no sense to me: this week for example I am preparing for classes on Pride and Prejudice, Twelfth Night and Frankenstien. All three are and have been widely and wildly popular for a very long time, but I would argue that one of them is not only 'not good' but quite awful. The point being that there are all kinds of books: bad books that are popular (Danielle Steele), good books that aren't popular (Finnegan's Wake), good books that are popular (Midnight's Children), and even bad books that aren't popular (fortunately, however, there are few of these as there is little reason to publish any).

What the argument comes down to is a purely subjective assesment of what people like or don't like, want or don't want in their reading experience. The kinds of people who form the Booker committee want certain kinds of things -- that's their right, and it always makes me shake my head that people who want other things from books complain about it. You don't often hear people railing on about how the Nova Award (for Sci Fi) or Marian L'engle (for fantasy) didn't go to A.S. Byatt or Gabriel Garcia Marquez!

Quote:
And additionally, as you have astutely pointed out, and rather sadly, there are books written (I used to refute this notion, but it's too commonplace now), the only purpose of which is to impress the reader (or rather, fellow authors and judges) with the writer's technique and controlled talent.
True, and there are at least equally as many books written to impress the acquisitions manager at a major Hollywood studio. Different audiences want different things, and I say vive le differance!
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Old 10-20-2004, 12:15 PM   #4
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The "business" of fine literature

I've often found this particular conflict to be frustrating. When I was in college (many years ago), I had a number of "literati" friends who embraced material that no one else would possibly like, and as often as not, that was simply because no one else would like it. These same people never seemed to understand my appreciation of Tolkien, most often because they like disagreement for it's own sake and had never read any of Tolkien's work. More than a few of these are now college professors themselves, more's the pity.

Are all good books popular? No. But all great books eventually are. Unfortunately, the authors of these great books rarely live to see that happen.

Are all popular books good? A qualified yes. They all have something genuine to offer or people wouldn't buy them and (supposedly) read them.

Are all books popular with the literati good books? No. As proof of that I offer three words: The Great Gatsby. I could offer many others of similar ilk, but those will do as a summary.

Fordim: Of the three titles you mention, I noticed Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. This brings up to me a related dilemma that has bothered me for years for some reason. It's clearly a pet peave of mine, and perhaps it's the actor in me, but I have never understood the need for students of literature to co-opt certain pieces of drama and call them literature so they can be studied as such. To me, a play on paper without actors and a stage is no more a work of art (good or bad) than a blueprint is a cathedral or sheet music is a concert. I was wondering if this is the one you think is "not good" (quite awful!)?
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Old 10-20-2004, 01:07 PM   #5
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I think it is sad that there is this assumption that if a book is popular it cannot be "good" literature and if lots of people like a painting it cannot be good art.

However being popular doesn't make it good either. I think it is true that the arts establishment dislike things that cannot be categorised and refusal to follow fashion - theirs is a closed secret society and they like it that way. It is an attitude that I think was typified by an Opera review in the Grauniad about 10 years ago "only the quality of the tenor raised this production above mere entertainment". This stuck in my memory because I had seen the same production a few months earlier in Paris. It had been my first experience of Opera
and I had been sceptical and had thought it wouldn't be my thing - but a musician friend had a ticket that would go to waste .. so I went and was hooked by this straightforward production. I still go to the Opera when I can - but I never buy the Guardian so angry was I made by its patronising and sneering reviewer.

After being raised that it showed lack of character to fail to finish a novel, my life is now busy enough that I no longer feel guilty if I fail to do so - I feel life is too short to read poorly written books which I don't enjoy (and that I am capable of making that judgement).

There are a lot of weak books out there "disposable " fiction that I throw into my shopping trolley and out into the next charity bag, but there are also some very good writers who just don't happen to write "high brow fiction" . These I tend to buy on sight knowing that I will have a few enjoyable hours, in the same way as I know I am giong to enjoy the food at a favourite restaurant. In this category, I place writers such as Maeve Binchy and Isobel Wolff (chick lit maybe but intelligent chick lit!!!).

On the other hand there are contemporary, "high brow" writers who I find very readable Milan Kundera, Ian McEwan, Margaret Attwood.... others well not....

But I feel that Tolkien, Pratchett, Pullman et all, suffer, and are particularly victimised by the "cognoscenti" (to give them a suitably pretentious title) is becasue they cannot be dismissed out of hand. They ignore the middlebrow stuff -because it doesn't intrude on their world but you cannot dismiss these so easily. There is originality, intelligence and a great deal of knowledge and you cannot say that these writers are not holding a mirror up to the world. Tolkien does so by creating a world; Pratchett for all the jokes is deeply political; Pullman is so dark, but has profound things to say to those who choose to listen.

But yet these writers are bought, loved and adored by many who do not care a jot about the Booker and may or may not probe the deeper levels AND by many of us who also read Booker type books. Therefore the "cognoscenti", will never accept them. They cannot admit to liking them because they are popular and readable but they cannot dismiss them because they are not froth, and there are too many of us who read and love them who have qualifications in literature that are as good as theirs!

While they have their flaws as writers, so do many who occupy unassailable places in the canon. Yes, I think LOTR has weaknesses in structure particularly, but they are nothing to those in "Our Mutual Friend". .....

I realise now I could have said all this is one word - Snobbery

I really want to know which one of those three Fordim thinks is awful - I rather like the two I have read so I rather hope it is the third ... else it will be pistols at dawn again....
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Old 10-20-2004, 03:31 PM   #6
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And the "winner" is. . .

Hmmm. . .delighted and a bit amused that there are people actually wanting to know which of the three works I am working through (or over) this week, I find to be "awful." At the risk of giving offence, I will reveal that I find Frankenstien to be a truly dreadful book. As this is a purely subjective response I shan't even begin to explain my reasons, but I will say -- interestingly enough given the thread topic -- that I find it almost unbearably bad in both realms that we are addressing: I find it boring to read, and a terrible book to try and teach (I am only "doing it" in the classroom as I have had a syllabus forced upon me by an unenlightened committee of sadistic colleagues).

radagastly, could not agree with you more about showing the plays rather than reading them. While I believe that there is an awful lot to be gained from close attention to the texts of the plays, things that will never really come out fully in production (at least not consciously) I stress again and again to all my students that Shakespeare's plays are. . .well. . .plays, and that they are meant to be performed. We watch a lot of videos (just this week we saw the 1998 Trevor Nunn Othello in which Ian McKellan brings to life one of the best Iago's I've ever seen -- several students said after watching a few scenes, "that actor reminds me of the guy who plays Gandalf", and when I told them the reason for this resemblance, they were outraged for I had "ruined" their vision of Gandalf by association with Iago!!).

One more point in defense of the literati, of which I suppose I am one, by dint of reading preference and profession. Most of my colleagues do not express the kinds of snide comments about Tolkien, or any writer for that matter, that get people so angry. The vast majority of the people I've had the pleasure of working with are very much live and let live when it comes to reading tastes and practices -- I have many a colleague who reads P.D. James or Tolkien or even Maeve Binchy. Lots read Rowling! I have even been known to immerse myself in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel from time to time. It's just that I also immerse myself in the poetry of Keats or Derek Walcott, or the novels of Wilson Harris and Salman Rushdie.

I think the one thing we all decry is not so much "low" or "high" tastes or preferences in reading, but narrow tastes. Someone who reads only avante garde poetry is as annoying (and boring) to me as someone who reads only space opera sci-fi. Fortunately, there are very few people like this in the world. Sadly, the real dividing line isn't between different kinds of readers, but between readers and non-readers. I cannot tell you how many students I see each year who tell me that the only novels, poems and plays they have ever read have been for school.
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Old 10-20-2004, 03:36 PM   #7
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Quality and popularity are arguably completely different properties of anything. Previous posters have already taken the words out of my mouth, but I will say something about this 'attitude' that has been touched upon. As a philosophy student, I can barely introduce myself to someone without having them assuming that I am one of these people who only read certain books because no-one else will. I think books (and I find that it is books, generally) have this amazing power to divide people. People can be so vilified because of their choice of books (there's an analogy here but I can't quite grasp it!) and it is quite sad that, as Lalwende says, people will so readily exclude certain things (especially books) from their agenda just because of some skewed vision of....I'm not sure what it is....respect? Or maybe they're trying to be so achingly hip or cool that they feel they must or must not do a particular thing.

Anyway, sorry for rambling on....
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Old 10-20-2004, 06:53 PM   #8
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Pickled herring, you say?

It is my highly unprofessional opinion, that readers ought not to be 'categorized' to any extent. At least, I ought not to. My tastes are diverse, highly-cultured, hyper-intellectual, and sociologically unchallangeable by any bastion of mediocrity. I am as a rock in a tempest sea of Pope, Pepys, Pullman, and Plato, I am a tower of firm and sturdy strength, forever unwavering, unmarred by the petty conjectures of the semi-literate public! I am as constant as the northern star!

Not bloody likely.

In truth, I am of the opinion that readers, at least, should not be polarized. Anyone cane break the bounds of a certain genre, which is of importance. If books are to be categorized in such a way, like those who read them, there would be few who fit neatly into a single niche. The habitat of the literate public is, as put, public literature. I cannot believe that a fantasy afficionado would be loath to dabble in the world of "suspense-thrillers" from time to time. The recent surfiet of Dan Brown-mania, in my area (author of the extremely lucrative books Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code) has exorcized the simple bonds of many readers of diverse genres, who all united around the current fad. I, myself, feel slandered that books and readers must be segregated thusly. There might as well be different drinking fountains and bathrooms for the sci-fi delvers and the romantics (perhaps I am taking that to far, though).

I will propose a sort of example, one that defies category, perhaps because of mediocrity, or perhaps because of grandure. A number of books have been multi-categorized over the years, or created new groups and new followings. Recently, and area newpaper I subscribe to ran an article by a well-known journalist, one Jonathan Yardley, about J. D. Salinger's teenage-psychoanalysis novel, The Catcher in the Rye. The article analyzed, and condemned the 'classic.' It is a known fact that The Catcher in the Rye is a very popular book for English teachers, who use it in their classes, both young and old. When the book first came out, it was both hailed and railed against by the public. Some fell to their knees amd worshipped, saying that it was a fully comprehensive expedition into the human soul. Others said it was angst-filled, overly symbolic drivel (I will not make my own views on the book known, to retain objectivity, but merely use it as an example). Yardley, the author of the aforementioned article, seemed up in arms against Salinger's book, and with much evidence to back him up. In a way, Catcher was a book that, whether or not it was good, defied convention. Supposedly, teenagers are able to relate to the storytelling protagonists. Some claim that the book is, in fact, to literal for the age group that it was 'written for' because of the massive amounts of symbolism that supposedly lie therein. Disregarding the chains of 'literati' and 'popularist,' where does Catcher lie on the literary spectrum? It more presents an anarchic mass, that wobbles to an fro unethically, too 'faux-cogniscenti' for the popularists, but too 'illiterate' for the 'literati.' There are a surprising amount of books just like this, and groups that swarm around them. All such syndicates are probably very defensive of their genre and/or preferred work. I could argue about, despite the appeal of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, the books she writes are not high culture, but I have met many intelligent individuals who believe that Rowling's works should be at least as literate as Tolkien. *cough*

Tolkien works must be both 'literate' and 'popular' if my say is to be counted. Simply because a book has a following, that does not mean it is illiterate. Plato's immortal Republic is the basis for modern idealism, a philosophy which has covered the world and is, in the opinion of many, the 'right' philosophy. One could say that a sensational, revolutionary book like that is the most 'popular' book ever to be written, simply because its messages ring just as true, if not truer, today, than they did when the volume was first penned, even if no one knows of its importance nowadays. Is Republic illiterate, then? I certainly hope not, or else a majority of the stem-off philosophies and schools of thought derived from the teachings of Plato and Socrates must be illiterate, thus deeming one of the most favored philosophical ideals null and void of meaning. That pretty much demeans 20 centuries of global culture, doesn't it?
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Old 10-20-2004, 09:30 PM   #9
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This is an interesting topic; I have fond recollections of Kalessin's rant and several other similar threads a few years back.

There is undeniably a sort of schism between the two views that Lalwende identified. Certainly there a lot of academics who look down on 'popular literature'. To call them the "literati" just doesn't seem right to me. Tom Shippey mentioned (in Author of the Century) one reviewer who blasted LotR and said something to the effect of "whenever one or two literati get together" they talk about what a sad state of affairs literature is in. Shippey points out first that the reviewer must have meant "two or three" unless the literati talk to themselves, and second that is hard to discern the meaning of "literati" in this context; for obviously the reviewer does not mean literally "the lettered", "those that can read". It must be intended to mean "those who know about literature". But who decides what it means to know about literature? The self-appointed "literati"?

I suppose that I would come down squarely on the "popularist" side - or perhaps "populist" would be a better name. But I think it is equally a mistake to say simply that the literature preferred by the "literati" is not good, and to leave it at that; and it is a mistake to say that popularity is the criterion for artistic value.

The real issue, I think, is not about people but rather about literature itself. I very much dislike the (rather common) view that there are two fundamentally different kinds of literature. I think this is a view that most "literati" and many "popularists" fall into. Essentially, they believe that there is academic/high literature and popular/low literature. They may claim this without going further and saying that one form or the other is better; but I think that it is a mistake to see a fundamental distinction here in any case. I had a professor once who enjoyed Tolkien and Rowling but considered them "consumable" books, to be read merely for enjoyment rather than with serious intent. This, I think is unfair to both sorts of books - unfair to the "low" because it assumes they cannot have real literary value, unfair to the "high" because it assumes that they cannot be enjoyable.

I thought I had more to say, but my train of thought seems to have been interrupted. Perhaps I'll add more later.
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Old 10-21-2004, 05:37 AM   #10
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That is an interesting notion Aiwendil, that some books are fine for relaxed enjoyment, but that it takes other books to put to the use of serious study. Are these people insinuating that Republic, for example, cannot be enjoyed? It is surely a crime to forbid the enjoyment of certain books, no matter how 'important' or 'serious' they may be.

Books matter, undoubtedly, but I am thinking that some pretentious people (on both sides of the fence) have a foggy view of what this means.
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Old 10-21-2004, 12:30 PM   #11
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Originally Posted by radagastly
Are all books popular with the literati good books? No. As proof of that I offer three words: The Great Gatsby. I could offer many others of similar ilk, but those will do as a summary.

Fordim: Of the three titles you mention, I noticed Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. This brings up to me a related dilemma that has bothered me for years for some reason. It's clearly a pet peave of mine, and perhaps it's the actor in me, but I have never understood the need for students of literature to co-opt certain pieces of drama and call them literature so they can be studied as such. To me, a play on paper without actors and a stage is no more a work of art (good or bad) than a blueprint is a cathedral or sheet music is a concert. I was wondering if this is the one you think is "not good" (quite awful!)?

I am not sure that a play only becomes a work of art when it is performed - there is the art of the writer and the artistry of the interpreters... and sometimes the latter can corrupt the former especially without extensive directions....( but I think, Pinter directed one of his own works without any of hte famous pauses once) . Sadly it is beyond my skill but I have musician friends who can browse sheet music as I can a novel. I remember one picking up a volume in a shop and after turning a few pages announcing that she had found a new friend - it freaked me out that she could look at the notes on the page and know she would like the music, but I guess I can read a play in the same way. My own Literature degree included a compulsory practical drama course though which helped with this though.


I do enjoy the Harry Potter books , though I think No 5 could have used a serious edit, and though she is clever and witty and knows her folklore, she is not in the same league for creativity as Tolkien, but I think she has been very clever at structuring her novels so far. I know this is going to sound so Anoraky but even as a very novice stargazer, I noticed that the OWL astronomy question was an impossibility -Orion, in June , in Scotland ... I think not.... Yet Tolkien's is spot on and according to Home he even had names for the planets that are not visible to the naked (and presumably even elvish eye).
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Old 10-21-2004, 01:09 PM   #12
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It's good to see so many interesting comments on this topic. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it looks as though most 'Downers agree that while there is a divide, there certainly should not be one.

I think if anyone looked at my bookshelves, they would class me as 'literati' (Fordim has been honest about this, and so will I!), but I most certainly would not want to be perceived in that way. As Mithalwen says, life is too short to persist with reading a book which is not enjoyable, and there are many so-called 'literary fiction' novels which I most firmly have not enjoyed. Likewise, I have also read a number of bestsellers which I have also not found particularly satisfying or even readable. Luckily, bestsellers are usually much cheaper so I don't feel quite so cross about having wasted my money. And one not inconsiderable factor in this, is that I do not feel to have been 'judged and found lacking' for being unable to get on with a bestseller - which is often the case with a work of 'literary fiction'.

I gave up on following the book reviews a long time ago, as I found that the TLS was far too snooty, and often lauded books which I found dry, while they were beautifully constructed, for me the essential pleasure comes from a good story, well told. Unfortunately, it's difficult to find reviews elsewhere so I often rely on either word of mouth from trusted friends or simple browsing.

Where does this divide originate? I have thought about whether it is a case of marketing, but if so, then why do more writers of 'literary fiction' not push to be marketed as bestseller writers? Surely they want to make more money? Or is it that so many of these writers already have lucrative careers as journalists, popular academics (i.e. not the poverty stricken academic lurking in a dusty cupboard-come-study in a provincial university!) and general media types? If it is this latter explanation, then this would go some way in explaining the situation with snooty reviewers - they would all be friends!

I've become loathe to deride books or genres which I do not like, as once I flamed on a workplace discussion board about Bridget Jones' Diary and owing to the comments I made was accused of being a snob. When I sat and thought about it, I was being a snob, and I'm eternally embarrassed. I know that if someone wrote the kind of comments which I had produced about Tolkien's work, then I would have been as outraged as these people were!

I'm not going to go into what I dislike reading, given the above, but I'm quite happy to admit I enjoy popular series like Harry Potter and Earth's Children (I still have to temper this with a little criticism, by way of proving how Tolkien is the master of the genre ). The critics can be pervasive, particularly if you've had the misfortune to study English at degree level, but I refuse to allow them to effectively dictate my leisure time! As my writing tutor once told me, it's all very well showing how technically clever you are at writing, but if readers don't want to buy it, then who will?
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Old 10-21-2004, 01:33 PM   #13
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That is a very good point , Lalwende, for example I recognize that having been obliged to read Middlemarch for my degree, it is hard to fault George Eliot's technical ability but she carries her learning soooooo heavily that I have never felt inclined to read the rest. Yet a friend since A Levels and now a English Teacher, loves her above all and treats my disaffection with amusement.

If you look at my shelves you might think Literati - I have read a lot of the "canon" but I have ot say I only keep the "pop" stuff I feel I will want to read again - my comfort reading - the rest I treat as magazines and if they don't hold my attention they are almost as cheap and just as disposable. And I do like Bridget Jones.. at least the first one, I prefer Isabell Wolff but it did make me laugh at a very grim time in my life.....

I have to admit, I kept my fondness for Tolkien and Glasworthy, "in the closet" during my time at University and never was quite brave enough to say I much preferred Trollope (Anthony not Joanna) to Dickens so maybe there is an element of the "Emperor's new Clothes" going on here?
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Old 10-21-2004, 02:52 PM   #14
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Are these people insinuating that Republic, for example, cannot be enjoyed?
I think they would claim that it can be enjoyed, but that it must be enjoyed in a different way from popular books. The enjoyment provided by serious literature, they would say, lies exclusively in the enjoyment of study - just as a mathemetician may enjoy working with some interesting function. Popular books, on the other hand, are to be read "merely" for enjoyment, not for study. On the one hand there is serious/permanent literature and on the other hand recreational/consumable literature.

So I suspect that the academic would in fact claim to enjoy serious literature. But I think that there is something that runs contrary to that claim in the very nature of the serious/popular distinction - the notion is, I suppose, that popular literature exists solely for enjoyment while serious literature is only incidentally enjoyed. This I think is just as unfair to serious literature as it is to popular. Indeed, I get the feeling that few academics really enjoy some of the classics. Beowulf is a prime example, and one that brings us back to Tolkien. To many or most modern literary scholars, the value of Beowulf is essentially historical. Prior to Tolkien's famous essay, most of the study done on the poem amounted to an attempt to disentangle original material from later accumulations, to dissect the poem and analyze it. Tolkien argued, quite persuasively, that Beowulf as it has come down to us has literary value in itself, and should be valued (and studied) as literature, not as a mere historical document.

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Where does this divide originate? I have thought about whether it is a case of marketing, but if so, then why do more writers of 'literary fiction' not push to be marketed as bestseller writers? Surely they want to make more money?
I'm not sure they do. I think that what some of them want is simply to create good works of art, and I admire that kind of writer - Tolkien was like that, I think. An unfortunate subset of those have, I think, somewhat misguided notions of what "good art" means. Others probably chiefly desire the esteem of the literary establishment.

One interesting aspect of this whole subject is the matter of popular writers who are, to some degree, forced upon the "literati" by their staying power. Dickens is a prime example - though there still is a certain tendency to look down on him, he has sort of made his way into the canon. Tolkien has not - and yet, more academics take him seriously now than did so in the 1950s or 1960s.
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Old 10-21-2004, 03:01 PM   #15
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Where does this divide originate? I have thought about whether it is a case of marketing, but if so, then why do more writers of 'literary fiction' not push to be marketed as bestseller writers? Surely they want to make more money?
I think that at least in some cases, writers of "serious" fiction shy away from the marketing because of this divide we're discussing. They'd rather have the prestige of writing "literature" than the fat pocketbook that can go along with "popular fiction." I'm thinking in particular of Jonathan Franzen--several years ago, Oprah Winfrey selected his book for her TV reading club, and he resisted it fiercely. He said he didn't want his book to be lumped in with the type of fiction she tended to choose. Now, his particular case is scarlet with his distaste for "women's fiction," whatever that is (and it's probably best I don't get started on that rant )--along with some admittedly very forgettable novels, Ms. Winfrey had previously chosen works by Toni Morrison, who can hardly be considered lowbrow.) But I think that in a larger sense, what Franzen was really protesting was the very idea that his novel could possibly appeal to the great unlettered populace. He was pledging his fidelity to the divide between readers of Proust and of People magazine, and totally ignoring not only the lucrative potential for his own novel, but the possibility that a novel could be both substantial ("serious") and popular. It's sad, really--he was selling his own novel short.

As for my own tastes, Umberto Eco and Margaret Atwood sit side-by-side on my shelf with the most formulaic of mystery novels. I'll read anything that's printed, but I have a great weakness for formula, as I think most readers do--it's just that some people prefer to refer to their preferred formula as "archetype."

And I'd just like to share that The Catcher in the Rye, along with the rest of Salinger, was extremely important to me in my adolescence, which was itself rife with "angst-filled, overly symbolic drivel."
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Old 10-22-2004, 01:38 AM   #16
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Silmaril "Illiterate" literature?

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Sadly, the real dividing line isn't between different kinds of readers, but between readers and non-readers.
Exactly. I'm in high school, and fortunately, most of my class mates read, but I'm on a course that generally attracts "literatis", and in Junior High, most of my classmates had never in their lives read a whole book, and when forced to do so in school they were hopelessly bored. I must admit that I read more or less anything, but usually not the things considered to be pulp fiction - that kind which mostly resembles book versions of soap operas, but it's not because they're considered to be pulp, it's just that I don't like them. And I know that I read a lot of things that English professors and the like would probably consider to be way too "illiterate". But the brilliance of these "pulp" books is that they can make loads of people read, who would normally not open a book in their lives.

Example: Anyone who critisize Harry Potter for being populist (and why is it so bad to be popular?) should think about how many children J.K. Rowling has encouraged to read. My younger brother was convinced that reading was boring, not matter what, until I more or less forced him to listen to me reading Harry Potter to him. He was so excited that when I tired of reading aloud after the first book, he continued, and he realised that reading was not so boring after all. I remember very clearly my mother's shock when my borther ploughed through all the Harry Potter novels, then Lord of the Rings (is this poor little boy a tiny bit influenced by his sister..?), and then Harry Potter again - in English...

It's my opinion that any book is definetly better than no book.
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Old 10-22-2004, 03:12 PM   #17
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There is something weird about the very dichotomy of "popularist" and "literati," because dichotomies usually suck. They muddle the debate.

I have a professor this semester, now there is a die-hard, dry-as-the-Arabian-desert, boring-as-my-grandma's-underpants literati fan. He can't stand a single joke or casual phrase in a student paper. He laughs at anyone that dares to disagree with his all-mighty godliness in class. He keeps blabbering about his work, and how bloody "important" it is. I HATE HIM. HE'S RUINING MY GPA. NOT TO MENTION MY LIFE.

Haha, right, well I actually think that this whole highbrow vs. lowbrow stuff was invented by people that sit and read Danielle Steele under their blankets at night with a flashlight, jumping at every sound, and then they get up for work, put on a pretentious tie, and talk about how the Pantopticon relates to A Journal of a Plague Year with a smug look on their face.

Now, there is definitely good taste and bad taste, and I will glad chuck Steele in the latter category (or trash bin), but the point is, certain books have their time and place. When I'm bored on a freaking 8-hour trans-Atlantic flight, Steele just might become my best friend for the duration of the trip. And I am not going to apologize for it.

And then there are books that tend to defy such categorizing. I would name The Lord of the Rings as one. Nowhere is it written in that a book that is admired by a great number of people is automatically a conveyor-belt produced piece of trash.

I had a thread about this here.
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Old 10-23-2004, 08:14 AM   #18
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Originally Posted by Mithalwen
Yet Tolkien's is spot on and according to Home he even had names for the planets that are not visible to the naked (and presumably even elvish eye).
Slightly off-topic, but in this context there's an interesting essay :
http://www.physics.ccsu.edu/Larsen/a..._of_middle.htm
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Old 10-23-2004, 01:56 PM   #19
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Thinking some more about this today, I remembered that there is a 'genre' much beloved by the 'literati' that is pretty close to fantasy, and that is magic realism. Now, it does, by its very name, deal with realistic issues or events, but does this with a huge helping of fantasy. Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits (one of my favourites incidentally, a really heart-wrenching novel) deals with the history of a family in South America through wars, revolution and right-wing oppression, which sounds brutally realistic. But within this novel there are girls with naturally green hair, ghosts, not-entirely-coincidental horrific accidents and a whole cast of outlandish characters. Isabel Allende does not employ a tricksy style of writing as some 'literati' writers do, so perhaps the plaudits come from the material? But I would argue that the brutal regimes of South American dictators are no more 'realistic' to London based critics than are the machinations of Saruman. If realism and relevance should be a criteria for judging novels, then the critics should only be applauding novels about a closed set of middle-class intellectuals, surely?

Taking this a step further, at University I remember someone in a class deriding Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole. One of the characters, whose Mancunian accent is used throughout the novel, talks of politics and my fellow student said that he couldn't possibly understand what he was talking about as he couldn't even pronounce the words correctly. Ever since, this has illustrated to me that there is some kind of sniffy class politics going on within the arena of literature.

Perhaps if a novel uses themes and language from areas of life which the critics are comfortable that they 'know something about' then a work stands a better chance of being accepted by them? I can only hope this changes as time goes by, and as we see more diversity in the 'cultural establishment', but sadly it seems some of the 'toe the line' attitudes are still around - Lush, don't let your prof get you down!
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