Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
My short answer? Yes.
Because it’s supposed to be. The word “literary” has a certain connotation, after all. In fact, the first definition of it in my dictionary says, “Concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, esp. of the kind valued for quality of form.” A few synonyms include: scholarly, learned, poetic, artistic, intellectual, cultured, erudite, and highbrow. Oh, and “bluestocking.” (Not sure what that is…)
Anyway, yes. The literary world is by definition elitist, but to my mind there’s nothing wrong with elitism. If we pretend to care about quality and cutting-edge, then it figures (to me, anyway) that elites in the various fields of endeavor — from the military to the academic to the creative — will be the ones to lead us. What am I not getting about this?
Miller’s essay is a consideration of a piece by New Zealand novelist, Eleanor Catton, who wrote about a reader’s objection to the word “crepuscular” in the Paris Review, of all places. Happens to be one of my favorite words, crepuscular, but in our culture, apparently, its use is likely to get a writer trolled to death in her Amazon reviews. You can read Miller’s piece and Catton’s piece and contemplate the arguments about what all this means. You might read Catton’s novel, The Luminaries, and decide for yourself whether it’s elitist or not. (I haven’t read it.) Or you can just spout an opinion of your own, like I’m about to do.
Literature is an art form. All writing is not art. All fiction is not art. But writing that is conceived to be part of a culture’s creative, perpetual impetus ought to be allowed the flexibility to use any and all tools in its creator’s kit — including a word like crepuscular, for shitsake. (Try ostentiferous on for size!) The minute you let readers dictate the content and style of art (as the corporate publishing biz seems inclined to do), you drive art straight into a brick wall. This is what worries me about the whole Oyster thing, with algorithmic analysis of where in the text readers bail on a novel. Only a matter of time before the readers are basically writing the goddamn books….
It could be because readers don’t like to feel inferior, as Miller suggests. Rather than, for instance, getting excited over a word like crepuscular and looking it up, the anti-crepuscular among us call the writer an elitist and label his book “boring” or “too complicated.” The American gut reaction to lots of things seems to be, “What, you think you’re smarter’n me?”
Again, the short answer: Yes.
According to Miller, there could be a deep psychological wound behind these anti-elite reactions. “A teacher, a parent, a romantic partner, a friend, a roommate, even a co-worker has made them feel ashamed over a book or genre they enjoy or admire.”
I don’t buy it. More often than not, they should feel ashamed (Bigfoot erotica? Really?). But liking some kind of lowbrow pulp fiction is no excuse for not looking up crepuscular. A little initiative please?
Why can’t writers help readers get smarter? Why aren’t brilliant young novelists on television? Instead it’s authors of almost-porn (you know who I’m talking about), popular thriller hacks, celebrities, and the occasional multi-culti novelist with a compelling personal story from someplace like Chad. The last time I saw Jonathan Franzen on TV, it was a few days after 9/11 and Ted Koppel made a fool of himself trying to think of something to ask the guy.
But let’s say the knee-jerk reaction against seemingly elitist writing can be at least partly blamed on a reader’s deep-seated anxiety, isn’t it fair to ask why the whole culture has to be dumbed down? As Miller puts it at the end of her column, “Even if we’re not to blame for our insecurities, we are responsible for recognizing them for what they are. And for growing up and getting over it.”
Amen to that.