Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Yes, literature is elitist… thank God!


A while back, Salon’s Laura Miller asked the musical question, “Is the literary world elitist?”

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.

21 comments on “Yes, literature is elitist… thank God!

  1. J. S. Collyer
    February 21, 2014

    I don’t understand people that set out to debunk a book just because they don’t like it, for whatever reason. If you don’t like a book, don’t read it. We’re living in an age where literally ANYTHING is available. If you’re not getting on with a novel, for whatever reason, don’t read it and find something you like. Easy. All writers should strive to be the best they can be. I’m not going to get at writers who want to be the best Bigfoot Erotica writers they can be, just like I’m not going to get at writers that want to change the world or make social comment with ground-breaking litrary fiction. I am neither, but I still want to be the best I can be at what I do and I would hope that if someone didn’t enjoy my book, they would do the sensible thing and put it aside and find something else.

    Life’s too short to set out debunking the things you don’t like in order to justify your opinion of yourself. It’s for more exciting and fulfilling to explore further the things you do like rather than tearing down the things you don’t.

    I have sidetracked a little but yes, you’re right: you can’t say literature is elitist: if you’re feeling challenged or talked down to by a book, either decide you want to learn and get up/around/toward that level, or, if not (you don’t have to) just put it down.


    • Kevin Brennan
      February 21, 2014

      There does seem to be an instinct these days to land a blow for your own cause (or opinion), at the cost of belittling something else. But you’re right: like with the telly, we can all just ignore stuff we don’t like rather than trashing it.

      I’m not about to belittle Bigfoot erotica. At least not till I’ve read some!

      • J. S. Collyer
        February 21, 2014

        I wonder if there are conventions…

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 21, 2014

        Now, that’s one I might consider attending. Out of professional curiosity, mind you.

      • J. S. Collyer
        February 21, 2014


      • J. S. Collyer
        February 21, 2014

        BYOF (bring your own feet)

  2. 1WriteWay
    February 21, 2014

    Really, Kevin, you are so on the fence about so many things these days. You need to come out of your shell 😉
    Of course, I thoroughly agree with you. I always thought that reading literature was one of the best ways to IMPROVE my vocabulary. I’m not ashamed to admit that sometimes I would read with a dictionary nearby; or I would try to figure out a word’s meaning through its context. How’s that for elitist?
    If a reader has a problem with the “elitist” level of language in any given adult book, then perhaps that reader should stick to books similar to those written by the Fox News team.
    By the way, my husband loves the word “crepuscular.” He uses it to describe clouds, our cats. My favorite word du jour is “obfuscate.”

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 21, 2014

      Yes, my wishy-washyness is getting to be problem! 😉

      What kills me is that the reader who started all this was complaining about something he read in the Paris Review, for godsakes! It’s, what, just the most esteemed literary journal in the US. Yet he was surprised to encounter a big word there. Serenity now!

      I’m one for using lots of good old Anglo-Saxon words in my writing, but sometimes you need a little something extra — like chili pepper flakes in spaghetti sauce.

      • 1WriteWay
        February 22, 2014

        Indeed. A good writer understands the thrill of an unusual or uncommon but appropriate word thrown in with a pool of good old Anglo-Saxon. Funny, this discussion reminds me of my grad school days and the frustration that many of us had with postmodern literary theory. Talk about obfuscation 😉

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 23, 2014

        Yes, I’ve been very happy ignoring literary theory all these years… What little I’ve read of it spoiled my enjoyment of “texts” more than enhancing it.

      • 1WriteWay
        February 23, 2014

        Some time ago I pulled out a paper I wrote that was supposed to be the first chapter for my master’s thesis. We’re talking roughly 22 years ago when I wrote it. I actually got an English Department award for it. I was (trying) to write about Virginia Woolf and biography and whether (I think) a writer’s biography would/should influence our reading of the writer’s text. Cue literary theory. I couldn’t read my own paper in it’s entirety. It seemed so convoluted, so redundant, so … boring.
        The thing is, I was faking it. I did have a strong belief that a writer’s biography should not be used to interpret their text, but I was stuck writing about it in a way that was not sustainable. Long story, but I wound up dropping the thesis and taking the comp exams instead. Cue one of my regrets, except it’s not that I wish I had finished the thesis. Rather, I wish I had done a creative writing thesis. Maybe 😉

      • Kevin Brennan
        February 24, 2014

        It’s always a mistake to “pull out old papers.” That reminds me — I have some shredding to do!

        Ain’t it a shame that academia teaches innocent students to fake it?

      • 1WriteWay
        February 24, 2014

        Indeed, but I did have some very good, constructive experiences when I was there. It’s just most of that support came from other students.
        I was going to say that I still cannot shred my old papers, but that seems so narcissistic. Really, if I cringe whenever I read a paper from my grad days, then I probably don’t need to keep it around 😉

  3. Dylan Hearn
    February 21, 2014

    I agree with you up to a point. It may be semantics (to the classic transatlantic mistranslation) but literature to me isn’t elitist. However, literary fiction – the highest form of literature – is and should be elitist. If I use the analogy of music, music itself is not elitist but avant-guard contemporary classical music most certainly is. Literary fiction aims to push the boundaries of the literary art form by – as you stated – using any and all of the tools in its creator’s kit.
    I write genre fiction because it is what I love. I do not profess it is literary fiction, nor do I have aspirations to write literary fiction, however I do admire those who do (in the same way as many pop musicians admire Steve Reich and Philip Glass).
    I believe you can defend an art form without denigrating another. If people like pulp fiction because they are reading as a form of escapism, then good for them. If people read chic-lit because it helps them go to sleep at night, then good for them. And if people read literary fiction because they want to be challenged to think differently about language and existence, and possible expand their vocabulary, then good for them. At least they are reading.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 21, 2014

      Couldn’t have said it better myself, Dylan. Thanks for extending the logic.

      It really is a matter of “whatever floats your boat,” and yet I detect this need to lash out in many people. But as Jex says above, if you don’t like the big words in what you’re reading, put it aside and move on to something more palatable (or tasty, if you prefer…).

  4. sknicholls
    February 21, 2014

    Being a professional student, I love the challenge of reading more complex literature. I can’t deny having to take out the Thesaurus or Dictionary to get through some of it, but that’s what makes it fun to read, intellectually stimulating. Here is a NYTs article relating a study of how literary fiction benefits our brains (and doesn’t give us tooth decay):

  5. sknicholls
    February 21, 2014

    Oops, wasn’t finished…it speaks to the improvement of our social skills through things like empathy.

  6. ericjbaker
    February 21, 2014

    It depends on the writing voice one uses, as well as the rhythm of the sentence. I tend to write in a direct, plain voice and stick with common words in most cases, because it would sound pretentious to plunk big words in the middle of a bar fight. It has nothing to do with my perception of the reader’s erudition and everything to do with the settings, scenarios, and characters. But I write in a style that feels right for me. If “crepuscular” suits your story, bring it on.

    • Kevin Brennan
      February 21, 2014

      You’re absolutely right. The demands of the story are key. Of course, in a story told in a plain and direct way there could be a character who likes using big-ass words. That could be the best of both worlds!

  7. Kevin Brennan
    May 28, 2017

    Reblogged this on WHAT THE HELL and commented:

    I notice this older post has been getting a lot of hits lately. Who knows why, but the theme is still relevant. Art is hard, somebody said …

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This entry was posted on February 21, 2014 by in Publishing, Writing and tagged , , , , .
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