There has been a debate raging over at a well known agent's blog. If you're aware of the agent, then you're probably aware of the debate, and you're probably as bemused as I am. The discussion branched from a post about an American university press, and its view of literary agents.
One particular commenter has been arguing that literary agents by and large have a negative effect on the publishing industry, that they are motivated by greed to the exclusion of literary merit, and that university presses should be kept free of their influence. I was tempted to weigh in to the debate, but I am wary of entering into discussion with someone whose mental health I have cause to doubt.
The individual in question is deeply arrogant. And like most deeply arrogant people, he is also a fool. He has a greatly inflated sense of his ability as a writer, but a seemingly low level of self-awareness. What's more, he seems unable to absorb or comprehend the points others make to him.
Now, the Internet is not short on people who are unable to distinguish opinion from fact. One need only read a few posts on the average web forum to find many who are unable to conceive of a world beyond their own experience, despite the vast ocean of information available to them. They can usually be identified by the belief that the phrases "Period", "End of story", or "Nuff said" render all counter arguments invalid. Or they may use that invincible trump card against anyone who has been a member of a community for five minutes less than them, and call them "n00b" (note the use of zeroes, there).
The only thing more insufferable than that kind of wilfully obtuse belligerence is when it is coupled with intellectual superciliousness (that's right, I'm bringing out the big words). And if that superciliousness can't even be backed up by some sign of real intelligence, then is there any point even trying to discuss anything with such a person?
Anyway, I digress. The point of my rant is not to decry the commenter in question, but rather to argue against the basics of his position. I'll take a bit of a liberty and sum up his argument: literary merit and commercial appeal are mutually exclusive. If a piece of work can appeal to a broad audience, it is inherently lacking in quality. True quality will always have limited appeal because it can only be appreciated by those few with the cerebral capacity to do so. Okay, I'm putting words in the guy's mouth here, but it's my blog, and I can do what I want.
That position is so easy to disprove, I almost feel bad doing it. While there are many, many bestselling books that we as readers of discriminating taste know to be of questionable quality, there are also many well-crafted, smart, surprising books that have flown off the shelves and made their authors household names. James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy spring immediately to mind from my own bookshelf, and I believe the likes of Ian McEwan and Richard Russo do pretty well for themselves. That's four without even trying. There are also plenty more overtly commercial writers whose work easily stands up to any tyre kicking: John Connolly's prose and vivid description are as good as any in the Literary genre, John Le Carre's characterisation is melded to wonderfully dense plotting that exercises the brain as well as the pulse, and Thomas Harris (when he could be arsed) created some of the most haunting gothic horror of the late twentieth century.
When it comes right down to it, when we look at the cold and hard realities of fiction, Literary is just another genre, alongside crime, horror and romance. The halls of academia may have historically favoured one of those genres above all others, but academia has never been even-handed when addressing the arts. When I studied music at grammar school, the exam boards would only give a begrudging nod to The Beatles, and when I went to college to enrol in one of the UK's first popular music degrees, jazz was the favoured genre, not your plebeian pop or rock. Does that render Led Zeppelin invalid? Was Joni Mitchell's career intellectually inferior because she sold too many records? When the Sex Pistols fired a warning shot across the music industry's bow, was it an uncouth racket for the great unwashed, or was it a visceral explosion of heart and anger captured in twelve songs?
To cut oneself off from whole sections of a bookstore or library, purely out of intellectual vanity, is an absurd thing to do. To argue that quality and entertainment can't appear in the same sentence is nonsense.
But here's where I'm going to get a little controversial: we who find our home in the more commercial areas of fiction are often just as guilty of snobbery as the ivory tower dwelling hoity-toits we so love to have a pop at. Particularly among crime writers, there can occasionally be a certain amount of reverse snobbery in evidence. I am guilty of this, too. If you dig back you'll find a post from my now famous (at least in my house) Dinologue period where I rattle off a list of literary tropes that turn me off. God save us from middle-class navel gazing, was the gist of it. And I'll stand by that post, but I'll fully admit it was fuelled as much by a sort of literary class resentment as it was by a desire to talk up my own chosen genre.
And even more questionable is how quick we are to look down our noses at those we consider to have sold out, or are beneath our Ellroy and Leonard-honed sensibilities. Several big name authors have been dismissed while I've been in conversation with other crime writers, and I have joined in the booing and hissing. Our tower may not be ivory, but we're still not above feeling a little superiority to others.
Perhaps there's only one conclusion to be drawn from all this: we shouldn't take ourselves so bloody seriously.
Labels: blogs, I don't know what I'm talking about, publishing, The Conduit Lectures