On Snobbery

Wednesday, October 01, 2008, 9:59 PM

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.

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Blogger Jamie Eyberg said...

Modestly brilliant. I tend to write in many genre, including literary, horror, science fiction and childrens, because I believe that a good story has no bounds.

Well said.

10:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TANGENT: While I'm sure you didn't mean to only give examples of men in literature, I am actually finding it difficult to come up with commercially successful intellectually sound female authors. Most, like Suzette Haden Elgin or Iris Murdoch, seem to be more academically slanted.

Any ideas? Atwood, of course. Toni Morrison. MAYBE (maybe) Geraldine Brooks or Barbara Kingsolver or Anita Diamant.

Now I'm trying to figure out what this says about marketing or about writing or whether I'm just - er, taking myself too bloody seriously.

11:08 PM  
Blogger cindy said...

i never understand disdain between different genres of writers. no matter what we choose to write, we work hard on it. nothing comes easy in writing--and you'd think a writer would be the first to understand. it doesn't matter if it's thriller or mystery or fantasy or literary.

getting an agent is also all about attitude. the self-righteous ones never get far.

1:27 AM  
Blogger ssas said...

I admit some disdain for the romance genre--those authors who pump out 50K words of drivel 8 times a year.

But then, they're making a whole hell of a lot more money than I am, so what do I know? Plus, some of them are my very good friends. :)

1:37 AM  
Blogger moonrat said...


dickens, twain, austen... all commercial writers. whether or not you think their work has literary merit, the establishment has chosen to keep them all on for awhile.

alas... having seen a lot (A LOT) of unpublishable manuscripts, i'm afraid to say that convincing oneself that one's work is "too literary" to be understood is a not uncommon method for dealing with disappointment.

2:30 AM  
Blogger Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Brilliant! 'Nuff said! ;o)

Ok now I am so curious but I really don't have time to find out more about this controversy as I am on a very tight revising schedule and I shouldn't even be here right now!

But separately, I just had to ask what you think about the pompous statements made by a certain permanent member of the Nobel panel about the mediocrity of American writers? Talk about shutting down an entire countries assets as commercial dribble! Made me quite mad, I tell you!!!

4:30 AM  
Blogger Chris Eldin said...

Just popped over to say hi.

I say that debate, but didn't want to jump in. As you say, it was too easy. Ditto everything you said.

As a children's book writer, we have to constantly fend off the misperception that writing for children is easy, or at least easier. It's akin to saying writing poetry is easy because it's short.

Anyway, great post.

And, "Hi."

8:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Terrific piece, Stuart, and you're quite right. Reading and enjoying a book shouldn't be a labour, and it shouldn't be a high falutin' highbrow exercise. There are more copies of Stephen King's book on my shelves as than that of Waugh or Banville, but so what? It doesn't lesson my enjoyment of any of them, nor does it make me feel sillier or smarter depending on which I read.
I don't really read romantic fiction, but as I said to someone recently, thousands do and enjoy those books for what they are, entertaining escapism. Why anyone would look down their noses at that is beyond me. What on earth could be better after a long day or a tough week than to open up a book and transport yourself away for a little while?
Snobbery is all its guises is an ugly thing to witness, and easy enough to fall foul of. I think we should give it a good solid kicking where ever we can.

And now, on an entirely different note, what news of your kitchen?
( yes I used an emoticon, but I feel shame, I really do)

12:07 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

Great post!

It is usually a waste of energy to argue a point that opposes the opinion of an arrogant person.

And I was about to make several serious comments about art and culture, but it comes down to this: T’was ever thus. Bigots and snobs will always be around, and human beings are incredibly tribal

7:30 PM  
Blogger Stuart Neville said...

Thanks to everyone for your comments. A few specific points to answer:

Aerin: Interesting you should pick up on that. After submitting the post, I realised I had listed all male authors. If I'm brutally honest with myself, I think it's more because of reader's sexism - that phenomenon where male readers prefer male writers, and female readers prefer female writers. I did a post last year on gender divides in reading patterns - search for gender and I'm sure you'll find it.

Ello: Generalisations like that are just lazy. While there are some cultural differences (for instance, I think the American publishing business thinks in stricter genre boxes), to put down a group of people on the basis of their nationality is no different than doing it on the basis of their religion or the colour of their skin.

Arlene: Great to see you here. My kitchen - well, over the weekend, lifted some stuff off the boxes of tiles. That's progress, isn't it? Isn't it?

12:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's certainly something ( I say that nodding sagely).


3:32 PM  
Blogger Merry Monteleone said...

Always late to the discussion, I am...

I did see that post, and kept stopping back because the twit was so irritating, probably his whole point. In your post, I looooved this line:

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).

The whole discussion reminds me of something one of my dear friends once said:

"Never argue with intellectuals. They wander around in prose for hours when a simple 'fuck off' would suffice."

I dislike the snobbery that says one thing is better than another, but moreso, the 'literary' elitists who really believe their work won't sell or won't sell well because they're too intelligent for the majority of the population... eeeeesh. There's just nothing to do with that frame of mind. I'm at a loss.

And I think Moonie is on to something, most times that mindset probably does come from too many rejections - just another defense mechanism, I guess.

The other thing I noticed with his argument - he wanted agented writers banned from submissions at all University run presses, but at the same time said that agented work was inferior... if he really believed it was inferior, why would it bother him that they'd be allowed to submit? If his premise was correct, no agented work would be selected anyway.

Nice post, Conduit.

2:41 PM  

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