Friday, April 14, 2017

What Is Literature?



(1) writings in prose or verse

(2) written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit

Origin - late Middle English (in the sense ‘knowledge of books’): via French from Latin litteratura, from littera (see letter).

For some reason, the difference between literature considered worthwhile and literature not considered worthwhile has been making the social media rounds over the last couple of days.

First, the magazine Bon Appétit made the mistake of posting this tweet on Twitter:

Nothing like insulting all us romance writers and readers who cook. And really, Bon Appétit? Slut shaming? After how many millions of people read Fifty Shades of Gray openly and publicly with the ORIGINAL COVER!

Bon Appétit has since changed the post:

Say it with yet again, ladies and gentlemen: THE INTERNET IS FOREVER!

Hybrid writer Bob Mayer then blogged about an NYT opinion piece that debated whether elitism or populism is more harmful to the arts. After reading the piece, I have to agree with Bob. The initial premise is like asking which smells worse: dog farts or cat farts.

And yesterday morning, Kris Rusch talked about the same issue in her weekly business blog. Ms. Rusch compared the indie revolution with the post-WWII increase in paperback publishers. The question she proposed: was there such a thing as a "good" book or a "bad" book?

To answer Ms. Rusch's  question: no, I don't think there's any such thing as a "good" or "bad" book. Oh, sure, there may be a difference between technically good or bad writing.

For example, look at how Yoda talks in the Star Wars. Standard English generally follows the subject-verb-object rule. Yet, Yoda's speech pattern generally uses object-subject-verb order.

Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.

Now if everyone in Star Wars spoke like Yoda, the writer can be properly castigated for abusing the English language, i.e. bad writing. However, Yoda's speech pattern emphasizes his alien-ness. This isn't a guy who thinks like the rest of us, so it's actually an example of good writing. The writer breaks the rules on purpose to create a specific effect in the consumer.

But when someone breaks down stories, or in this case books, into "good" and "bad" categories, it comes from their desire for power and control.

The actually reasons for desiring this control vary. The Bon Appétit issue stems from "good" girls cook for their men, whereas "bad" girls read smutty books, i.e. the desire to control female sexuality.

Trad publishers have lost a great deal of control in the industry. They are losing a ton of money for three reasons:

1) some writers who were trad published no longer submit manuscripts to them and are making money by going indie,
2) some writers have never submitted to them, and
3) some writers submitting to them haven't reached the technical proficiency need yet.

As a result, trad publishers claim that indie books aren't quality because they haven't been properly vetted.

Since the same corporations that own the big trad publishers also own the newspapers and magazines that do a lot of reviewing, things like the opinion piece in the NYT get published in order to shame readers into reading the "good" books, i.e. the same books our co-workers are publishing.

And then there's the moral police, screaming "Think of the children!"

My feeling is if you really want kids to read, give them something that interests them. I learned to read thanks to Dr. Seuss and Stan Lee. How many of moral police would be screaming about what a bad example the Cat in the Hat would be?

However, I would counter that Spider-man's "With great power comes great responsibility" would trump any bad cat influence I suffered.

Deep down though, the people who want to control what you read really want to control how you think.

Don't let them!

(And I'd be the first one to tell you to read Fifty Shades of Gray as many times as you want. )


  1. Is there something in the water this week...? [sigh] I'll be very happy when we're all past this literature-good-genre-bad, and tradpub-good-indie-bad, and nonfiction-good-romance-bad and whatever all other crap people are still harping on. [sigh]


    1. I'm wondering myself. It's getting pretty fucking old. Ironically, the "classics" I love were considered the crap writers of their times, guys like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Twain. LOL

    2. Seriously. :P No one in the literary establishment ever seems to point out that the lions of the English Literary Canon were reviled and trashed by the literary establishment of their day. [huge freaking eyeroll] So... yeah, I really give no damns about what the literary establishment has to say about anything. [shrug]