Literary Snobbery is defined as having very particular, selective tastes in reading materials, favoring the classics. Literature snobs prefer books that they believe are either old enough to be respectable or inventive/challenging enough to be fairly obscure. They define these types of novels “high quality,” while turning up their noses at other books that they do not deem to be worthy of the title “literature.” Most literary snobs place genre authors and novels in particular at the very bottom of the culture junk heap.
I myself was a literary snob to a certain extent long before I entered the somewhat stuck-up world of academia to earn my Master’s in Literature. I believe that I even broadened my tastes and horizons because of the courses that I took during the course of my program, despite the general snobbery of academia and certain people in my department. I’m trying to over-come my snobbery to a certain extent: I want to learn more about genre fiction, including the roots of Science Fiction and Horror Literature. (Note: Dracula is an awesome novel.) But I have to admit that I’m content to remain a snob when it comes to Romance novels, especially the kind that you find in the grocery check-out aisle.
Opinion #1: Every literary snob has his or her own definition of “high quality literature,” thank you very much, and it can actually be quite interesting to learn about their criteria. Certain snobby academics will only read Aristotle, Plato and Homer, while others are more broad-minded – they only turn up their noses at anything published after the Romantic Period. Most literary snobs tend to disdain contemporary authors, although some snobs make exceptions for modern authors who write intellectually challenging and/or depressing books. Snobs definitely reject authors like Steven King and Stephanie Meyer, though – and notice that both King and Meyer are largely genre authors. My own brand of snobbery involves all forms of media – I’m a huge proponent of labeling Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse and other series created by Joss Whedon “Quality Television” and I’m a fan of the very witty Douglas Adams, both of which would make many academics roll their eyes. Yet I have plenty of books, movies and television shows that I look down upon myself, if I’m honest.
Opinion #2: You can genuinely enjoy a classic novel, and many people do. But it’s also perfectly acceptable to simply appreciate a classic, without enjoying it as much as your favorite Harry Potter novel. Sometimes appreciation for a novel comes from an understanding of how a work was influential and contributed to the evolution of a particular genre, philosophy or movement. Sometimes you can even find something fascinating in the same way that a train wreck or a natural disaster can be fascinating to watch. Humans have a morbid sense of curiosity and an appetite for dramatic catastrophe – that was what kept me reading Wuthering Heights, for example. I really didn’t understand how/why so many readers have loved Cathy and Heathcliff throughout the ages, declaring them to be one of the most romantic couples of all time, but once I started reading, I was interested to see what happened. I think Bronte’s novel is more fascinating as a depiction of cruelty and mental illness (as opposed to a romance) and I’m glad that I read it – but I can’t exactly say I enjoyed it.
Opinion #3: “Bad” (i.e. badly written) literature isn’t bad for you. Plenty of kids, myself included, have grown up reading a steady diet of Sweet Valley Twins novels, Seventeen Magazine, and other such junk. I still became a Virginia Woolf-loving literature snob when I grew up, so clearly a person's reading habits will evolve. That’s the genius of the Captain Underpants novels by Dav Pilkey, in fact. I really believe that if you get little boys excited about reading by giving them books about wedgies, boogers and alien spaceships, they are still much more likely to love James Joyce when they get older than if they never learn to enjoy reading at all. As adults, we may or may not choose to leave the "junk" reading behind, but we'll probably expand our tastes past novels about boyfriends and boogers.
Opinion #4: Even though it’s perfectly fine to enjoy “bad” literature, there is a difference between loving a book because it’s well-written, loving a book because it’s entertaining, and loving a book for nostalgic reasons – and we ought to be able to tell the difference. Academia sings the praises of wordsmiths such as Jane Austen and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but I must admit that I sometimes enjoy my Nancy Drews just as much as my Austen novels. Both have female characters that are strong and empowered in terms of their contexts, and there is something that makes me a little bit giddy when I read about these feisty women. But I know the difference between Austen’s prose – full of intelligent comments and witty repartee – and the text churned out by the anonymous authors employed by the Stratemyer Syndicate. I love the latter because Nancy was such an awesome role model when I was younger, but I'm not sure if I would love her quite as much if I was reading her for the first time as an adult (even an adult who admittedly loves Children's and YA Literature).
Opinion #5: Literary snobs may prefer the beautiful, weighty feel of an actual book in their hands, but that doesn’t mean that we should look down on the Kindle, the Nook and other e-book readers. These devices encourage a lot of people to read who wouldn’t be reading otherwise, so we should appreciate e-books for the same reasons that we should appreciate Captain Underpants. Anything that ignites and fosters a love of the written word is a good thing! Let’s cheer on the inventions that make reading more comfortable for others – as long as we can still get beautiful tomes for ourselves!
And for those of us who don’t think that we’d ever like to use an e-book reader, consider what at least one of my fellow book bloggers has pointed out: e-book readers make it a lot easier to read while eating, since you don’t have to try and hold open the book. It’s admittedly quite difficult to juggle a novel and a spoon or a sandwich, so this alone might be enough to convince me to buy a Kindle some day. For now though, I just surf the web while I’m eating – I usually find a solitary meal time to be ideal for catching up on other book blogs or surfing Amazon for something new to read.
This post attempts to answer the question and participate in the Weekly Geeks Challenge for the week of March 20, 2011 – although it evolved into a bit of a different monster. Stay tuned for Part Two, where I list my other five declarations on literary snobbery.