Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Some Thoughts on Literary Snobbery, Part Two

As I explained in my first post on literary snobbery, a literary snob is someone who has very picky tastes in reading materials and their own definition of what makes something “high quality literature.” Literature snobs prefer novels that they believe are either old enough to be “respectable,” or inventive/ challenging enough to be fairly obscure. Many literary snobs, myself included, can have a very elitist mentality that often keeps us from reading some very entertaining books, and so generally I consider literary snobbery to be a negative thing. But let me offer some (more) thoughts on both the pros and cons of being a literary snob:

(Opinions#1-5 are to be found in my first post.)

Opinion #6: One positive aspect of being a literary snob is that many of us understand that genre is not a description or a declaration of quality, and so therefore we don’t tend to let genre preferences dictate our reading habits as often as other readers. A genre is a category (of books, movies, music, etc.) that is defined by elements of style, form and content. In other words, genre is a short-hand way of describing something so that we can understand and discuss some of its basic characteristics. A statement about genre shouldn’t be a value judgment – and this is where many literary snobs fall short. As I mentioned in my earlier post, most literary snobs place genre authors and novels at the very bottom of the culture junk heap; they tend to be very dismissive of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, etc. Not all Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels are the same, though – those serialized novels that reiterate the same basic storyline over and over again are not the same as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or the work of Orson Scott Card. (Side note: I plan to post more specifically on the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres at a later date, so check back for more Thoughts on Literature postings.)

Once you realize that genre is not a value judgment and should not be used as an assessment tool, it opens up a lot of new horizons. This isn’t to say that you should feel obligated to like all kinds of literature – maybe you will always prefer stories about witches and wizards, unicorns and time travel, dystopian words, or Medieval lords and ladies simply because you enjoy the flavor that these elements lend to a story. But you might discover other artists whose lyrical prose you enjoy, despite the fact that they’re writing about much more mundane experiences. You might find a novel or two about the Revolutionary War that you find entertaining – and learn more about yourself through this process of discovery.

The important thing is that you shouldn’t feel bound by genre. It has even really started to bug me when people want to peg my reading (and viewing) interests by genre. I get the line, “Oh, you wrote your Master’s Thesis on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter? Have I got a Fantasy/Sci-Fi novel for you…” When they say something like that, they’re making the assumption that the primary reason(s) that I like those two series have to do with the Fantasy elements, when in reality, I chose to write about those two series in terms of how the adolescents in both deal with the death of their parents and other parental figures. I was interested in the emotional portrayals of the adolescents set within fantasy worlds, so FYI – I am not indiscriminately drawn to all Fantasy Literature. I like complex metaphors and well-developed adolescent characters, which are ultimately two of the most important qualities that Buffy and Harry share.

Opinion #7: Despite the fact that many literary snobs have a bias against genres, many of us have a secret guilty pleasure hidden on the back of our bookshelf, and this is why we shouldn’t judge other people’s reading habits. Come on, admit it. Some of us like comic books, but we tell ourselves that they are “graphic novels” so that we feel better about reading something with pictures and stilted dialog. And a lot of us (myself included) like Twilight – we literary snobs need to have a coming out party for this one. But even though I admit to liking Stephanie Meyer’s famous, notorious, fabulous vampire love triangle novels, I’m able to maintain my literary snobbery by quoting Meyer herself, who admits that she is not “a good writer,” but instead is a “good storyteller.” And I agree – her prose is pretty flaccid most of the time, but she can really create some interesting characters and intricate plot lines. No matter whether or not we can find a way of justifying the pop-literature we enjoy, though, we would do well to remember that Charles Dickens was first published in serialized form and was also considered to be pop culture fodder. We should stop worrying about our own tastes, stop looking down our noses at what other people enjoy reading, and just enjoy ourselves.

Opinion #8: This is more of a hint, rather than a opinion. If you’re a literary snob who just can’t bring yourself to come out of the closet about your Twilight obsession (or something similar), but you want to carry your guilty pleasure pop book with you on the bus, I’ve found the perfect solution for this embarrassment. Buy the book(s) in hardback and simply remove the dust jacket. That way, as long as your hand is over the spine, no one will really pay much attention to what you’re reading because it will have a blank cover…

Opinion #9: This is another admonishment regarding the literary snob’s ability to just enjoy books, no matter what the genre/subject. If you’re not a literary snob, you should know that there is a certain amount of pressure amongst the snobs to love the classics. “You haven’t read Proust?? You don’t like Milton??!” Some snobs enjoy works such as Dante’s Inferno with an excitement that borders on zealotry, whereas other literary snobs simply feel like they ought to enjoy all the classics and so spend time trying very hard to find something entertaining about Proust, Milton and Dante. We snobs need to liberate ourselves, which involves not only admitting to some low-brow tastes, but admitting when we don’t enjoy the high-brow stuff. So here’s my confession: I’ve yet to read Proust, but I don’t like Shakespeare’s history plays, I didn’t enjoy Milton’s Paradise Lost, and I totally missed the point of Dante’s Inferno... maybe the video game would be better. I’m told that if I read the rest of The Divine Comedy, it would make all the difference – but honestly, I just don’t care. Although Inferno may appeal to fans of horror literature, investigating the different levels of hell just didn’t do it for me. But just so that I can still feel like an elitist, let me remind everyone that I love love LOVE Virginia Woolf, in all her lyrical obscurity.

Since this has already become quite a long post, I’m going to save my last Opinion Statement about Literary Snobbery for another day – so stay tuned for my thoughts on literary snobs and the film versions of novels.


  1. Oh, geez. I agree with so many of these points. I read a LOT, and you wouldn't believe how people look at me when I happen to mention I don't like Jane Austen. I've read three of her novels, one of them twice and just couldn't bring myself to finish Emma for the second time. I just don't like it. I appreciate the value, and I can see positive attributes that others enjoy, but she's just not for me.

    Yet everybody thinks female+reader=Jane Austen fan. So annoying.

    Let me like what I like, and dislike what I dislike, and I'll do the same for you, eh?

  2. I've really enjoyed reading your opinions. My experience with the classics is limited to Dickens, the Brontes, Shakespeare, and Austen. I really have no interest in Milton, etc. My classic authors are Alcott, Wilder, Grahame, MacDonald...and I think that I could be considered a children's literature snob of sorts.

  3. @Gina: It's funny, because I love Austen... but I can understand that not everyone enjoys the same things, so it's forgivable that you don't. I really respect the fact that you have her novels a real try, though. Some people will give up after a few pages, when sometimes it takes a while to sort of break yourself in to a new type of literature that you end up liking in the end. It sounds like you gave it enough of a go with Austen to figure out whether or not you wanted to develop the taste for her type of writing...

    @Kathy: yeah, I'm both a literature snob and a Children's literature snob. I'm trying to push myself to try new things that don't have a Newbery Honor slapped on the cover, though... and I may even break into the realm of Paranormal YA Fiction one of these days...

  4. "We should stop worrying about our own tastes, stop looking down our noses at what other people enjoy reading, and just enjoy ourselves."

    That's all you needed to write.


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