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November 2012

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Criticism vs. Snobbery


My reaction to this post: (read first, this will still be here when you come back...)

I'm with you. But it isn't the criticisms of the authors I find disturbing; it is the criticism of their audience.

Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer may not be to my taste, but millions of readers enjoy their books. Are all of them stupid? I think not. When people make statements indicating that these books -- and their readers -- are stupid it only highlights their own arrogance. I understand that the readers who enjoy these authors simply have different taste than me. Not everyone loves wading through James Joyce or Faulkner. This is understandable. Taste is subjective.

And everyone has their own guilty pleasures. My wife absolutely loves Stephanie Meyer; I enjoy reading ridiculous pulp horror and sci-fi novels. These types of novels serves the same purpose in many ways -- the same purpose as a Hollywood action movie -- sometimes you just need an escape. My wife thinks some of the books I read are ridiculous, and she's absolutely right! But that doesn't mean they aren't fun to read.

The simple fact is that Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer wrote accessible books that led readers to turn the pages regardless of how much "literature" they have been exposed to previously. They could be considered gateway books for many young and inexperienced readers which is a great thing. That people still read anything at all in this day of so many electronic distractions is a wonderful thing from my perspective. Who knows? Maybe someone who enjoyed Dan Brown could go on and find Umberto Eco (who's been writing about a lot of the same historical controversies from a more academic/literary point of view for years). That would not be a bad thing.

There are so many examples of authors who write accessible books. Some get blasted for it while others are praised. For example: Dean Koontz. His books are much the same -- short chapters, short paragraphs, easy to digest sentences, and a basic formula (and his formula works, at least for his readers). Louis Lamour's westerns are much the same. In some ways these best-selling popular authors are kind of like the punk rock bands I used to listen to in the eighties and nineties. During that timeframe in punk rock every song put out by a particular band would often sound the same. To be successful, the band just needed to be sure that if every song sounded the same they picked a great song (take the Ramones or The Dead Milkmen, for example).

I think it is fine to put out honest criticism. In fact, it should be encouraged! But "Anyone who likes this is stupid" is not honest criticism. Being critical of the readers is not really a critic's job -- they should be critiquing the work, not the audience. That's where many critics seem to fail these days, in my opinion. I see this in film reviews. A working film critic may see hundreds of movies a year. Their taste will be a little different, and most likely be more demanding, than the person who watches maybe a movie a week.

And honestly, Twilight and The Da Vinci Code were not put out as "serious" novels to be taken critically. If they are fun to read, then they've done their job. They are the equivalent of Hollywood blockbusters. These books are not intended to be the literary equivalent of one of those quiet little character-driven films probably starring Kate Winslet with great cinematography coming out just before Oscar season.

It's funny -- and more than a little sad -- how the harshest criticisms of Brown and Meyer that I read always seem to come from struggling authors. If they feel that what these best-selling novelists did is so easy, so simple, why don't they try to learn from the authors and find a way to recreate that success? I fear much has to do with jealousy more than honest criticism (not that there aren't things you can honestly be critical of in those novels -- see Berry's comments on "looking at each other" for example). But then again, young girls do make a big to-do over secret glances and that sort of thing. Maybe she is just speaking a specific language that I'm kind of deaf to as a married guy in his thirties. Berry and I are probably not her intended audience.

Sorry to ramble, but this has been on my mind a lot lately. I kind of take the criticisms of Twilight's audience personally because my wife, my sisters, my cousins, my aunts, coworkers, and even my mother (who never reads speculative ficton) all love Meyer's books. When someone says these books or their readers are stupid you're talking about my family. And they aren't stupid. They're nurses, business owners, teachers, and professionals with advanced acedemic degrees. 
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I explained it to my 21-yr-old nephew this way.

Meyer and Brown are like Taco Bell and McDonald's (assign as you wish.) They are not fine dining, but millions of people eat there anyway.

And I eat there on occasion, too.
That's a great analogy.
Thanks ;o)
Exactly.

For a long time, EVERYTHING I wrote was using an expiremental narrative of some form. This can be great when well done, but my earlier work was, well, not very well done (or at least not easily understood by anyone outside of my own head).

Then I said to myself, "Self, what's the point of writing if no one understands your work? What's the point of writing if no one reads your work?" And from that day forward I began working with more traditional narratives structure in my fiction. It wasn't long afterwards that stuff actually began to sell. I still enjoy playing with words, using unconventional narrators, and playing with different points of view and structures, but I've learned it is more effective if I am doing these things in an accessible way. Or at least, that's what I try to do.

Take Vonnegut for example, he was ground-breaking and unconventional in many ways. Yet, everything he wrote is clear, concise, and easy to understand.
Amen.
Doh! I went ahead and replied to your entry in its comment form on Jon's LJ entry.

You make some great points, man.

And to put a twist on this whole thing, have you ever run into the reverse argument? In other words, why read the classics or some such? I've had family and friends and even some fellow educators flat out ask me why I "read all that old, difficult stuff" or simply "Why do you read so much?" Wow. It's really hard from me to respond diplomatically, but I usually bite my tongue, grit my teeth, and do it anyhow.

And rhetorical I often toss in "Why aren't *you* reading?"
"Have you ever run into the reverse argument?"

All the time. Even among family and friends.

Then again, in the mostly rural area where I grew up I could probably count on my hands the number of guys in my graduating class who actually read anything beyond what was assigned to them. And only a minority of those would dare to admit they read for fun.

I simply don't let it get to me that others don't enjoy the classics.

I sincerely believe in the theory of multiple intelligences. Just because Jack doesn't read the classics doesn't mean that Jack is a dope. We're all different and we all have our own skills/talents/knowledge to provide and keep society running. Without our diversity, society would crumble.
agreed, I personally don't like Cecillia Dart-Thornton's work - she remains the only author who's book I never bothered to finish, but I am equally quick to add that what annoyed me about her work doesn't matter to her fans. I even admit to friendship with CDT fans. *g*

And I'd love to write a book that captured a quarter of the audience that Brown and Meyers have.
"And I'd love to write a book that captured a quarter of the audience that Brown and Meyers have."

You and me both! (Not to mention 99% of LiveJournal users.) :)
Precisely. I have never read the Twilight books, I have read Dan Brown. I've read them, unable to put them down, enjoying what I've read, all the while the voice in my head clucking "not this old chestnut. again."

I think writers, while concentrating on all we know of good writing, forget that element called style. It's an author's ability to use words wisely to pace a story, to pull the reader into the work and pull them to the end. It's what makes a best-seller.

Sidebar: We often forget that "literature" is not always about the writing, it's sometimes about the historical social significance of the work.
"We often forget that "literature" is not always about the writing, it's sometimes about the historical social significance of the work."

Very true. How many works of what we consider "classic" literature was nothing more than the equivalent of pulp ficiton a few hundred years ago? Take Alexander Dumas, for example. While an amazing author and gifted storyteller, many of his works are really not too far removed from today's pulp romances/adventures. This is perhaps a major reason he continues to be popular even today.

Thanks for the thoughtful response.

While I don't watch him as much as I did as a kid, Godzilla rocks! My dad and I used to love watching Godzilla marathons when they used to come on back in the days when we lived in the boonies and only had two or sometimes three fuzzy stations to choose from, depending on cloud cover.
Yes, yes, and yes.
I replied to Jon's original post this morning. This kind of senseless bashing is really bad for the industry. People have the right to like what they like for whatever reason, and we are in desperate need of more readers and more books that readers enjoy, not less. It seems like the goal of some people is to make reading into a "club" for a few selected elite. I give them my patented one-finger salute!
"It seems like the goal of some people is to make reading into a "club" for a few selected elite. I give them my patented one-finger salute!"


Is that one finger your pinkey finger by any chance? :P

I think these may be some of the same people that start teaching creative writing classes by saying "Though shalt not write science fiction, fantasy, or horror." Because we all know there's nothing "creative" about those genres, after all!
Bashing of authors and audiences is wrong, for the reasons given. I have guilty pleasures, which include some of the same types of books (e.g., Charlaine Harris'). That said, authors of this kind of book, no less than other authors, have the responsibility to avoid plot holes, errors of fact, verbosity, and just plain bad grammar. Some authors achieve success and feel they no longer have to pay attention to this kind of mundane stuff, or they never did. This is a source of legitimate criticism. I want my favorite authors of pulp fiction & its modern equivalent do the best they can. Well-written "trash" is more fun to read.
I'm in agreement. I prefer "well-written 'trash'" as well. I can put up (in fact, I almost expect) an occassional typo, but if it is endemic to the work there's a problem. If I find an incorrect word usage or spelling error in every paragraph it will throw me out of the story, and I'll put down the book.

Logic errors can be fun to find at times in some books. No names, but, there have been popular books my wife and I have passed back and forth and laughed at while reading passages. Kind of the equivalent of MST3K with books.
Others may disagree, but I think the only work a writer has the right to ridicule is his or her own, which as you know, I often do ;)

Thanks for the link :)
Regarding the link -- No problem. Thanks for giving me something to write about!
I actually feel for the author more than their fans. Most of the fans will never learn that they are being sneered at (are the millions who buy Mr. Brown's books really going to be reading a literature site? Some might, as you say, but most won't!).

Attacking a succesful author seems idiotic to me. One needs to learn from other's success, not be transparently jealous.