Monday, January 9, 2012

The Distinction Between Literary and Other Fiction

I was talking with Todd some time ago (and again more recently) about the author Stephen King.  I had, at the time, made a dumbheaded remark about how I would never read Stephen King because he was too popular (read: pop) and therefore not literary enough for my tastes (ohhhh so high brow).  Todd, rightfully so, let me have it at the time, saying regardless of my perception, I was missing out on some great writing.  And, truthfully speaking, it was for nothing other than King’s popularity (mass appeal) that I banished him from my own personal canon. 

Books are much different from “pop music”.  Reading a book (especially a King novel, given their average girth) takes an investment that cannot be equated to a 3 minute long auditory sampling one would give to a song.  Dismissing popular culture comes easy to me because of my musical tastes and my lack of interest in most popular music.  But the music method of judging a book by its author(‘s popularity) isn’t defendable.

I haven’t read much Stephen King yet, so I really cannot say whether I like his books or not.  But in rethinking this whole approach to books, I realize that, because books cannot be quickly assessed without a significant investment, popularity isn’t a good way to determine what has literary merit and what does not.  For example, some of my favorite modern day authors are some of the most popular and best-selling writers out there (e.g. Mitchell, Marukami).  Even more poignant in the “stands the test of time” aspect is the fact that most of the writers I cherish who are from another time in history were quite popular in their day (e.g. Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Huxley).

I would say, too, that with age comes the ability to appreciate works of fiction for what they have to offer, rather than to hold them up to some ideal of what I consider to be a great work of literary art.  I’m not ashamed to say I like Bukowski because the enjoyment I get from a Bukowski novel is surely as impactful to my life as the great existential thoughts Hesse has triggered, even if only in practical/applicable terms. 

That said I do need to get some value out of a novel to consider it worth my investment.  And this makes it very hard for me to start a book by an unknown author.  So I’m curious…  what do YOU think makes a book valuable as a reader?  How do YOU pick new authors to read?

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  1. I think most, if not all, great authors have something to offer in addition to storytelling ability. For example, they may offer philosophy (Hesse), social critique (Huxley), psychological insight (Dostoyevsky), or a new aesthetic sensibility. Which of these things is most important? That's for you to decide - there are schools of literary critics line up on each each side.

    But if I ask people about an author, and the only thing that they can offer is that the author is a great storyteller, then I tend to be suspicious about whether that author is worth my time.

  2. Should there be a distinction? I'm not just being glib, but while in general I agree with Joel, I also think that there's nothing wrong with just letting a book entertain you. I get almost as much out of a book that entertains me and allows me to escape my life for a while as I do a book that thinks the deep thoughts - I just might not go back to the latter as much as I do the former. Certainly, a lot of Stephen King falls into the "entertainment" category, although I would argue that some of his better works augment his basic horror/fantasy skills with something deeper – and I think I'll have to type up a post about this shortly.

    Regardless, when I choose a new book to read, I typically take the following things into account: Author, subject matter, positive reviews by friends or in the press, blurbs by authors that I like, reputation (has it survived the test of time). Why these criteria? Mainly because of your valid point on the time commitment as a barrier to entry. As I get older and have less free time, managing my reading list has become problematic - there's always more than I want to read than I have time for. So I have to rely on gatekeepers to help me winnow down the list. I'm positive that this means that i'm missing out on good books, but I just don't have time for the alternative these days.