On Labels Pertaining to Books and Bloggers
This past week, I’ve been musing more than usual on words like ‘literary’ and ‘classic’ and their various connotations. Before I began book blogging, I can’t say I’d really encountered the phrase ‘literary fiction’ before. I studied international relations and modern languages in college, without taking even one literature course, so I was never privy to English Department discussions. I read whatever I liked, and my fiction choices especially were made to please no one but myself; I never felt any pressure to read or not read books based on their ‘literary’ quality. I also hadn’t really noticed that some people looked down on ‘genre’ writing; my mom was a big fantasy and mystery fan, she passed that on to me, and my friends were similarly inclined. So I happily read a mix of fantasy, classics, mysteries, and contemporary stuff.
And then in the book blogosphere I noticed that people were talking about ‘literary fiction.’ At first, this seemed like a redundancy: after all, aren’t all books literary? As far as I could tell, ‘literary fiction’ was often used as another way to say ‘good quality stuff.’ But I also frequently saw it referred to almost as genre, in juxtaposition to those Other Genres, like mysteries, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, etc. This latter use vexed me quite a bit, because it seemed to imply that ‘genre writing’ was automatically not as good as ‘non-genre’ writing. To me, genres are categories, just another way we human beings indulge in our perennial desire to label everything. So there is incredible fantasy writing and formulaic fantasy writing, just as there is in ‘general’ fiction. Sometimes, I see readers take the best of the ‘genre’ authors and argue that they’re actually not genre but literary, because they’re so good. This just seems silly to me! Because if ‘literary’ as an adjective simply denotes ‘good writing,’ why is it limited by genre? Or by the age group the publisher decides to market to? The assumption that a book with YA slapped on it is automatically simpler or less well written than a book found in the ‘adult’ section strikes me as particularly perverse, since some books (e.g. The Book Thief) are marketed towards different age groups in different countries. Or by format? I’ve read graphic books that are as sophisticated and moving and thought-provoking as their non-graphic counterparts. Anyway, my point is that I’ve never had a really clear understanding of the word literary or its usefulness in discussing books. But then, as I was catching up with my Google Reader, I found various bloggers trying to define what ‘literary’ means as part of the brand-new Literary Blog Hop. Some of the definitions made more sense to me than others, but I still wasn’t convinced. Until I came across this passage in The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller:
If literary writing has any distinguishing characteristic, it’s that the more you look at it the more you see, and the more you see the more you want to go on looking. It invites a plurality of interpretation. “A genuine work of art must mean many things,” wrote George MacDonald, the Scottish writer whom Lewis regarded as his master. “The truer the art, the more things it will mean.”
I love this! It says nothing about genres or age groups and contains not a whiff of snobbery. Instead, it celebrates rich books, the kind I think of as ‘rereadable’ or the kind that, even if I didn’t really like them, at the end of the day I’m still happy to have read. I’ve come across this richness in a wide variety of places; it makes my soul sing or my brain kick into gear or prompts me to seek out other readers so I can talk about the book with them. I won’t say that all of my issues with the phrase ‘literary fiction’ have magically been resolved; I think different people use the phrase to mean different things, and some of those meanings I disagree strongly with. But Miller put into words a distinction I have certainly come across in my own reading, and one that I can see is important when readers/book bloggers are looking to connect with those of similar taste.
A couple of days ago, I discovered Amanda’s Classics Blogger Directory. I know: I’m really late to the game on this one! I scrolled through, reading what all the different bloggers had to say about their likes and dislikes, and which titles they’d listed as their favourites, in delight at finding others who enjoy old books. But I wasn’t sure whether or not to submit myself. I certainly enjoy classics, but have I been reading them regularly enough to be a ‘classics blogger’? So I decided I’d look over my list of books read this year, figure out what the percentage of classics was, and decide based on that. Of course, then I had to figure out what constitutes a ‘classic’! After mulling that over for far too long without any results to show for it (there are times when I regret my willful avoidance of literature courses in college), I decided on the completely arbitrary criterion of age: if a book was published before 1945, I counted it. Discovering that I’d read 50ish classics throughout the year, which I estimate is about a third of my fiction total, I decided to go ahead and sign up, hoping that people visiting my blog wouldn’t wonder at my misrepresentation (
Amanda did approve me, which was rather a relief Amanda has corrected my misperception: there’s no approval process to join the Classics Directory: you just submit the form and you’ll be added).
I seem to have a natural affinity for both classics and ‘literary’ stuff; many of my very favourite fiction authors would probably fall into one of these camps. But at the same time, I consider myself quite a democratic reader: I judge books solely by my internal criteria (which is why I embrace subjective reviews…a post for another day!), and I only gush about books that I honestly love. Sometimes, though, I’m afraid that this will make me come off as snobbish sounding. For example, back in January I read White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi and just adored it. Throughout the year, I’ve noticed various bloggers reading it, and often times their reactions are the polar opposite of mine. Which is fine: different strokes and all that. But, for example, this post, makes me feel a bit shy. Am I pretentious for loving it so much? I was also quite nervous about choosing A.S. Byatt as the first author in the Assembling My Atheneum series. She is one of my very, very favourite authors, but would people think I had chosen her to ‘look good’? Of course, my worries ended up being for naught, but they were still there.
At the end of the day, I consider a ‘book snob’ as someone who looks down upon people who enjoy different types of books than the snob. By that definition, I don’t qualify: I believe that our literary tastes are not an indication of our worth as people. But it makes sense that a book blogger, looking for recommendations for her own reading, is going to gravitate towards bloggers with similar taste; I definitely do so. The book blogosphere has become so large, that my way of keeping my Google Reader slim is to only subscribe to those bloggers who seem to enjoy the same ‘style’ of books as me. And it seems as if the larger it grows, the more book bloggers have created different ‘niches’ to make it even easier to find one another (the Classics Directory and Literary Blog Hop being only the two I discussed today: I’m sure there are lots more examples out there!). That ease is wonderful, but at the same time it makes me wonder how y’all decide what ‘type’ of blogs you are, and if there’s anything but self-selection that goes into the creation of these niches.
Now that I’ve rambled on, I’d like to open up the floor for discussion! Does ‘literary fiction’ have a definite meaning and/or value in your mind? Did you like Laura Miller’s definition? Just what is a classic anyway? Are some books worth more than others? And what do you think about niches within book blogging? Do you consider yourself a niche blogger?