Saturday, April 26, 2008

Literary Snobs

Long, long ago (before the 2nd year of law school started) in a galaxy far, far away (Medford) I asked most of the people I know who like to read and think what is their definition of a "literary snob." I did that because it was implied that I, alone among earthlings not being in the throes of Deathly Hallows, possibly was one. A literary snob, not a deathly hallow.

So, I asked all the peoples just what exactly they think a literary snob is. Then I began compiling the answers. Unfortunately I never got around to revealing all the answers and the consensus. But this weekend I've been cleaning out my email inbox (duh, I have finals approaching, it's the perfect procrastination) and I came across those old e-mails. So I decided in my effort to attain the "nirvana of the clean inbox" (I first heard that phrase from Brian) I'd better post about this whole literary snob thing.

Turns out I think I am one. At least if you abide by my friends' definitions. Some of them actually hastened to point out that I am totally not a literary snob, but others threw my own words and actions back at me.

For example, Mordena from my Cambridge writing group, said, "Someone who refuses to read genre fiction on principle." Gulp. Yes, I remember saying that one day at the Hi-Rise cafe. But I meant it sardonically, if not sarcastically. Of course I read some genre fiction. One of my favorite authors is Nelson DeMille. (Hofstra alum, p.s.!) Although I am aware how much that sounds like, "Some of my best friends are genre authors..." Oh dear.

And my high school best friend Marcia said, "Someone who refuses to read Harry Potter!" which was pretty much a direct hit. I liked Mo's (also an Arizona friend) one-liner, "Someone who outright refuses to buy their books from Rite-Aid." I noticed that a lot of friends compared literary snobs to film snobs and music snobs in their efforts to define.

But here's the main thing I noticed: it's not as if anyone disagreed on what people would be literary snobs about. (preposition used at sentence end for dramatic impact) In fact, around ten people named names or cited examples, and most of those named Harry Potter as one of the names. Like Kim D., an L.A. Borders musician friend, who said that like music snobs, lit snobs are educated and active in their field and then upon finding that their preparation is of no monetary value take out their bitterness by being critical of those who make money in the field, such as "Kenny G is no Steve Coleman" and "J.K. Rowling is no C.S. Lewis." (Although they do both have pretty famous initials; what is it with those Brits?)

So at the risk of further cementing myself in literary snobdom, I must say it's interesting that everyone recognized the dichotomy. They'd say that the snob reads Tolstoy but not Harlequin, or Tom Wolfe but not Danielle Steel, or Moby Dick but not the "little black dress" novels, or literary magazine poetry but not mass markets. My point is, maybe we all recognize, without wanting to admit it, that some books are better than others. That maybe we can't define literature, but we know it when we see it.

So basically, I don't really care if you relegate me to literary snob status. I like reading, and I think some books are crap. (Note I didn't say they shouldn't exist; I just said they're crap.) I totally read and enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, but I AM proud that I was the first on my block to read it (Borders got advanced reader copies, so I was alerted early to the next big thing, and even got to meet Dan Brown three days after it came out). I joke about my "bestseller backlash," but anyone who has worked at a behemoth bookstore and seen the blatant shove-it-in-your-face (often-with-Oprah's-help) factor of the bestseller lists knows what I mean.

And speaking of Oprah, I think she has chosen some great books, at least when she was still reading fiction. Admitted fiction, that is. I was the biggest champion of Elizabeth Berg ever - but yes, I am proud that I knew her before Oprah did. As for Harry P - I DID read the first half of the first book -- twice -- and I am just not interested. It's not because it's popular, it's because I'm not interested. So does it convert me into a snob when I also make fun of how popular it is? I mean, I saw Titanic in the theater and enjoyed it, but I can still make fun of the Celine Dion song or the "I'm the king of the world!" nonsense at the Oscars. Harry Potter's an easy target, as are some of his fans. What can I say? I might add that I think J.K. might just be full of crap in this lawsuit she's brought against one of 'em.

I make fun of snobs, too, though. I particularly enjoyed making fun of the Harvard guy when I showed Brian around Harvard Square and we sat next to a self-important grad-student type who was reading at the bar in Grendel's. (Are we snobs for enjoying the name of the bar? Or not any longer now that Angelina Jolie has had her way with Beowulf?) Brian and I still fondly recall that guy, who gave off a "Does it get any better than me?" vibe.

But the thing is, I can also make fun of myself. I love the cheese-tacular things I love but I self-deprecate with the best of them. And yeah, I generally don't go looking for new books in genre fiction, because they're not my personal preference. Neither is "Business Life" nor "Gardening Essays." But I adored The Orchid Thief, and I confidently make fun of Who Moved My Cheese?

Thus concludes the examination of my literary snobbery and/or lack thereof. (Unless you want to comment.) I will end with the words of wise John Frank, whom I worked with in L.A. when he was cafe manager at Borders:

"A literary snob, to me, is someone who won't read Stephen King, Anne Rice, Sidney Sheldon, Dean Koontz, Neil Simon, or any other big name writer who sells plenty of books the common folks like to read. However what they don't remember is that 500 years from now Neil Simon will be remembered as the Shakespeare of our time, Stephen King will be remembered as a master of his genre, etc. etc. etc..."


Kim Diaz said...

Excellent commentary on literary snobdom! Now - I've only read one Harry Potter (the first), and that one I read in Spanish - and I would ONLY read it in Spanish. Does this qualify me as a lit snob? And I say it with pride - of course! Yet I adore Neil Simon.....hmmmmm...

Paul said...

Literary Snob: Someone who has read Proust's Remembrance of Things Past in the original French, when I've only read it in translation. (See definition of Wine Snob, below.)

Wine Snob: Someone who can afford to drink better wine than what I drink.