It’s not showing off if you’re good

I remember reading long ago that those who read exclusively for plot are something like those who can only enjoy very spicy foods. Hot plots and spices can certainly deliver, but there are all sorts of satisfying subtleties that can be missed as a result.

I’ve been seeing some discussion in some blogs lately by writers who disdain “Literature,” saying that writers of this type of fiction are just “showing off,” that such writing is too difficult to understand, and, sadly, that literature often lacks plot. These dismissals seem to be unfair generalizations (just as my observation of them may be), but I’ve seen each of these stated recently by people who profess to the craft of writing.

I’m not sure of the reasons for such complaints. Are these disdainful writers secretly jealous that another writer is getting accolades for writing “Literature”? Do these writers really not see that there is more substance or a different level of work in a piece of “Literature” than in much genre or commercial writing? Do these writers chafe at the implied challenge (“You too can strive to work your craft this way!”) that Literature makes?

In any case, we wouldn’t generally make such disdainful judgments about high achievement in other endeavors. You may be able to play the piano perfectly well for your own pleasure and for sing-alongs with friends, but this doesn’t mean you would say that a concert pianist is merely “showing off” or that the Rach 3 is simply too difficult. The same is the case in sports. You may enjoy a pick-up game of basketball with friends, but you’re not going to disdain someone like Michael Jordan who has the good fortune (and the drive) to play the game at another level.

Harold Bloom talks about Literature being one of the “difficult pleasures” we strive to enjoy. Sometimes it takes work, but the payoff can be immense. Such writing is not inaccessible, but it will demand more effort than the easier pleasure of easier fiction will require. There has been much debate about this high reading standard that Bloom sets, but few dismiss it altogether. Big-L Literature does have its value.

And if such literary writing really is showing off, then what of it? I’d much rather wander through a world of books knowing there is the flash of Tom Wolfe or the immensity of Thomas Wolfe or the depth of Herman Melville or the philosphy of Iris Murdoch or the deadly serious¬†playfulness of Philip Roth than to think only spicy reading will be served. We really don’t need to be taking pot shots at each other. All writing is good in some way or another.

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2 Comments on “It’s not showing off if you’re good”

  1. J.M. Reep Says:

    I’m not sure I’ve heard writers complain about “literature.” In fact, in my experience, it’s been just the opposite. Most of the writers I’ve run across during my life have aspired to “literature” while showing disdain for “genre writing.”

    I can understand why the general public would not want to read literature, though. Grade school and high school education does a thorough job of making sure that students will never want to read a novel or poetry ever again after they graduate. Most “literature” really isn’t very hard, it just seems that way when you are reading for comprehension, for vocabulary, and for a test. Unfortunately, most schools and most teachers don’t do much to help students learn to read for pleasure and for personal fulfillment — which is a much more important skill, in the long run, than learning how to pass a standardized test.

  2. paullamb Says:

    @J.M. – Actually I saw several comments spread over a couple of posts on blogs by mystery genre writers showing their disdain for “literary writing.” They seem to be a parochial bunch.


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