Stuff On Sundays: Style Versus Substance?

Style versus substance? Literary versus genre?

Are you a book snob? I’ve encountered more than a few as a reader,  those who dismiss Mills & Boon romances as trash, or Stephen King’s latest bestseller as the opiate of the masses.  Books are assigned literary merit by a faceless social group with a vaguely defined set of parameters.  The definition of literary fiction  is a loose collection of statements that include phrases like  ‘highly stylised’, ‘serious, nuanced fiction’, ‘character-driven’, ‘socially and philosophically relevant’, ‘stands the test of time’, and genre, by contrast, is defined as everything literary isn’t.  It is literary fiction that is lauded in award ceremonies, made required reading in schools and colleges and writers all seem to aspire to write a literary masterpiece but it’s genre fiction that is bought, read and enjoyed far more widely.

Within the category of literary fiction there is a quite a range of reading experiences from the classics such as Moby Dick and A Tale of Two Cities to modern literary novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984 to recent novels that are categorised as literary by their publishers. Don’t get me wrong, I have read my fair share of literary novels and have even enjoyed many, others I have forced my way through because I, or somebody else, felt I should.  Then there are those I gave up on and will probably never again attempt. I have also read hundreds of Mills& Boon type romances and almost everything by Stephen King, some I have enjoyed more than others. Every book I have ever read, which numbers well into the thousands, has helped to shape who I am, if I had discriminated – reading only ‘literature’  – I believe I would be a poorer person for it.

Book snobs seems to think you can’t be entertained and learn something at the same time. I recognise that literary fiction (though certainly not all) has value but I would argue that commercial genre fiction does also. I  believe that every book has something to teach us, it can contribute to our emotional intelligence or our cognitive intelligence, though the best appeal to both. So many women read romance because it allows us to vicariously experience relationships and learn what we want and don’t want in a partnership, thrillers can encourage us to consider issues like environmental terrorism or political corruption adding to our knowledge of the world’s social structure.  Consider the debates genre fiction generates including much maligned popular fiction titles like Twilight. Whether you loved or hated it I am sure at sometime Twilight, or a similarly controversial genre novel like The Da Vinci Code, has been part of a discussion you have participated in and you were required to think about and articulate your opinion, just as you debated the symbolism of The Animal Farm in high school.

Recently the idea of a Slow Books Movement has been discussed in the media and I read the manifesto with growing horror. Maura Kelly from the Atlantic is encouraging reading for thirty minutes a day, which is a good thing, but she insists that only literature counts, specifically stating “Slow Books will have standards about what kinds of reading materials count towards your daily quota. Blog posts won’t, of course, but neither will newspaper pieces or even magazine articles. Also excluded: non-literary books.” Apparently I am “..doing [my]self—and [my]community—a great wrong” by not exclusively reading a narrow selection of literature. She goes on to state that reading literary fiction, more specifically classics, makes you smarter, makes you feel good about yourself amongst a number of other unfounded assertions. That to me seems guaranteed to ensure that some of her readers will never pick up a book again, why would they when Ms Kelly considers they are wasting their time unless they are reading whatever it is that she finds acceptable?   She ends the article with this quote by Joseph Brodsky from his 1987 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Though we can condemn … the persecution of writers, acts of censorship, the burning of books, we are powerless when it comes to [the worst crime against literature]: that of not reading the books. For that … a person pays with his whole life; … a nation … pays with its history.” Ms Kelly’s manifesto seems to be in direct contradiction given she censors thousands of ‘non literary’ authors and books.

As a reader, ideally I want a book that engages me intellectually and emotionally with a strong storyline and interesting characters, there are as many genre books that provide me with that combination as literary titles. I am tired of justifying my choices of reading material for book snobs who make what can only ever be subjective judgements. I’ll read what I damn well please, because the most important thing is that I do read whether it is a blog post, a magazine, a newspaper, a classic, a poem, or the latest blockbuster and in doing so I continue to think and feel and grow as a person.

Tell me, do you read mainly genre or literary fiction? Why? Do people judge you for what you choose to read? Or perhaps you judge others for what they read?

33 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mpartyka
    Apr 01, 2012 @ 06:56:32

    I might be a book snob.. Since I read only two books a month (on average), and listent to a few… I’m selective. But I read chick-lit, non-fiction (which I never blog about), and ‘literary’ fiction.

    I agree… literary isn’t how I would describe most of the books I read. I like to say ‘smart womens lit’.

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    • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
      Apr 02, 2012 @ 00:19:14

      Being a selective reader doesn’t necessarily mean you a book snob, unless you judge others on what they read.

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  2. Marg
    Apr 01, 2012 @ 07:29:24

    I have met plenty of book snobs over the years. I read a bit of everything really but my strongest genres are romance and historical fiction.

    What I never get about the people who make a big fuss about the fact that people like to read books that are outside the narrow definition of ‘literature’ is that in a week or a month they will be lamenting the fact that people don’t read as much as they used to.

    You can’t have it both ways. Either people will read what they want to read or they won’t!

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  3. VeganYANerds
    Apr 01, 2012 @ 09:08:02

    Great post, Shelleyrae, I know there are people who are like this and that’s fine but I agree that if you only read literary fic, you’d be missing out on so much more. I read mostly YA with some adult fiction thrown in and people can think whatever they like about my reading choices!

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  4. 1girl2manybooks
    Apr 01, 2012 @ 11:32:23

    I’ve never been one to limit myself and I’ve never been one to do what I’m told either 😉 I read relatively widely although I do admit that there are many types of books that I’ve never had the opportunity to try and there are some that are just not for me. I used to actually avoid classics like the plague due to high-school based trauma and it’s only recently, 12 or 13 years after graduating that I’m starting to experiment with reading some.

    I’m of the belief that -reading- itself, has merit. I don’t really think that one particular type of book, be it lit fic, or classics has any more weight over any other. Reading is supposed to be a pleasurable past time and people should read what they want and what gives them pleasure. Reading should never feel like a chore and being forced to read only classics or only lit fic or only one form, whatever it may be, because that’s what someone thinks has value and would test me or make me ‘smarter’ would quickly feel like a chore to me. People who say things like that (there was also a piece recently that said adults shouldn’t read YA, I couldn’t work out if it was tongue in cheek or not, but if not, it was very condescending) only contribute negatively to reading culture, not positively in my opinion.

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    • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
      Apr 02, 2012 @ 00:21:38

      I am with you Bree, I think forced reading of ‘literature’ in school has turned many away from reading all all

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  5. Audrey (Bibliosaurus Text)
    Apr 01, 2012 @ 13:21:46

    I like to read a bit of everything, from genre fiction to literary fiction to non-fiction. I have a friend at work who also loves to read, and I approached her about us organizing a book swapping party. She gave me a look and said, “No thanks. I like a lot of the books you read, but would never want other people seeing me read them.” I was absolutely taken aback, because I read tons of modern, very popular books. It came across as super snobby. Ever since then, I’m more cautious around her, and have lost a bit of respect for her.

    And as a side note, I have a degree in English Literature, so I’ve read tons of the books that make up the Western Canon, but sometimes you just need to read something for fun and nothing more.

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  6. Tanya Patrice
    Apr 01, 2012 @ 21:51:35

    I read the slow movement article & the recent one on my adults should not read adult books – and of course both are hogwash. Seriously, anyone who reads is at the very least increasing their vocabulary, so read whatever I say … or not … who am I or who is anyone to tell others what they should or should not do as their preferred method of entertainment.

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  7. Sam (Tiny Library)
    Apr 02, 2012 @ 01:13:29

    I do tend to read mainly literary fiction with a bit of historical fiction but that’s because that’s what I genuinely enjoy reading. I have nothing against reading Stephen King (I loved Misery) or paranormal romance (I’m also waiting for the new Sookie Stackhouse novel!) or YA. People should butt out of other people’s reading choices and accept that everyone has different tastes.

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  8. Aths
    Apr 02, 2012 @ 07:56:50

    Oh yes, I know people like these – who turn their noses up at anything that’s not Proust or Hemingway. Pretty sad really. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this.

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  9. Helene Young
    Apr 02, 2012 @ 09:04:09

    ‘Horses for courses’ I say. I read anything and everything depending on the mood I’m in, how busy work is, whether I need to relax, laugh, cry, ponder or be stretched. It’s a bit like food. I appreciate fine dining, but sometimes a quick and easy stir fry is just as wonderful. ‘Sausages and mash’ will always be comfort food! Any story is food for the soul.

    I have friends who are wine connoisseurs, those who are food buffs and definitely those who are book snobs. Since I write Romantic Suspense the literary devotees tend to be less vocal around me and most have made the effort to read my books – and then go to great lengths to assure me I don’t really write romance…

    However when people ask me what I write it’s quite common for them to roll their eyes as soon as I say the word romance. These days I laugh and ask them the name of the last movie they enjoyed watching. If it’s a woman, nine times out of ten it’s likely to be a romantic comedy or a something with a love story and a happy ending. “Same, same,” I say, and then they frown trying to decide whether I’m right.

    The Slow Reading movement is interesting (anything that encourages reading is a good), but I have to say if Maura Kelly thinks I’m going to be uplifted by literary classics she’s clearly not read some of the ones on my shelf!

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    • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
      Apr 02, 2012 @ 09:26:49

      I have to admit Helene when I first joined Goodreads and added the contents of my shelf it didn’t even occur to me to add my 400+ collection of Mills & Boon/Harlequin romances. I remedied that situation after being a member for a while and realising that the community had room for romance readers as well.

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  10. mareelouise
    Apr 02, 2012 @ 09:59:32

    I like Helene’s food metaphor too- there is the big heavy degustation menu that is delicious, but drags on forever and makes you feel a bit bloated (right now I’m reading Blood Meridian and it is certainly very filling!). And then there is the snack- for me like The Hunger Games which I inhaled in 4 days.
    I tend to prefer literary fiction- mainly because I am a slow reader and want to make the most of the 3 -4 books I read each month. But I love the odd Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, clever thriller or fluffy memoir. I know once I finish this McCarthy, I’ll be ready for a fluffy meringue of a book!

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    • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
      Apr 03, 2012 @ 11:26:42

      I tend to need something lighter after reading an intense ‘literary’ novel as well mareelouise

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  12. Leeswammes
    Apr 02, 2012 @ 18:58:06

    I hate bookish snobs with a vengeance! I read everything, from literary stuff to genre to the back of my cereal boxes and I don’t care what people think of that.

    On the other hand, I am sometimes a bit of a snob when people tell me they only read one particular genre. Only YA? Only classics? Only SciFi? Come one, try something else once in a while! 🙂

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    • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
      Apr 03, 2012 @ 11:27:48

      Actually I have to agree Judith, I couldn’t imagine only reading one genre or one type of book

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  13. lnisbet
    Apr 03, 2012 @ 03:00:08

    Not only am I book snob, but I’m proud of it!

    Then again, I guess I’ve got my own definition of the term. I wouldn’t say I discriminate based on genre – everyone is entitled to their likes and dislikes. I’m not much for sci-fi but I’m also not ruling out the idea that I might someday find a science fiction novel that really speaks to me, I’ll try anything once. Maybe even twice. I’m not naive enough to believe that I am an expert on all that has ever been published. I don’t have a universal definition for what makes a book ‘worthy’, but I’ve got some pretty strong feelings about some of the fluff on the shelves these days.

    I guess my issue is with quality. I judge people based on what I see them reading all the time. If you’re telling me that the girl reading Snooki’s ‘Shore Thing’ on the train next to me is on the same literary level as me because she is a ‘fellow reader’ I’m sorry but I need to disagree. There are people who read and then there are readers, that’s how I differentiate. And the ones out there reading the gimmicky YA junk with a thrown-together plot, or ‘modern epistolaries’ made up of a string of emails and text messages, I’m sorry, but I’m sitting here full of judgement. (and before you get offended, I know there are some great YA novels out there, but they too often get lost among the vampires and werewolves that seem to hog the spotlight).

    Strong opinions, I know, but that’s how I feel! Book snobs unite! lol

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    • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out
      Apr 03, 2012 @ 12:08:27

      I’m not offended, but I’m not a fan of the judgement. How do you know that the woman reading Shore Thing hasn’t just finished reading Anna Karenina? Ten or twenty years ago you were as likely to catch me reading Vanity Fair by Thackeray as Chances by Danielle Steele.
      I notice you had all sorts of negative preconceptions about The Hunger Games trilogy before you actually read them.

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      • lnisbet
        Apr 04, 2012 @ 02:44:37

        You make a very fair point, the Hunger Games is a perfect example of a book I was ready to judge without reading and then ended up loving. It’s such a tricky thing, the world of literature, and maybe its wrong to judge people by what they read. For me it’s always been about wanting to read things that will be worth my time, and I guess when I see people reading things that I don’t consider ‘worthy’ I can’t help but criticize. So much great literature exists in the world and I hate to think that people could miss out on it in favour of some celebrity tell-all or thrown-together fluff with no real message. I guess we can agree to disagree! lol

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  14. parrish lantern
    Apr 03, 2012 @ 05:59:33

    Oh emphatically I am, but then I do love to slum it every now and again, stepping off my perfect mountain to mix with the masses only to return to my world of pure poetic philosophical insight (Dr Seuss etc.)

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  16. The Australian Bookshelf
    Apr 04, 2012 @ 19:59:00

    I certainly can’t call myself a book snob because i read just about anything. I do sometimes feel a little sheepish if i am reading a non-literary book out in public as though they are judging me on my intelligence. But on the whole i don’t really care. I read plenty of books each month and a handful would fall under the ‘literary genre’ but to be honest I wouldn’t enjoy reading as much if i read 4 literary books a week because i would have to think too hard.

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  17. reflectionsofabookaholic
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 14:00:54

    I mainly read genre fiction though i can appreciate what is often termed literary fiction if I’m in the mood. I really think is all silly. I think many of the classics were looked down upon when they were first published and now we adore them and act as if they are so profound. Many of our “genre” fiction reads might seem more profound with time when people assign alternative made up symbolism and meaning that the author never intended.

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