In Defence of Popular Fiction (Or Why I Hate Intellectual Snobbery)

Intellectual snobbery pisses me off. I’ve been thinking about it lately – specifically, the literature police and their blanket disapproval of popular fiction. Runaway successes like 50 Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code, The Hunger Games and Twilight, in particular, attract some of the ferocious critics around.

(You’ll notice I haven’t included the Harry Potter series. This is because, by and large, readers and critics hold the series in high esteem. Harry Potter is unusual in that it occupies the curious middle ground where integrity and commercial success coexist.)

I’m not here to defend the literary merits of any from the above list – I’ve only read the first Twilight and Hunger Games books and did not care for either. I am, however, here to defend both their right to exist and the ‘cretins’’ right to enjoy them. Even if these books are fundamentally flawed, people have still found enjoyment in them, have connected and shared spirited discussion over them. To me, that’s a wonderful thing. You might argue that these readers’ time would be better spent with X Author or Underground Classic Y, but that’s not how things have panned out. Popular success is popular success. There’s no formula.

50 Shades, the most recent – and, at this point, one could almost say the most enduring – success story/whipping boy seems to invoke the most vitriol of all. Those unconvinced by it regard its success as some sort of personal affront; a sign the human race is being definitively ‘dumbed down’. I mention 50 Shades because it comes up a lot in my creative writing lectures. All too often, lecturers and fellow students like to throw it under the nearest bus to prove some over-dramatic point about the apparent decline of literature. They scorn Joe Average for his assumed inability to grasp David Foster Wallace – never mind that Infinite Jest just mightn’t be his thing.

So what if the whole world doesn’t regularly read high-brow literature? Why should we expect them to? That sort of writing hasn’t been part of mainstream culture for decades. Today, only scholars, students or those with a specific interest would devote huge chunks of time to getting through such dense tomes, and that’s as it should be. Do boat builders go around thinking they’re superior because of their specific subset of skills? Do Olympic athletes jump online to chastise those who can’t run a four-minute mile? Continuing with these examples, an average person would no doubt find small victories in, say, putting up some homemade shelves or jogging a few laps around the block – and for this, we’d commend them. But when an average person, who might only read two–three books a year, finishes a work of popular fiction, like 50 Shades of Grey, the self-appointed Literati jump down their throats or make passive aggressive remarks.

Too often I’ve heard people cast thin, condescending, generalised dismissals of Twilight and its many fans. And for what? It’s not the fucking Anti-Christ. Some of the context-less nitpicking I’ve heard is so brazen and incessant that it actually borders on cruelty. ‘Stephanie Meyer is a shit writer!’ they chant, as though it’s a wins-every-time justification that can absolve them just about any thoughtless argument. Bear in mind I’m not defending Meyer’s writing; rather I’m taking issue with blind bandwagons.

Good writing is subjective, but the general consensus is that Twilight is poorly written. Having read it, I don’t disagree. However, I think people are often quick to forget that it was written for young people. It was never meant to be assessed at the incredible standards to which it’s held. (Yes, Young Adult Fiction can be – and sometimes is – smarter and better written than Twilight; my point is that too many take pleasure in chastising Meyer for not being Charles Dickens.)

Okay, so … it’s decided. Twilight is a bad book. Stamp that baby official. But now what? Does Stephanie Meyer having written a bad book – or rather, a little series of them – mean she’s condemned herself to being our sacrificial lamb, to be ridiculed in discussions for the next ten years? (Seriously, she and E.L. James permeate many of my class’s degenerative discussions every week. They’re like the ever-present elephants in the room.) You might say the public have every right to poo-poo Meyer’s work – after all, she willingly entered the fray as a published author. Therefore, she’s free game, to be scrutinised by all and, if we so see fit, criticised ad infinitum. I’m fine with that in theory, but it’s gone on long enough. A creative writing class in 2013 can’t still be using Twilight for every example of What Not To Do. Twilight and 50 Shades have been the butt of so many jokes that it’s become tired. What new and relevant criticisms can be laid upon these works? All it’s boiled down to is the kind of unwarranted hive-mind hate that makes my skin crawl. To me, that’s the mark of a declining society; not a few harmless pop reads.

Is Stephanie Meyer the first bad writer to be published? Is she even the first bad writer to be successful? No. So why the fuck have are we acting like she is? Why do we carry on like these few pop culture juggernauts – which, I might add, we are free to ignore, should we find them unappealing – threaten the very fabric of good literature? As best as I can tell, it’s because many believe it’s unfair that such ‘undeserving’ works have crossed the threshold of success. That’s crap. As I alluded to earlier, popular success is not a science. It’s not something that can be engineered. These books have blown up because they have cross-generational appeal. They’ve appealed to readers en masse. Whether you agree or not, they have that intangible magic quality that’s behind all pop culture phenomenons. You don’t have to like or understand it, but you must acknowledge that these books have made millions of people happy. I don’t believe anyone has the right to make others feel inferior for their tastes.

* * *

Now I’d like to weigh in on popular fiction (sometimes referred to as genre or commercial fiction) as a whole. The distinction between popular and literary fiction lies in the intent and execution. Literary fiction exists to illuminate some aspect of the human condition. Typically, the prose is more technical and challenging. It is less accessible than popular fiction and, perhaps in emulation of real life, is not afraid to end in tragic or unsatisfying ways. Conversely, popular fiction is all about reader enjoyment. It often follows classic storytelling formulas and, though it’s more than capable of throwing curveballs, will usually fall into line with readers’ expectations.

Ultimately, they’re marketing artifices, but I believe both are worthy of our respect and interest. The most common misconception is that literary fiction is slow, dry, pretentious navel-gazing, and popular fiction is trite, shallow, overly generic pap. Both can be true, but such a viewpoint can only be arrived at by accentuating the negatives. The truth of the matter is that popular and literary fiction serve different functions. Literary fiction strives to enlighten, while popular fiction wishes to entertain. But for some reason, people like to talk about popular and literary fiction like they’re opposing camps where members must pledge a blood allegiance. I’ve never understood this. Frankly, I will always champion eclectic reading and viewing habits. Remember your old pal, variety? Well, they say he’s the spice of life. If you stick rigidly to one genre, you’re not going to grow and experience new ideas. And worse, you’ll get bored. I touched on this in an earlier two-part post.

It’s not impossible to enjoy both literary and popular fiction. (These days, there’s a certain amount of crossover, anyway. Such is our obsession for categorising things.) This year, I read Camus, Dostoyevsky and five contemporary literary fiction collections. Between these, I read Uglies (fantastic Young Adult series – get on it!), Stephen King’s The Mist and I’m currently reading – ahem – the novelisation of the uber popular Halo video game series. I enjoyed all of them for different reasons; each scratched its own particular itch.

Digression time: I’m the same way with television. I don’t watch a lot of it, but I dip in from time to time. As much as I enjoy HBO and their intelligent dramas (Six Feet Under is a favourite), I love to slum it with the occasional sitcom. Doesn’t matter what kind. It can be witty and acerbic, like Episodes, Bored to Death or Arrested Development, or slapstick and down-homey, like Modern Family or How I Met Your Mother. Admittedly I’ve a predisposition towards the former, but the comforting formulas of the latter can be great to unwind to. Because, you know, that’s why entertainment was originally conceived: to make us feel good.

It’s also for this purpose that I’ve been known to watch the odd reality show – mostly singing and dating shows. My girlfriend and I like to watch them together at dinnertime. We view them as just the kind of lightweight escapism we need after enduring a long day (of hearing people slag off Stephanie Meyer). We watch them with detachment and limited investment. We poke good-natured fun at some of the contestants and, well, we unwind.

You’ll note here that I’ve felt I had to bend over backwards to justify my viewing habits. This is because of all that aforementioned intellectual snobbery. Here’s a story: the other day, one of my teachers – an intelligent, well-travelled multilingual woman – had the audacity to use The Voice as an example in one of her lectures. She explained one of the rules of the show and asked whether anyone had seen it. No one would admit to it. I’d seen it, of course, but it was made uncomfortably clear that such an admission was tantamount to marking oneself an outcast. Anyway, a few students launched into predictable tirades about how singing shows are artificial, lowest-common-denominator garbage; how the talent is manufactured and fleeting; and how we writers are so much better off than those cretins (subtext) because we spend our time more wisely. (You know, because it’s widely known that indulging in the occasional singing show kills whole swathes of brain cells).

I’m sure they meant that they spend their downtime reading, rather than watching the ‘idiot box’. It’s hard to know for sure, though, because I frequently catch the lot of them using our school laptops for Facebook, YouTube, online shopping and online games. Apparently their brands of escapism are superior to mine. Go figure.

Anyhoo, I’m sure popular fiction fans would object to me comparing their baby to reality TV. And by all accounts, that comparison would be unfair. Popular fiction is anything but mindless; it is carefully constructed. In fact, I think it has more in common with sitcoms, wherein the stories are often insular and follow clear arcs. You know when you pick up a work of popular fiction that you will put it down in two hundred pages time with some semblance of closure and satisfaction. The crime will be solved, the monster will be defeated and the girl will get the guy. That’s not to say your emotions won’t be taken for a ride but, by and large, you’ll get entertainment value for a minimal expenditure of effort (that is to say, you won’t have to decipher allegories or untangle nonlinear narratives). Popular fiction is comfort reading and is oh-so-satisfying when you want to escape the drudgery of everyday life. To me, there is so much value in this.

Literary fiction, I feel, needs no defending. Its sales may be a modest fraction of its cousin, popular fiction, but that’s okay; the currencies literary fiction authors trade in are respect, integrity and critical acclaim. That’s not to say, though, that all literary fiction writers are impoverished clichés. Though the naysayers are often quick to forget it, literary fiction does have its success stories. If the contemporary publishing landscape is so dire, why is it that respected literary writers like Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, Jodi Picoult, Chuck Palahnuik, Ian McEwan, John Updike, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison and Zadie Smith continue to defy both critical and commercial expectations? Surely if we were as intellectually malnourished as the cynics claim this would not be happening. No, as I see it, markets have broadened, not degenerated.

So what do you think about all this? Are you tired of dumping on Twilight and other popular fiction successes? Or do you think they deserve every criticism they get? Perhaps it’s our responsibility as readers to give criticism. How else can we send the message that writers need to continually raise their games? Alternatively, maybe all this popular perception crap isn’t for you; maybe you could care less. Let me know either way!

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14 thoughts on “In Defence of Popular Fiction (Or Why I Hate Intellectual Snobbery)

  1. Great topic! I think people who define themselves by their tastes as opposed to relationships, spirituality, etc, are more prone to hysterical reactions. They’re contractually required to pound anything common in a never ending—and unquestionably exhausting—game of Whac-A-Mole (Elitist Edition).

    I know it’s exhausting. I’m guilty of having played the game myself. I’ve spent hours disparaging “new country” to teenagers who find it cathartic to sing it at the top of their lungs. I’ve guffawed at relatives’ favorite beers while waxing poetic about microbrews ( all the while hiding the fact that I could never afford to be a wine snob). Most recently, I’ve told a dear friend that I went through U2’s pious downward spiral once and therefore can’t be bothered with the Arcade Fire. (Selfie-quote: “They’ve skipped their Achtung Baby and gone straight to Zooropa. Seriously? James Murphy? These guys just figured out what The Rapture—one trick ponies themselves—knew in 2003!”)

    What was my motive? Setting myself apart! Not being a follower! Subverting the dominant paradigm! Etcetera!

    But now I’ve aged. My tastes have become accessories to my personality, and not its superficial center. Now I’ve been called out repeatedly for my snobby snipes and snarky asides by friends and former friends.

    And so I’ve mellowed. You’ll find LMFAO next to Captain Beefheart and The Knife on my iPhone. (Note: I had to reflexively name two pedigreed acts for one bad one! I’m still not completely cured!) And, when I’m not struggling through William Gaddis, I’m zipping, giddy-as-can-be, through pulpy scifi.

    Still—snobbery, I’ve found, is like alcoholism. You’re never really cured.

    I no longer rely on a carefully curated set of cultural standards to set me apart from the masses. And while there are still some things I can’t stand, that grate for very explicable and specific reasons, I’ve grown far more tolerant of the mainstream. I know exactly what I’ve signed up for when I see a Michael Bay film, and it isn’t what I sign up for when I see something by Terrence Malick. Unfortunately, I’ve already bred too much hostility amongst my peers. Now, after having been on the receiving end of my scorn, they can’t resist returning fire when they see me enjoying something that’s even relatively out-of-snobby-character. I get flogged when I drink Sam Adams and crucified when I admit I DVR Big Bang Theory. I hide my Hunger Games behind Gogol. I told them I wanted to see ‘Gravity’ and they said, “You!?! A Sandra Bullock movie!?!?!”

    But really! I’m getting better! I can finally admit I enjoyed reading Infinite Jest less than I enjoyed … well, third world surgery, at some points. I’ve put down my Whac-a-Mole mallet, reserving it only for special occasions.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply! I see, again, that we are in agreement. It’s true: as I read back over what I’ve written, I can feel the hypocrisy seeping from my pores. It can be fun and cathartic to heap shit on shallow art. I won’t deny it. But, while I may get caught in the riptide of elitism from time to time, I staunchly believe there’s a difference between playful critiquing and outright maliciousness. I like to think I avoid – or at least consciously resist – the latter.

      Sounds like you’ve arrived at maturity, Douglas, and have adopted the appropriate perspectives. It’s your buddies’ right to bring you down a peg if they catch you being holier-than-thou or inconsistent in your beliefs 😉 I’m sure it’s all in good fun, and that you wear it with pride. (You don’t strike me as someone who takes himself too seriously.) I’ll endeavour to do the same, should someone see through my own sanctimoniousness. All we can hope to be is our best; we likely won’t ever ascend above our own scoundrelest human nature.

      Peace, and your continued support!

  2. Great topic. Is it possible your classmates choose to vilify the works of Ms Meyer, et al out of insecurity or jealousy? This type of success is referred to as a phenomena for a reason. As writers, they probably spend a lot of time daydreaming about having similar success in their careers. Perhaps it makes them feel better to denigrate the work of popular authors, as they know deep-down that no matter how good they themselves are at storytelling, it is likely they’ll never have a best-seller in this competitive industry.

    There are literally millions of books in the world, and not all of them will be to our tastes. What your classmates — and the Literati — fail to understand is that no-one is forcing anybody to read anything. If they possessed any maturity, they wouldn’t respond with such vitriol whenever someone mentions ‘Twilight’. They could simply state the truth: that, in spite of the average writing and weak characters, this series has captured the imagination of millions of people — many of them being people who don’t read for pleasure. And the fact is, if people are reading more, even if it’s due to one mediocre book series, there’s more of chance they’ll get around to reading our work too.

    Also, I don’t believe writers need to ‘raise their games’ (and I find it hard to believe that an experienced writer wouldn’t be constantly improving their craft anyway). James Patterson has made a career of dishing up his brand of writing (or at least editing it). His publishers would probably hesitate if he offered them anything that might be considered literary, even though he’s probably capable of it. As a reader, we have no responsibility to the author. They have a responsibility to us, however: to be entertaining, interesting, thought-provoking and engaging enough to distract us from every other form of entertainment. And in a world full of jumbo screens, iPods and apps, this is getting increasingly more difficult.

    Next time you see someone reading ’50 Shades’. thank your lucky stars that anyone still cares to buy a book at all.

    Note to your classmates: nobody has ever bitched their way to a publishing deal. Respect all other authors, because they were once novices like you. Your witticisms might be entertaining in a classroom, but say the wrong thing in front of the right people and you could earn a less than savoury reputation. After all, the same people you wish to pay you to write are the ones who accepted the manuscripts you so love to mock.

    Also? Nobody likes a whiny, self-important snob.

    • Definitely, it’s possible. The thought of psycho-analysing my classmates terrifies me just a bit, though, so I’ll just have to stick with what I do best: casting wide assumptions. It could be, I suppose, a kind of coping mechanism. (Tall Poppy Syndrome?)

      I absolutely love your final two points! We should be happy that ANY books are generating this kind of mass hysteria. For us writers, these are confusing times: we have free entertainment flying at us from every which direction. It’s nothing short of astounding that anyone out there still cares about your grandpappy’s ol’ friend, the book.

      And yes, you’re right: it pays to show a bit of humility. You never know who could be listening. Only in L.A. do people make careers out of tearing others down. Here in the real world, that kind of thing is frowned upon and, frankly, this career path is far too elusive for bridge-burning. I’ve never forgotten that anecdote Penni Russon told us about how she ghost-wrote one of those Dance Academy books and how, after venting her frustrations about the project on Facebook, she inadvertently strained the relationship she had with the publisher (who had read Penni’s admission as her claiming she was above the work). Writers are all in the same boat, anyway, so why wouldn’t we celebrate our neighbours’ achievements?

      Thanks for the great comment 🙂

  3. Hey Tom! Great article and I agree with every point. It’s so sad how popularity gets bashed these days, but I think most of it comes down to plain jealousy of the successful work. I think it’s a matter of trying to work on our attitudes, because Stephanie Meyer isn’t the one wasting her time trash-talking bad books, she’s writing them! So really the Literati (love that term!) are the only ones not being productive.

    PS: We met through camp nano. I was Osage111 😀

    • Wow! Hey Julie! I’m honestly so chuffed you’ve gone and sought out my blog! 🙂 Means a lot.

      You’re totally right. I suppose we’ve no real way of knowing whether these authors take all this criticism to heart, but you’re right: we don’t see them wasting energy defending themselves or launching counter-attacks. They just keep on truckin’, as professionals do. Says a lot about them.

      On an unrelated note, how’s your WIP going? Did you finish that first draft? I hope it’s coming together nicely. All the best!

      • I’m stoked that I was able to find you! ^^

        My WIP is 21000 words now, but it’s taken a back seat to the slew of projects I have to complete. Fingers crossed for continuing it during NanoWrimo! Are you participating this year?

      • 21,000 is a solid effort. Great work! Good luck with the rest of it, and these other projects.

        Probably won’t be participating in NaNoWriMo. I have too much in the way of school assessments and half-finished bits of personal writing to undertake anything more. I’ll definitely give Camp NaNo another go next year, though! I found that very enjoyable (despite our otherwise mute cabin mates ;-)) and, most importantly, manageable!

        Do keep me posted with your progress, Julie.

  4. I can’t add to what you’ve said other than “I agree”.

    While it’s easy to get caught up in the zeitgeist of one’s group, I do try to avoid ridiculing those who like popular fiction – each to his/her own I say. However, my heart does sink when I meet someone new and they tell me they love reading and then tell me that their favourite book is [name the latest popular bestseller]. My heart doesn’t sink because I think lesser of them but because I realise that’s one avenue of discussion we can’t really go down – and, if I’ve already also said I love reading, how do I extricate myself without sounding snobby or condescending.

    Like others who’ve commented here, I think some of the ridicule probably comes from jealousy, but that’s life. We all make choices. I’m sure AC/DC made more money than, hmm, Peter Sculthorpe but I never heard him complaining. And, not all popular culture is poor quality. It’s just, as you imply, more engaging, more easily and more immediately comprehended.

    Your point that literary fiction’s aim is to enlighten, and popular fiction’s to entertain is pretty much how I see it (though of course the truth isn’t quite so dichotomous). My reading time is precious so I avoid reading popular (by this I mean that which tends to be formulaic genre) fiction, but I do watch some popular TV. I get my escapist crime on TV, not from books! And I do love Masterchef!

    OK, I’ve rambled enough and said nothing new so will stop here. Good post.

  5. I just find popular fiction dull – it is as simple as that. It leaves me completely cold and uninvolved. Give me Anne Tyler, Kent Haruf, V.S. Naipaul any day

    • That’s completely fair enough. Different strokes and all. I appreciate that you know your own interests and will look into those authors.

      As an aside (this isn’t a response to anything you wrote; I just feel like putting it out in the ether), I recently finished City of Glass by Paul Auster and was distracted (to the point of embarrassment) by the convoluted machinations he employed. Rather than let his story unfold organically, he interfered and the work suffered.

      Appeal to my head and heart simultaneously, not to one at the exclusion of the other. I despise when writers become preoccupied with their own cleverness. Although Auster’s example sits on the far end of postmodernism, it is, for me, an example of literary fiction at its worst. Ideally, I enjoy works that marry beautiful prose, big ideas and accessibility.

      Thanks for your comment.

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