On Being an Insufferable Snob

Sonia Chung for The Millions recently elaborated on her “insufferable snobbery” when it comes to such literary topics as genre fiction, of which she herself finds them insufferable. She laments the cultural taboo of literary snobbery, citing last week’s profile of Nora Roberts in the New Yorker and a New York Times “Summer Thriller” series featuring Dean Koontz.

Why do The New Yorker and The New York Times want me to rethink my dividing lines? Are my soul or my artistic integrity at risk of atrophying if I don’t see the light and embrace a new political correctness that’s deemed formulaic genre writing and literary writing more alike than they are different?

Let me, for the sake of this essay and the ensuing discussion, take a (overstated, survival-driven) hardliner’s position: pure genre writing invites and indulges engagement and validation of our lesser, lazier, unthinking, hedonistic selves; well-wrought literary fiction affords, in the critic Harold Bloom’s words, a difficult pleasure and illuminates the truths of the human soul, for better or for worse, thus opening the engaged reader to the possibility of courage, intellectual and emotional honesty, wisdom. Popular genre writing and literary writing represent diametrically opposed visions of the value and necessity of reading books; they are as different as lust and love, band-aids and surgery. To imply otherwise is to cop to hysterical anti-intellectualism and give credence to the same sorts of “elitist!” cries that sought to make Barack and Michelle Obama appear out of touch and John McCain a man of the people.

There are real stakes here. What you read matters.

She goes on to suggest what she somewhat dorkily calls “bait n switch” books, books which she sees as inherently literary, but on-the-surface indulgent. Included writers are Edith Wharton, Denis Johnson, and E.L. Doctorow.

I’d agree with Chung’s Big Statement (although she’s probably preaching to the choir, considering that her argument is, as she professes, “overstated” and “survival-driven”). There are real stakes. And as Jeff Hobbs wrote last week for the same website, “The written word is the only art medium that necessitates a sincere, sometimes even arduous, effort on the part of its audience. Rather than enter instantaneously into the individual’s heart and soul via a direct, simple sensory channel…a printed word must first be filtered, interpreted, and aligned with one’s consciousness through both the right and left sides of the brain; the sensations an inspired sentence brings to bloom within the individual’s interior represent a collaboration between author and reader, a synthesis of dual experience in this world.”

But it’s not what you read that matters, as Chung claims–because reading genre fiction for the most part will not make you stupid–and the way in which you choose to do so matters little as well (Kindle, iPhone, self-binded photocopies, whatevs). There is not one single book, or list of books, every person need read in their lifetime. But why is “indulge,” “distract” and “escape” always equated with unintellect? The prevalence of genre fiction risks, for the individual, an eclipse of greater experiences. In fact, it’s what you don’t read that matters.