Beware the Holier-Than-Thous

My college creative writing classes ran the gamut from exceedingly wonderful to exceedingly awful, with many stops at This-is-Getting-Weird in between. But no undergraduate writing experience would be complete without the snooty literary type — in this case, a youngish New Yorker stifling under the oppressively dull south-central Pennsyltucky life he’d somehow acquired. (I had the sense he didn’t quite understand just how he’d ended up here, in a temp teaching position surrounded by cow country.) At one point he had us write book reviews, and presented an example to guide us. The example was mostly an angry diatribe against the likes of Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk, claiming that their grotesqueness and popularity went hand in hand, signifying the End of Literature, etc. etc.

I like Stephen King. So do The Paris Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the O. Henry prize, the Best American Short Stories series, etc. Are they participating in this bulldozing of great literature too?And don’t even get me started about the time we visited the offices of a nearby literary magazine, where everyone acted like they were God’s chosen soldiers to hold the line against the swarming hordes of sparkly-vampire lovers. Don’t get me wrong, lit mags do great things, but the holier-than-thou attitude made me want to barf.Given all this, can we really blame those who hold “literary fiction” in such scorn? Well, yes. Yes, we can. First, because scorn is always ugly. And second, because lambasting something for being a teensy bit difficult is crude, silly, and unnecessary. Some people legitimately enjoy being challenged. Literary fiction readers and writers are not (all) bitter old codgers, and they’re not all found in the Literature section of the bookstore.

You know when politicians say I speak for the American people, and you want to smack them because last time you checked you are an American person and they don’t remotely speak for you? This is similar, only instead of speaking for the American people, the Holier-Than-Thous are speaking for their own tastes in reading. They’re conflating what they like with a grander scheme of what should exist. And that’s selfish. That sounds like a dystopia in the making, a crippling of creativity, an unartistic way of looking at the world.

And one last reason why this whole argument is absurd? Shakespeare wrote for the common man. Now he’s the subject of countless Master’s theses, PhD dissertations, books, analyses, annotations, debates, performances, parodies, and more. Yeah. The guy who made crude sex jokes and melodramatic plots is now the source of many a young high schooler’s pain and frustration as his white-haired, crotchety old teacher reads out the Middle English poetry in a wavering voice.

Just read the books you like, and write the ones you love. That’s all you or anyone else can ask for.


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