Monday, July 8, 2013

The Re-education of an Elitist Snob

By Lisabet Sarai


Literary erotica is a niche genre. Even the most renowned authors in this genre are virtually unknown outside that small circle of aficionados for whom the manner of expression matters as much as the mechanisms of coupling described. Secretly, we erotica writers may dream of seducing millions of readers with our tales, but most of us recognize the tiny likelihood that this will ever occur.

However, it appears that the world's indifference to my writing has turned me into something of a snob.

I care deeply about language. When I read, an author's ability to fashion graceful and evocative prose is as important to me as the plot or the characters. Perhaps as a consequence of my own focus on literary craft, I'm frequently disappointed by the quality of the writing in the books I read. As I've become more aware of my own strengths and weaknesses as an author, the foibles of others have become painfully obvious.

There's nothing wrong with being a discriminating reader. However, I recently realized that I've come to expect an inverse relationship between mass popularity and literary quality. This elitist attitude is partially supported by examples such as the Trilogy That Shall Not Be Named, but a bit of soul-searching reveals that sour grapes plays a role too. I write well (I believe) but my books remain obscure. Ergo, quality writing must be the antithesis of popular success. According to this logic, best sellers, especially best selling series, enjoy a huge market because they're poorly written. They stick to stereotypes, follow formulas, fulfill expectations, and employ simple language that doesn't tax their readers too much. If I were willing to compromise on quality for the sake of popularity (I tell myself sometimes), I could send my books to the top of the New York Times list.

Some recent reading, though, has convinced me that this is a fallacy. Several months ago, my husband and I bought a new load of used books at a library sale. When DH showed me his selections, I'm sure my eyebrows shot up. His stack included several titles by Janet Evanovich, creator of best selling Stephanie Plum mystery series: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly... you get the idea, right? At this point, she's up to number twenty. We bought number five (High Five) and number eighteen (Explosive Eighteen). DH dove right into both novels, and obviously found them entertaining, but I was skeptical. How could anyone so popular be any good?

I resisted for quite a while, but one evening when I was too tired to tackle any of the more “serious” titles I'd been working on, I picked up High Five. In ten minutes I was laughing out loud. In twenty I was apologizing to my husband for impugning his taste. High Five might not be the great American novel, but it is a near-masterpiece of craft.

Ms. Evanovich's characters are quirky (to the point of being bizarre) and yet totally believable. They inhabit the ethnically mixed neighborhoods of Trenton, New Jersey, a place I've never visited but which felt concrete and plausible despite the outrageous events that take place there. Stephanie – twenty-something native of Trenton, a perennially broke lingerie salesgirl turned bail bounty hunter – jumps off the pages. Her wry, self-deprecating first person narrative draws you into her world of unpaid bills and doughnut dinners, car bombs and church bingo, smothering family and sexy guys with hidden agendas.

What I admired most about the book, though, was the dialogue. I'd consider selling my soul to be able to create such vivid, lively, hilarious conversations. Ms. Evanovich has an expert grasp of dialect as well as an enviable capability for giving each speaker a totally distinctive voice. More than once I had to stop and share some snippet with my husband, full of admiration – even though he'd already read the book, had in fact been the one who chose it over my reservations. He very generously refrained from gloating.

By the time I'd finished, I had to admit it: popular, mass-market fiction though it might be, High Five showed signs of true artistry, albeit employed for the sole purpose of entertainment. My elitist beliefs had been crushed. I can't dismiss best selling authors purely because of their success. They may write as well, or better, than I do. Genre and market do not pre-determine quality. And I can't use a focus on craft as an excuse for my own poor sales, either.

It's a bit of a hard lesson, but hopefully one I won't forget. After all, there are a lot of books out there that I might not have considered reading previously – but that I now understand might be worth a try.

16 comments:

  1. i really enjoyed Evanovitch's series. same with Sue Grafton's alphabetical mystery series. it's a good lesson. the best way to judge a book is simply by reading it, not by the publicity bumpf or whatever category it is slotted into. but there's also a reverse type of elitism where people won't read books that are labelled "literary." the key to everything in life is judge less, enjoy more ;) great post, Lisabet.

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  2. Hi, Amanda,

    I love that you've been able to turn this into a spiritual lesson. (You're definitely right!)

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  3. Yep, I love Janet Evanovich and Sue Grafton also, but I'm sure there are many folks out there who don't. I started the first Black Dagger Brotherhood series to find out what all the fuss was about and though it took a few chapters, I'm started to enjoy it also. I sometimes think success is just plain luck, having a fan find your book and telling enough people about it. Your writing is certainly as good as any of the above authors, Lisabet!

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    1. Naomi, where can I find 999 more readers like you? ;^)

      It's actually rather freeing to get out from under my "popularity=poor writing" misconception. I don't have to feel embarrassed if I decide to read a best seller!

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  4. Thanks for the post, Lisabet! I think taste in books/movies/music becomes a way of signaling identity really early in life (it was a huge part of how I defined myself as a teenager). Spreading out is always hard because it threatens my definition of myself. It's awesome that you had this experience with Evanovich. I find myself reading more or less literary work depending on my mood (literary writing does typically make the reader work a little harder, and I'm honestly not always in the mood to work that much). There are certain things I struggle with, though. I don't want to be a snob, and I think it would be good to know what's striking a chord with readers. However, I haven't been able to convince myself to read that Trilogy you didn't mention by name above.

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    1. Popular doesn't necessarily mean poorly written, and certainly, the obverse is also true. Just because something is hailed as a literary masterpiece does not mean that I, at least, will agree. Somehow I don't have trouble with that part. I've read "literary" stuff that just dreadful.

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    2. Totally true. I adore beautiful language, but if there isn't a plot I can't usually sustain my interest no matter how gorgeously written something is.

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  5. I love Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. I'm a little behind on it but I can just picture the Plum household at dinnertime with Grandma shooting the chicken because of the way she wrote it. The series makes me laugh. I also like so many genres that I can never say what is my favorite. I read them all. I have read the trilogy that will not be named and it was not bad. We are not talking great literature but it did what it was supposed to--made me escape every day reality. My boss is reading it now and, if nothing else, I have gotten the opportunity to explain a little bit about BDSM and what would have been more realistic compared to it. No matter what I read, I always learn something. I agree with Amanda above, judge less and enjoy more. There will always be something you read and will hate but often you'll find that the book wasn't bad. And it's always better than the movie.

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    1. Thanks, She!

      Probably I should read TTTSNBN if only to remain culturally literate, but I just can't bring myself to shell out the bucks when I feel, deep in my bones, that the books perpetuate some of the worst misunderstandings around about BDSM and sex in general.

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    2. You're right, it does but if it helps to open people up to discussing BDSM and you can show/tell them fact vs. fantasy then it has helped in some small way.

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  6. As fate would have it, I was born in Trenton , NJ. Glad to be away. I did pick up one Evanovitch book, because of that, but wasn't particularly impressed. I'll check her out again, though. I like the sense of chaos and craziness you mention like in 'Confederacy of Dunces' by John Kennedy Toole. It seems to me that our mood at the moment also determines what we respond to. I read 'Freedom' last year and had trouble getting into it for the first hundred pages or so. but read next four hundred fifty in just a few days.

    I picked up the first volume of the trilogy that will not be mentioned, and couldn't get past thirty pages. I paged through (as those of us who are interested in erotica are wont to do) and found all these lists, agreements and other trappings that didn't even give me a hard on. God! Am I a literary snob? Jeez- never even went to college.

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    1. You never went to college? You're one of the most literate and eloquent guys I know. Just goes to show that perhaps formal education (of which I have an excess) may be over-rated.

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    2. hey Lisabet, i have a lot of formal education myself. i don't think it's over-rated. but it depends on the individual. i think the main thing going to school taught me was to learn how to learn. my husband didn't go to university & is brilliant. but i am grateful for my education. for me, it was the right choice. & i agree that our group is a grand group, in all its variety.

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  7. Hi Lisabet!

    yeah . . . I didn't go to college either. Someday maybe. I get what you mean though about popular fiction. I haven't read Evanovich, but I've read plenty of Stephen King and his hero Richard Matheson, as well as the pulp magazines they both grew up on. It's true good writing is where you find it. In his craft book "On Writing" he several times exhorts the wanna-be to study the dialogue of Elmore Leonard, and I've found that to be right.

    Like you, I love language. I can forgive a lot if the language is there.

    Garce

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    1. i like what you say here, Garce, "I can forgive a lot if the language is there." i actually don't give a rat's ass about plot & tend to find books that are plot-centric very dull. i like character -driven works & linguistic pyrotechnics. the sparklier, the better.

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  8. Thanks, Lisabet.
    And Garce! I never would have imagined. When I first 'met' you on ERWA, I considered you one those who operated on a different, elevated level of thought. Just goes to show that experience has it's own educational system.

    Lisabet and Amanda-- you are also great examples of making the most of your education. Lisabet, for one I know has cut out a nice little bit of the world by her own choices. Lots to be said for that.

    Funny, how it's not so much what we expect from well-educated people, but what we *don't* expect from those not so inclined.

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