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« I Am a Bad Film Buff | Main | Free Views -- Stop-Action Webographs »

January 23, 2003

Tacit Knowledge -- Lit vs. Genre fiction

Friedrich --

As you know, I enjoy collecting bits of tacit knowledge -- those things people know, but that they never quite get around to knowing they know, or maybe never quite get around to writing down. One more such occurs to me.

It's a book-publishing thing. Many of the people on the editorial (as opposed to business) side of book publishing ... Well, first off, let me just say this flat out: many of them are women. And most of the rest are gay men. There are very, very few straight guys on the editorial side of book publishing. (Which makes the still-bitter-about-the-excesses-of-feminism part of me want to shout: So if you've got a problem with books and how they're published these days, that means you've got a problem with the work of women and gay guys! You can't pin this one on straight guys! But, you know, I've finally gotten that part of me under pretty good control.)

Another thing: many people on the editorial side of book publishing are former English majors. They got into the field because, heck, they loved reading and writing. In the biz, they discover that they have to fill out forms, deal with egos, fight bureaucratic fights, make projections, etc. They have to worry about money, and how books sell. The degradation of it! They can't believe how much energy they're having to put into trash fiction, self-help, romance. What's become of literature?

So far, so familiar. What often isn't said is that this phase is often succeeded by another, during which the publishing person finds herself growing friendly with a self-help author, hating the latest hot literary book, noticing the degree of craft and commitment that a mystery writer brings to her novels. And finally she finds herself thinking thoughts like this one: "Gee, you know, most of this contempo 'lit' writing that I'm reading and being paid to promote, and which the media are buzzing about, has almost nothing to do with why I fell in love with books. I loved Dickens and Flaubert, not anorectic little memoiry writing-school collections that go nowhere. In fact, I actively dislike a lot of what passes for contempo lit. In further fact, if I'm to be completely honest, I'm getting more I-love-books pleasure out of the work of some genre writers than I am out of the lit writers that the industry sees as its pride and joy. And to my surprise, there are self-help and bizbook authors who I respect and like more as human beings than I do my lit authors. What's going on here?"

It's a very common thing for people who came to the business devoted to a fancy ideal of literature to wake up one day and reflect, Gosh, you know, I've developed a lot more respect for professional writers than I ever thought I would.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at January 23, 2003




Comments

I don't think you need to actually be in the publishing business to appreciate the efforts of professional writers; all you need to do is write yourself. If, like me, deliberately sitting down to write is something you have trouble doing, if you can't write anything until inspiration strikes, I think that gives you some respect for those authors who do write to schedules, who can get up at 6 and write a thousand words before breakfast, then another thousand between breakfast and lunch, and so on every day until they finish. I do admire anyone who can write without having to wait for inspiration. Although, having said that, admiring their ability is not necessarily the same as admiring what they actually write with that ability...

Posted by: James Russell on January 24, 2003 05:21 AM



Hey James, Yeah, people who can sit down and pump it out in a matter-of-fact way -- awesome. How do they do it? What ego (or non-ego) resources do they have that the rest of us don't?

I think that what the publishing people I've known are also struck by as they spend years in the business is the quality question. A lot of contempo lit fiction really isn't very good, and often in a very annoying way. It's undernourished, overpetted and overfussed, and a lot of it is produced by narcissists from fancy-college, upper-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds -- ie., by people who expect to paid attention to, and maybe even have their butts wiped. The combo of pampered egos (on the part of the writers) and small literary payoffs (from the books themselves) turns a lot of people in the biz off of new lit fiction, despite the fact that they came into the business because they love literature.

At the same time, because you're a pro, you're forced to read a lot of books of a type that you kinda never thought you would: political biographies, cookbooks, self-help, business-tips. There are better ones and worse ones, and over time you tend to learn (despite a snobby-arty-student lit background) to respect the work. There's brains and craft (and often writing skill) in some of those books. And you read fiction of a kind English majors usually turn their noses up at -- pop fiction, thrillers, romances, mysteries, lawyer dramas, etc. And, big surprise, some are better than others. Some of them are, in fact, amazingly good -- in their own (usually non-literary) terms. People who spend some years in publishing often learn that what they were taught are the true "literary" values (usually the quality of the sentences, the poetry, the prose magic) aren't everything. And that strong characters, good hooks, readability, situations that stand up in front of you, storytelling -- that these things, which the profs and lit journals mostly consider vulgar, actually count for a lot, and that the people who do them well deserve a lot more respect than they typically get.

But publishing people are stuck, because by now they're in the business and they have to lend their professional support to the business's own values -- ie., really we're in it for the literature. I used to make a point of asking acquaintances in publishing what new fiction they'd continue reading if they ever left the business. Most of them said they'd stop reading new fiction almost entirely. Typically, they'd say they had one or two favorites (Alice Munro, maybe), and they liked a few genre writers (Elmore Leonard, etc), and they'd keep up with them, in a relaxed way. But most said they'd be thrilled to be able to stop reading new literary fiction.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 24, 2003 12:22 PM



OK,Michael, you've whetted our appetite, but you haven't named any names or titles.Please do!

Posted by: Michael Serafin on January 24, 2003 03:03 PM



Hey Michael, That's quite a temptation, to diss current lit stars! Like everyone else, I've got my own faves and a list of people whose work strikes me as wildly overrated, though I'm not sure it'd be of much interest to anyone. But it was one of the things I found most interesting about interacting with the publishing world over some years: discovering this odd disjunct between what the industry itself wants the public to accept as important literary work, and what individuals in the industry actually think and feel about those same books.

I'd love to know which current much-praised lit authors everyone thinks are overrated. I'm volunteering Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, and Susan Sontag for starters.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 25, 2003 03:10 PM



Hmm, do you think so?

Posted by: автомобили on April 12, 2004 09:30 AM






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