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December 22, 2005

Lit or Not-Lit?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There aren't many statements about "literature" I can sign on to. But, in an interview that Bookgasm did with the author Christopher Moore, I just ran across one:

Bookgasm: Is there a difference in your mind between serious literature and stuff thatís just fun to read?

Moore: I suppose, but Iíd find it hard to delineate. Some of Steinbeck is awfully fun to read, some, not so much. Is "Grapes of Wrath" literature, and "Cannery Row" not? I find Mark Twain fun to read, but I have no idea if his work is considered literature. It wasnít in his day. I have friends who really donít enjoy a book unless it plows headlong into the problems of human existence, or explores some aspect of human suffering. I mean, they really enjoy that. Not my cup of tea, but they like it. On the other hand, I think "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a brilliant book, and if itís not literature, then I donít really want anything to do with literature.

"I don't really want anything to do with literature": This fiction-lover has certainly had that feeling more than a couple of times ...



posted by Michael at December 22, 2005


Screw tops on wine? Never! There is something about the sound of pulling the cork, that deep popping sound, that is both highly satisfying and can't be replicated without an actual cork.

As for the Wikipedia reference, I will caution that Wikipedia should not be relied upon for any sort of serious reference work. Anyone can post anything, and in many cases a completely wrong entry can remain up for quite some time before being removed or corrected.
Using it just for fun, as you did, is okay.

Posted by: Peter on December 22, 2005 10:15 AM

Oops, posted the prior comment in the wrong place. Sorry.

Posted by: Peter on December 22, 2005 10:16 AM

Interesting that he starts with Steinbeck. Someone (Joseph Epstein?) once explained the difference between literature and non-lit by claiming that Steinbeck is the exact borderline: anything better ('higher'?) than Steinbeck is literature and anything worse ('lower'?) is not, but Steinbeck himself is neither fish nor fowl.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on December 22, 2005 4:28 PM

I think great literature IS fun to read - and if it isn't fun to read, then it isn't great literature.

I happen to be reading a bunch of Ibsen plays at the moment. At the end of act one of A Doll's House you're dying to see what happens in act two. At the end of act two, you're dying to see what happens in act three. Properly done, the show should have you on the edge of your seat and gasping in surprise. Like most of Ibsen's good stuff - indeed, like most great literature - it's a rattling good tale, and has all the things we associate with "entertainment".

Oddly, most of what gets called entertainment has none of these things, and is excrusciatingly dull. It seems to me that An Enemy Of The People has ten times the excitement of the usual summer blockbuster.

Posted by: Brian on December 22, 2005 5:42 PM

It seems to me we often confuse "fun to read" with "requires no investment or effort to read". In my experience most great literature is a lot of fun, but requires more effort to get at that fun then inferior stuff does. If you are not in the mood or don't have the energy to get over that effort barrier, then you can't connect with the work. By contrast, the worst literature often requires no effort at all, but there is nothing really there.

Posted by: MQ on December 22, 2005 6:37 PM

MQ Ė I agree with you that the best literature (including movies and TV) requires some mental and time investment. But I also think that good literature has some of the following qualities:

-- Itís a good story well told. I think that most self-absorbed and self-indulgent meta-fiction simply evaporates when it is exposed to a wider readership.

-- There is a sense of playful mastery at work. Good art is like juggling, but here the clubs in the air are themes, images, a sense of literary tradition, among other elements. Part of the fun is in being aware of how well these elements are blended together and expand the bounds of the story.

-- The best literature reveals new insights when it is revisited. People will watch a movie over and over again or read some novels in order to get the same thrill again and again. And there are people who demand that some genre fiction (especially romance novels, some Westerns, most fantasy novels) always adhere to some reliable formula so that they know what to feel and when. There are some people who demand a happy or predictable ending, or require that their beliefs or prejudices be confirmed. But the best literature is like an old friend --- or a long time lover that you have taken for granted --- who manages to surprise you with some delight that you had not seen or thought about before, and which arouses such a delicious pleasure of recognition and acknowledgement that you wonder how you could possibly have missed it the first time around.

Posted by: Alec on December 23, 2005 1:41 AM

Chaucer and Shakespeare are the archetypal high lit, aren't they? And yet they're both wildly slangy, campy, gossipy sometimes. Carter Revard, an emeritus professor of "olde Englishe" and a pretty good poet as well, was raised as an Osage Indian and was on Native American list servs where I subscribed. He didn't stick to natlit all the time, but brought us to painful tears of laughter with his hilarious word play on Chaucer especially.

And yet, one of the cliches of haute education is a cocktail party where everyone can recite "whan thot Aprille with her shoures soote..." or however you spell that stuff. It seems to me that when literature is an epithet it's because some poor devil didn't have Carter Revard or the equivalent for a teacher so he can't get the can of peas open.

On the other hand, a summer ago I had no money for books and raided the local library where I had a choice of Westerns or Christian romance. Going for the Westerns (why else would I live here in the West??) I read genre, classics, well-praised Montana lariati, and came to the conclusion that in every category there was really excellent writing. Some of the genre was MUCH fresher and more powerful than the writing lab products.

Steinbeck has always been cherished by me -- one of my first books was "The Red Pony." (Let's all stand and chant, "At dawn Billy Buck came out of the bunkhouse and stood on the porch.") For teaching clarity, honesty, and grace in writing it's hard to beat him. I had a great textbook I used to teach from in high school that used him for examples.

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 24, 2005 1:02 AM

Peter -- There is something pleasing about corks, isn't there? And lord knows part of the pleasure of wine is the whole experience of shopping, handling the bottle, pretending to be a connoisseur, popping the cork, etc. I wonder if and when the drinking-wine thing is going to be demystified to the point where people don't care about corks and screwtops. But if that should happen, maybe they won't care about wine either ...

Dr. Weevil -- I love it when writers like Steinbeck get the knickers of people like Epstein in a twist, don't you?

Brian -- Ibsen was awfully good at suspense, don't you find? I don't think he gets enough credit for that. The profs and historians and such seem to want to focus almost exclusively on his themes, and his place in modernist history. Too bad. But would he mean anything to anyone at all if he weren't such a crackerjack entertainer in the first place?

MQ, Alec -- But there are other possibilities too, don't you think? Such as "takes effort, yet is finally unrewarding," or "surprisingly fun and easy, yet I love it." Some test cases: P.G. Wodehouse and Cary Grant. The work of both seems to be lasting, in fact lasting much better than much work that has been much more celebrated in intellectual terms. There's no effort or difficulty demanded in the least. Yet what artists have offered more in the way of "delight" and "pleasure"? (Incidentally, for my money they're two of the greatest artists of the 20th century. You ain't gonna find me undervaluing delight and pleasure.)

Mary -- I hearya and I'm withya 100%, and I admire the way you say such things without any cynicism. I'd love to be able to do so too. You might get a kick out of browsing some postings I did in the past about writing/fiction/publishing. I know I'd be curious to hear how you'd react, anyway. You can get to a lot of them via this one posting here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 24, 2005 10:34 AM

Michael, this responds to your invitation to browse former posts. I put the comments here because some of the older posts won't accept comments anymore. They "sort of" are relevant.

My first book was involuntary. The Edmonton UU Church had the idea it would be "fun" to have a press of their own. (Moosemilk Press) They asked if they could have my "prairie sermons" for a first book. I said sure. Then they wanted me to edit, rewrite, etc. and I didn't. So they did. There was no money in it for me. They did it all and it paid for their second book, which was a history of the small UU fellowships in Alberta. It didn't sell, but it was a "good work" in that it recorded history. I have two boxes of the books of my sermons (the remainders) under my bed. They show up on, which is kind of a kick. "Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke" if you're in need of some prairie theology. "Moosemilk Press" disintegrated.

This is not counting my pre-first book which was an aggregation of information for training animal control officers: dog breeds, how to interact with the police, anger management, but mostly just a lot of disconnected stuff, so I don't count it as "writing." Copyright, if there had been any, would have gone to Multnomah County since I did it as part of my job.

In 1961 Bob Scriver asked me to write his biography. Good thing I didn't, because he hadn't finished living it yet. He died in 1999. More importantly, both our mothers were gone by that time, which freed me to tell the truth. This manuscript is at the third publisher I've tried and I think it will be accepted this time. One turned it down, I withdrew it once (monkey business on the part of the press), and this time I went out of the US. Bob was a middling-famous "cowboy sculptor" on the northern prairie and the politics about HIM, quite apart from the quality of the book, has had a lot to do with the process. The other problem is that books about cowboy artists are supposed to be coffee table books that help sell the art - gorgeous pictures, a hagiographic tale of the artist, and maybe a connection to someone who can help you park your wealth in a work of art (while assuring you that prices will only go up.) I wrote something quite different.

But this was an obsession and obligation that I'd been preparing for since 1961, knowing that the quality of writing depends upon the quality of the writer. I'm dealing with academic presses -- this is a serious and rather technical book.

The third book is just now finished. It's a series of stories about Blackfeet from the coming of the horse until now -- 12 stories, 1 for each twenty year period. It's didactic: the challenge was to tell a story that was slantwise, surprising, yet true to history, and to move the series through periods that no one ever reflects on: the assumption is that in 1900 all Indians either became white or evaporated. I don't expect to have trouble finding a publisher, but I don't much care. I've been posting the stories as I write them ( and my web meter shows that about 300 people have been reading them weekly. They comment, sometimes anonymously and sometimes by picking up the phone and once in a long while by stopping by the house. (I'm just off the Blackfeet rez.) I used to circulate them in manuscript by handing them to someone I knew had access to a xerox machine and a circle of Blackfeet friends. I never said anything. Didn't worry about copyright. Reaction came back slowly and mixed, but very useful.

Indians are used to being written about and for a while there was a wonderful Nat Lit renaissance that made us all dizzy. Whatever confluence of influences was underpinning that renaissance has disappeared now. The tribal people themselves say that they are writing for each other: print it on the computer, home-make a cover, sell it off your arm or out of your hip pocket. Those with money go to a local printer. The public school developed an arm that collected traditional stories and published them. A U of Montana professor, William Farr, gathered up all the old photos he could find and got them published into a fine book that's been in print ever since, so useful that my copy is just about worn out. A person can get foundation support for such things.

I'll try for a commercial press for this book and see what happens. It's rather parallel to the TV series, "Into the West" except no white people, so more "Into the Future." I'm saying it would be useful for schools, happy for libraries, emotional for Blackfeet.

There are distributors who have contracts with libraries across the country to simply send a certain amount of certain types of books automatically as they come out. Some authors sell their books to publishers who connect with these distributors and they are guaranteed a basic level of sales.

Now let me switch to talking about publishing and sales. I've been on listservs for almost ten years now and learned a heckuva lot. The big literary publishers, with few exceptions, have been sold to corporate conglomerates who treat them like soup. If they don't make major and instant profits, books are simply dumped onto the remainder market for sales at a few bucks each. (I love it because the books that don't sell are exactly the one's I like best! Before Internet remainder sales and before Powells, I couldn't find them.)

In the face of this development, many small publishers are thriving all over the country. They don't have the aura of tweed and paneling, but they are vigorous, make money, and build reputations. There are SO MANY people wanting to write and be published that writers are sometimes abused: one publisher said, "We won't work with anyone who isn't willing to get out there and hustle their butt off." Some expect the author to pay for publicity or their own book tours and so on. On the other hand, one famous author when asked if a person can make a living as a writer said, "You can't make a living from writing the actual book, but you can make a living from the associated jobs: lecturing, teaching, being on panels, editing and so on.

The tech developments mean that anyone can make (or have made) a physical book in any number. There are two BIG problems with marketing those books:
1. One must pay property taxes on any stored books in warehouses. (Russell Chatham figured out how to dodge this by simply not binding them -- there's no tax on printed pages. When there are enough orders, he binds some, but he still saves money on printing large numbers.)
2. A traditional business practice is that any books not sold can be returned by the bookstore to the publisher. This is unpredictable -- a box of returned books that had seemed to be sold simply shows up -- and the books may be shelf worn or even carry big sale stickers in yellow and red. (This drives Chatham wild since he is a fine artist who designs wonderfully sensuous and cherishable covers. The stickers are very hard to get off.)

These things should be addressed by the industry but aren't since it's the soup corporations who have the biggest voices and they don't care.

For a parallel development, see Richard S. Wheeler's blog: Http:// Wheeler has written fifty books and has made his living this way for a double decade or so. The claim he's developing on his blog is that the book publishing industry destroyed the Western genre market by forcing stereotypes, esp. through marketing, like cover art. Wheeler writes rather subtle, funny, surprising Westerns full of nuns, rat catchers, small town journalists, and etc. as well as historical novels. Another interesting author is J. Work, a college professor who rewrites the "Idylls of the King" as Westerns. Or I was fond of Bernie Schopen's "noir" Westerns. The conversation among genre people is lively and savvy. Lots of interplay back and forth between those who write mysteries, westerns, romances, international intrigue, sci-fi, etc. Since they are plot-and-character focused, they can move from one genre to another pretty easily by changing the furniture.

I have an Indian friend with an entirely different problem: a man who has a valid, realistic, and dynamically interesting life who cannot find a publisher because he doesn't fit the stereotype. Remember what happened to James Welch, Jr., also a friend. So long as he wrote about the 19th century, publishers cooed. As soon as he came to the present, sales went flat except in France. France continued to love him so he wrote about American Indians in France! What I'm saying is that publishers strangle writing.

And that's not getting into distributors. Printing, publishing, promoting, and distributing are now often divided among subcontractors. The more a writer knows about each aspect, the better, because then maybe we can catch up -- put our weight where it matters.

Way too much stuff for a simple comment, but this is only the beginning.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 24, 2005 2:40 PM

For all that is good about "To Kill A Mockingbird"---I love it that Scout learned to read sitting on her father's lap, and that her English teacher thought it simply couldn't be true because you can't learn to read that way. Lovely. I'm with him. If ain't literature, who cares what literature is?

Posted by: annette on December 26, 2005 12:35 PM

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