COME PLAY WITH ME

In another life — in a path abandoned — long ago, I studied modern languages and literature at an excellent university.

In full honesty, I took “literature” because it came, automatic, with the languages I wanted to learn. And I won’t say I didn’t enjoy some of the things I studied. I enjoyed the living daylights out of two years of Shakespeare. I also enjoyed the semester of Austen.

The rest? Well, I developed a method. Because I found my mind regurgitated most lauded “literary” works with such violence that I couldn’t read them. I just couldn’t.

Fortunately we were required to do Marxist analysis (It has been called by many names, but that’s what it is.) Why fortunately? Because you can read a blurb and do Marxist analysis of a book, without breaking your stride. And have full marks. It’s all about classes and oppression and oppressor, and throw in a bit of revolutionary rhetoric (not really revolutionary anymore, but fossilized as revolutionary) for good measure. Full marks.

Because you see “literature” unless it’s old enough to have stood the test of time, has zero to do with reading or enjoyment of a story. What it is is a way to signal how well educated you are.

I was fortunate to grow up in a house of packrats who specialized in books. This meant we had books that some ancestress had used her grocery money for, books someone had given a forgotten ancestor and which had been stowed in the attic or the potato cellar. I read books that were falling apart under my fingers. And books that were old, yellowed, but no one had cut the pages free. (Books used to be bound with clumps of pages still attached together where the paper had folded, and you had to cut it with a paper knife. My peculiar upbringing is why I know this.)

Among them were books of what can only be deemed literary criticism. Now, of course, I have to extrapolate when it comes to say the Middle ages, but bear with me.

“Literature” — as opposed to story telling or reading for fun — has always been about status. You want to show you’re high status and can enjoy things that the common man doesn’t get. (Like Romans with nightingale tongue croquettes.)

In the Middle ages this must have been easy, since the common person couldn’t read, and having a book made you a person of learning and importance. This is the place that pseudo intellectuals wish to get back to. “I am da most importantest person evah, respect my authoritah.”

The printing press bolixed that, and they’ve been trying to shout down those darned people making fiction and reading into FUN ever since.

Mostly, both for authors who want to be respected as literary and for readers who want to be thought of as intellectual and profound — I was over it by eighteen, though I could fake it for a while longer until I got tired of it — the important part of this game is to display that you’ve had a good and expensive education. (And therefore they should totally respect your authoritah!)

So, starting at the renaissance and well into the nineteenth century, it was all about displaying your knowledge of the Classics. No, the real Classics. Like the ones from the guys who wore togas. You’d make allusions to the history of Rome, name your characters after their mythology (guilty as charged, but honestly, she named herself) and generally made a nuisance of yourself. This was honestly no more difficult or highly intellectual than American pop culture being dropped into everything willy nilly. I mean, I don’t watch movies, but I know a ton of touch-stone phrases because they’re everywhere. (Here’s looking at you, kid. Come to the dark side.)

But what they did was scream: The author is educated and thinks deep thoughts. You too can pass as thinking deep thoughts.

Unfortunately circa 1920 the universities became increasingly the grounds where the Marxists and Idiots play. (Sorry for the redundancy.)

So the new hotness to show how deep and educated you were was to write about the oppressed and the oppressors, and portray characters so deeply unpleasant (as Agatha Christie of all people pointed out) that no one wanted to read them. (And that, incidentally “showed” that the individual was not to be trusted under any circumstances.)

This propagated, so that by the late twentieth century, to show you were educated you had to read books with an eye to Marxism.

The books that won the big awards, the books that got talked about, the books that got people fawning over the author all had the correct marks of Marxism so people knew they were important.

Meanwhile, unnoticed and looked down on, popular literature flourished, starting with the reviled “pulps.” And it sold. Oh, dear Lord, they sold.

Until the less successful of the important people took over that field too (well, they weren’t smart or important enough to be editors and publishers of “real” literature) and started making it relevant, important and, oh, yeah, Marxist.

Both in terms of critics and publishers, this is the field I cam into. Now this was facilitated by a system that allowed the publishers to control if anyone even saw your book, so they could pretend this is what the public really wanted. (Nummy, nummy Marxism.Who wouldn’t want that? Oh, yeah. EVERYONE. No human being, ever, wants that drek. Unless it’s for signaling.)

And by the time I came in, the print runs were, on average a tenth of what they’d been before. Publishers had tons of excuses: tv (no, really! Before that it was radio. I KNOW because in Portugal that’s what was blamed), computer games, these darn kids being lazy.

But the truth was that even I — and look, I read broad church, from history to SF, passing through mystery and occasionally romance — couldn’t find anything to read and was more and more — sullenly — retreating to things I’d already read.

… And then there was indie.

Indie is great for writers. It broke us out of bondage and gave us freedom to write whatever we want. And if we starve, at least we starve doing what we love. (Not that we’re starving, by and large. As I found this last year, I can match my income from trad with ONE very short book a year. not that I intend to do this to you, by the way. I’m writing hopefully more than six novels this year.)

But indie is great for readers too. As a reader, I love the amazing buffet of choices, not restricted to proving anyone, writer, publisher or reader had an excellent education.

And there are things we’re finding. Mostly that READERS never moved from pulp. As readers, we want adventure, and grand romance, imagination and daring do.

In one word, escapism. Which I know is a dirty word in some circles. Because, you know, the jailers don’t want you to escape.

The rest of us?

The rest of us are having more fun than should be legal out of bed and with our clothes on (to be fair, I’m wearing pajamas.)

Literature, in the sense of tomes of fiction, suffers from its inheritance back when owning a book and knowing how to read made you important and cultured.

“Intellectuals” (one of those things named by opposites. To be an intellectual you need to have almost no brain activity) want all the written word, including fiction to go back there, so they can be important because they slog through one book no one wants to read.

Fortunately, we don’t have to listen.

I suggest we:

I suggest we heil — pffft — heil — pffffft — right in Der Fuhrer’s face!

Because it’s fun. Not as much fun as reading a good novel but fun anyway.

What is a good novel? One that is fun. The ludic enjoyment of story for story’s sake is the only reason to like it.

All the signaling and bullshit? I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it.

Let’s have fun together.

45 comments

  1. The Classics used to be a way to perpetuate the bones of civilization. Studying the Classics gave us Shakespeare (who obviously knew his Classics) and Byron and the adventure novels of the 1800s that reflect all the way back to Odysseus, and a common heritage that every schoolchild understood.

    The real point of Marxist ‘literature’ is to burn that heritage to the ground, so there is no past and no future, but only the Now.

    But we will burn the Marxists instead, and dance around the bonfire singing the words of our ancestors as we shoot rockets into the sky.

    1. The Classics are mostly pretty fun. So is the Bible. So are the Fathers. And a lot of it is interwoven. You have to know something about reading poetry and history (which you can learn from the Classics) in order to be able to read the Bible.

      And so on, for a lot of subjects. But if you keep people from learning the languages or learning how to learn, you can keep them away from the old good stuff, the same way they try to scare people away from new good stuff.

  2. Marxists and Idiots play. (Sorry for the redundancy.)

    It’s not necessarily a redundancy. All Marxists are idiots, but there are other forms of idiocy besides Marxism.

    Characters so deeply unpleasant (as Agatha Christie of all people pointed out) that no one wanted to read them.

    “Unpleasant people doing unpleasant things and not even enjoying them very much.” Miss Marple had more insights into modern literature in a dozen words than four years of high school even came close to giving me.

  3. I grew up on the edge of “education in the classics” and “modern education” and I enjoyed the hell out of the classics a lot more than the “modern” books. Whatever else you can say about the classics-even the stuff they watered down for kids-you saw humans at their best and worst.

    1. To paraphrase the immortal Razorfist: pulp fiction is more fun, AND has a higher quality of writing than almost anything today.

      1. Also Razorfist has several decent audiobook readings/Youtube versions of various Shadow books. He even learned how to laugh maniacally in true Shadow fashion.

  4. I’ve spent many years carefully ignoring, if not eschewing, any book featured in the review columns of newspapers unless it was recommended by reliable sources – i.e. people with similar tastes to me. Or, of course, if it was by an author I already knew as good reading. The only exception to my rule was the first edition of JRR Tolkien’s first published work, which I chose as my prize in a school competition after finding it in a bookshop and reading a few pages. Anyone interested can work out how many years I’ve been ignoring the literati!

    1. The last books I purchased from a non-Baen mainstream publisher were Robert Jordan’s posthumous Warrior of the Altaii and Gene Wolfe’s posthumous Interlibrary loan. The covers of both were so dull and unimaginitive as to be an insult.

      The only three living authors I’d buy from are Tim Powers, Greg Keyes and Matt Stover.

        1. Comic books don’t count!

          And I didn’t think any of the big publishers would give you a chance.

    2. Some reviewers are reliable by the way they pan books. Unfortunately, I lost the last one. (“Too sweet” mean “Mary, you’ll LOVE this one.”)

  5. “Books used to be bound with clumps of pages still attached together where the paper had folded, and you had to cut it with a paper knife.”

    This was a plot point in The Great Gatsby that was used to mark Gatsby as neuvo riche (sp?) and reaching above his station. He had a library of books with none of the pages cut.

    Of course, I’m the person who *enjoyed* getting a literature degree and wish I could have done so without having to deal with the Marxists.

    1. Well, I didn’t enjoy it, because by then I KNEW in that time and place it would be ALL Marxism all the time. And trust me, you would not have enjoyed the crazy bullshit they threw at us. Did I ever tell you about the daring novel we studied which eliminated …. time? The entire novel was two people “talking” in a car. No coherence or sense.
      I did enjoy reading old books and what people thought of them.

    2. Gene Wolfe once bought a second hand book and reported that half way through, the pages ceased to be cut.

  6. Because *I* find it fun to poke around, and the stuff is actually available in some cases– from what I can find, the question of literacy in the middle ages depends heavily on how you define literacy.

    And while I can’t find any free or linkable sources with actually decent stats and how they got them, the definition that seems to have been most common in founding the “everybody knows” is that they could read, write and memory-quote stuff in Latin. This showed up in articles opening with statements like “of COURSE the assumption of illiteracy was over-stated, most famously with 1880 book XYZ-”

    Which makes the whole “almost nobody could read, but multiple saints were going about creating written languages and translating the Bible into the local language” thing make sense. They HAD to do that because people were ‘illiterate’– sort of like how folks will talk about people graduating high school and being illiterate, but you can be QUITE sure those illiterates have extensive texting histories and can function, even if they’re unlikely to ever pick up a goat gagger for pleasure reading.

    Oooh, that would also explain why doing book samples on YouTube works to get folks to try an audiobook– that would be really attractive to folks who can’t read far, far faster than they can listen.

    1. Audiobooks have their place. They allowed me to cure myself of my nasty habit of reading while driving.

      1. This totally! Or being late to work because I only have a few pages left and gee the office is really only 20 minutes away if I get every light green and drive 100 mph.

      2. There are times when I’m tempted to try reading while driving, but then I remember that my car won’t drive itself to work!

  7. Agatha Christie was a much better writer than she was given credit for. She wrote more widely too, not just mysteries.
    But she was *popular* and *sold to the masses* and how can you be exclusive if you’re reading the same books as the working class?

    1. The interesting thing about Christie is that most of her stories hold up even on a reread. Knowing what the solution is, the actions of all of the characters still hold up. That’s far from universal in mysteries. Wentworth, for example, though she can be very entertaining, often seems to have characters do things for the sole purpose of creating a red herring; when I look back through the story, I often find myself thinking, “Wait! Character X wouldn’t do that! His motives would lead him to do something completely different.”

      Putting that kind of consistent characterization together is hard. Much harder than, to take an example at random, putting out 200 pages worth of word-vomit and calling it “a slice-of-life novel.”

      But she was *popular* and *sold to the masses* and how can you be exclusive if you’re reading the same books as the working class?

      Of course. The fact that you’re spending your time reading something that no sane person would want to expend any effort on makes you “special.” If you produce reams of paper analyzing it, you’re even more special. As one of my friends said once, “It takes disposable income to produce that kind of BS.”

      1. Well, she was sneaky. She usually wrote the novel first, decided whodunit, and then went back and altered a few things to make sure that they were clues and red herrings.

        So yeah, that’s why her novels held up, and why it was sometimes so hard to figure it out. The book’s structure didn’t give away the baddie, because that usually wasn’t decided until the final draft.

        1. Writing in either ignorance or knowledge of the ending can be fun.

          I prefer the latter because while I have to keep remembering that the characters don’t know, the former tends to dump me in the middle of nowhere.

  8. As someone who is republishing a ton of pulp and loves it, I do think there is a useful distinction to be made between “just pulp” and “literature” if you define the latter as “that which stands the test of time”.

    While Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov was published serially (in a newspaper, I believe) before being published as a book, even if “pulps” didn’t yet exist in Russia, and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim was serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine, also a proto-pulp, both of those books are far more than adventure and escapism (and entirely worth reading).

    The problem isn’t literature as such, but the status-craving midwits who think they can make themselves important by gatekeeping all the things. They have always been with us, and have virutally always been wrong. William Dean Howells was “the Dean of American Letters” who scoffed at Mark Twain’s vulgar popularity; guess which one people still read today.

    But yes, especially in the current cultural moment, if you have a choice between what you enjoy, and what self-anointed Guardians Of Taste-uh declare is good for you, go with enjoyment every time.

    1. The enjoyment books are more likely to wind up the ones that stand the test of time as well. Because the enjoyment writers wrote enough to get GOOD at it.

  9. had a passenger a couple weeks ago and somehow we got on the topic of publishing, and they agreed that the random penguin merger was bad… but simultaneously believed that Amazon is ripping off indie writers

    of course, they had zero idea what percentage Amazon pays versus a ‘real publisher’

  10. “Books used to be bound with clumps of pages still attached together where the paper had folded, and you had to cut it with a paper knife. My peculiar upbringing is why I know this.”

    I actually ran into one of these myself once. It was an interlibrary loan of a very old book and a few of the pages were still attached.

  11. I learned to read from six books my Mom brought with us on a trip to Thailand. We went there to be with my Dad, who was a civilian contractor for the Air Force.This was in 1970, and I was eight years old. I had gained the basics of reading, but the adventures of Dick and Jane had failed to provide any motivation. Then my Mom began to read to us from these books. (She needed to give us something to do; Bonanza in Thai just didn’t cut it as entertainment.) What six books? Tarzan, Tom Sawyer, Black Beauty, Peter Pan, Huckleberry Fin, and The Legacy (aka A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute). All different in theme and composition, all entertaining, and none of them literature. I learned to love charcters, and plots, setting, and pacing. Reading became anescape, and more, a joy. I could meet vibrant people, go to exotic places, and get the best stories, all in books. I truly believe that my love of reading sprang from this experience. All the “literature” in the world could never have done so much.

    1. Well, traditionally Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are literature. In fact, HF is probably “the great American novel.” Black Beauty and Peter Pan also have a high place in traditional children’s literature, and Nevil Shute is widely regarded as literature, even though he also wrote a file-off-the-serial-numbers Superman book (IIRC). And of course Burroughs (the important one, not that other guy) is one of the greats of our genre.

      But literature as defined by readers, and literature as defined by annoying professors at annoying universities, are quite different.

  12. Two years of Shakespeare. Did anyone during that experience have the temerity to point out that what old Will was actually doing was his age’s equivalent of modern day soap operas?
    Blood, gore, deviant sexual situations, all intended to titillate the masses willing to pay a ha’penny for a cheap seat. (which in fact were not seats, but rather standing room in front of the stage, at least at the old Globe)

      1. Soap operas do finish stories. They just then have to start them again due to the limits of the format, usually with the exact same couples in the exact same situations. “Telenovela,” the limited run Spanish soap operas, might be a better analogy to what Shakespeare was doing.

        1. Or Asian soap operas / dramas…. as far as I know, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese dramas are all limited run, not American-style episodic but going on for decades soap operas. But then again, I don’t watch much TV / Netflix / etc.

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