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.